woodblock carving

A Short Film - Woodblock Carving & Printing Japanese Netsuke

Fox or Tanuki Wrapped in Monk's Robe

This recent short film (2m16s) shows the (speeded up) process of preparing, carving and printing a woodblock of the netsuke 'Fox or Tanuki Wrapped in Monk’s Robe’.

Music by Red Deer Sleeping

'Falling Through the Sunlight' from original poem 'September 1918' by Amy Lowell

Thanks to Kate Newnham at Bristol Museum for the time and space to draw Japanese netsuke.

Netsuke - Elephant & Man in the form of a Seal

Today I am carving 'Elephant and Man in the form of a Seal' while listening to Katy Payne talk about elephants. Katy is a researcher in the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University and has spent 35 years closely studying the behaviour of elephants. In conversation with Krista Tippet from the On Being podcast. 

Katy Payne & Elephants

Katy Payne talks about her first encounter studying the behaviour of elephants in Portland Oregan Zoo. She spent a week observing the elephants and after a while being in close proximity to the elephants she noticed "a throbbing sound in the air".

There is a sound below the pitches of the sound that human beings can hear and low and behold we discovered there was a whole other communication system there that no one had known about; it was just below the frequency that humans can hear.
— Katy Payne with Krista Tippet from Onbeing


Katy's recordings led to the discovery of infrasonic communication in elephants. After years of research in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Namibia she founded the The Elephant Listening Project

ELP has been listening in on the sounds of the forests of Central Africa, applying Katy’s insights to further the conservation of elephants. Projects have been located at numerous different sites from Gabon and Cameroon in the west, to the Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo to the east.
— The Elephant Listening Project


Elephant Print no.2



I initially made a sketch of this elephant at the Royal Festival Hall from "Netsuke - 100 Miniature Masterpieces" by Noriko Tsuchiya. The drawing is much more graphic and flat than the sketches I made from life in the Bristol museum study room. The plus side being that the lines are clearer and easier to follow with the Hangito.

Carving and Stretching

I'm more focused today and managing to keep all the lines I want intact without cutting off a toe or or trunk. Giving myself more space and time and I am more in tune with the wood and my body - I am still getting pains in my elbows from carving and have tried techniques learnt from Paul Furneaux's woodblock printing workshop but I find it very hard to hold the Hangito in the traditional way. It feels more natural to hold it like pencil. As I haven't resolved this yet, for now, as soon as my arms ache - I stop and stretch out my entire body, letting the blood flow back into all the places that have been holding tension. As I think about the tension I wonder about this man trying to tame and chain this beautiful elephant. These animals are such free spirits and it is so good to hear about the wonderful work Katy is doing. I am so inspired by her passion. She is making people aware of the sensitivity and tenderness, the joy, the sadness, the playfulness, the love, the connection, reminding us all of the importance of these wonderful creatures and the delight and beauty that they exude.

Elephant Prints

I make six prints. While the wood is only lightly damp, I mix nori paste with Japanese carbon ink giving the lines more definition. (Elephant Print no.2) After a few prints the wood builds up more moisture and I use less nori paste which produces a more mottled watery texture. (Elephant Print no.6)

Elephant Print no.6



I apply too much pressure with the baren on other prints, overprinting the ink where there should be white space. So I have three prints that I'm happy with, each with their own unique quality which reminds me of Katy's heart warming story of the elephants holding memories close to their hearts.

We recorded the voice of of an old matriarch, Rosie, who happened to have a grand daughter also in the herd - some 10 years later - Rosie had been dead for several years - Her granddaughter Sunshine was still alive. When we played these calls the elephants went into paroxysms of groaning and roaring - they were recognising that voice - there’s a real memory and voice is a part of it
— Katy Payne with Krista Tippet from Onbeing

I lie on the floor and stretch out my limbs. Taking more breaks and stretching has been good practice today and I'm honoured to have spent time 'In the Presence of Elephants'.

If you would like to donate to The Elephant Listening Project, please click the the link below which will direct you to  Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website. 

Listen to more inspiring interviews by Krista Tippett at Onbeing.org

Netsuke - Tanuki

Japan - Earth's Enchanted Islands

In June, the BBC released a three part documentary focusing on the three islands of Japan: Honshu, The Southwest Islands and Hokkaido.

Part one follows the relationship between people and wildlife living in close proximity to each other. From the brief and magical blossoming cherry trees in Tokyo city to the wild mountains of Hida inhabited by black bears hunting insects under rocks. Macaque monkeys bath in volcanic springs and forage fruit from local farms. Japanese tree frogs lay their eggs in trees above the rice paddy fields. Fresh water carp suck up leftovers from Kabata kitchens. Fireflies light up the summer evenings. Cow demons live in the ancient forests enchanted with Kudama tree spirits. Sacred Sika deer head from the hills to a Buddhist temple in the town of Nara and bow to humans in return for deer biscuits. Earthquakes and volcanoes erupt. Luminescent fire fly squid are swept up on tsunami battered coastlines and streetwise tanuki (racoon dogs) adapt to the city living by the edge of a busy railway line. These cheeky charmers are seen to bring good luck and people accept their mischievous neighbours.


I had never heard of a tanuki before I explored the world of Japanese netsuke and still had no idea what a real one looked like while I drew the tanuki netsuke at the British Museum. To me this tanuki netsuke is a cross between a bear and a pig rather than a racoon dog.

Tanuki sketches


Tanuki Woodblock Carving

I'm going against my original plan to keep the netsuki prints small and have enlarged the tanuki sketch in Photoshop. The original ivory netuske was 3.9cm high, my original sketch is 5cm high and the final woodblock carving is 11.5 cm high.

Making the woodblock carving bigger does not stop me making mistakes. I really need to slow down. An important part of the process which I have yet to crack. I've accidentally cut into the outline of the tanuki's arm. I put the tiny outline of wood to the side and look for some glue. Distracted by a drawer full of chaos I forget about the search for glue and start clearing out the clutter. Feeling pleased with my now orderly drawer of zen, I proceed to sweep all the shavings off the table in to a bag forgetting about the little chunk of wood now lost in the woodpile shavings.



Another important part of the process - focus. Something which eluded me while transferring the image from photoshop to the block. The Tanuki is facing in the opposite direction to the original image. Which is fine if I had planned this but I didn't! So next time I need to slow down and focus.

Netsuke - Ox (& the Art of Listening)


I discovered Onbeing at the beginning of the year. I have no recollection of the thread in the web that brought me to Kristas Tippett's website but ever since I found it I am a complete fan of her heart warming inspiring interviews with poets, thinkers, speakers, makers, teachers.... from all over the globe.

I'm listening to Gordon Hempton's soundscape of nature's silence 'A Hike through the Hoh rainforest.' He takes us on a guided walk along the trail through tall tree, ferns and moss, a winter wren twittering, a river echoing of the edge of the valley and the call of a Roosevelt elk. In his conversation with Krista Tippett he talks about the art of listening.

"Listening is not about sound - If you ever find yourself listening for sound, that's diagnostically a controlled impairment. Simply listen to the place and when you listen to the place you take it ALL in - We're about to enter into a giant driftwood log -Sikta Spruce log, the material used in the crafting of violins - when the wood fibres are excited by acoustic energy -in this case its the sound of the ocean itself - the fibres actually vibrate and inside you get to listen to nature's largest violin.” Gordon Hempton - Onbeing


Shiko Munakata & Kiyoshi Saito

While I carve my second ox, I wonder where this magnolia wood was growing and how many years it stood rooted in the earth before being cut into blocks. The death of the magnolia tree. The aliveness of mark making. The transforming of tree to print. This time I leave more wood, less carving, more outline and I am more gentle as I listen to the sound of the hangito cutting into the block. I love how Shiko Munakata really listened to the wood when he was carving. He let the wood speak as there is no right and wrong, just the doing of it and the way Kiyoshi Saito, another master of the Creative Print Movement (Sosaku Hanga) embraced the texture of wood grain when printing flat bold areas of colour.

"Flat areas of colour and the texture of the woodblocks' grain communicate the essentials of the nature of bold and harmonious designs. Saito's simple style possesses great freedom and spontaneity, and there is an international avoidance of elegant refinement. " Masterful Images - The Art of Kiyoshi Saito. Barry Till.

"The nature of the woodcut is such, that even a mistake in its carving will not prevent it from its true materialization." Shiko Munakata


I have returned to using the Japanese carbon ink as I am not yet used to the smell of the sumi ink. I use dry Japon simile paper and rub the baren over the woodblock. The plastic cream baren is hard and unforgiving of the slightly uneven surface where I had put too much pressure on the wood with the bone folder. I use my shredded bamboo baren and the next print is much cleaner. This ox is better than the last one but still with its many imperfections. I stick a sample into my notebook along with the previous samples.


I wonder whether sketching these netsuke from 'life' will make a difference. The central archives department at the British museum have forwarded my request on to the department of Asia and sent me their email so I can contact them directly. I send another email to the department of Asia and wait for their reply.

Carving Tiger

I moved into my studio in March 2012. I set up my Adana 8 x 5 platen press and began to print. No computer. No digital printer. Just the simplicity of my printing press, tools, inks and paper. This was good for a time but when I recently started to explore woodblock printing I realise the beauty of combining the print world with the digital world. I was initially sketching my images directly onto the tracing paper and then rubbing the reversed side onto the wood but soon realised its limitations - if I needed to re-carve any of these netsuke I would have to sketch from scratch each time as I did with Recumbent Goat. So a few weeks ago I brought my old computer and printer to the studio, which has been a break through and another step forward in getting to grips with this process.


Every month I meet with Lilla and Meg. We carve out time and space to explore print making, stamping, make connections, conversation and share our explorations. I have brought the tiger ready to carve. I know it's going to be the most difficult one to carve so far as the image is so small (5cm h x 4cm w).

I start carving...a couple of hours later I've already taken out some of the tiger's eye. The outlines are unrecognisable. I take it home to finish and know that this little tiger is far too small for my limited experience with Japanese wood carving tools. I have lost the definition from the original sketch.


The good news is I can re-size the original image in Photoshop and print on a fresh piece of tracing paper to transfer to a new block. I notice also that the tools are not as sharp and it's time to use the slipstrop to hone the blades.