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Inuit Materials

Inuit Art Materials


Stone has replaced ivory as the most popular carving material in contemporary Inuit Art. This has led not only to a greater variety of colours and forms, but also to larger size of many modern Inuit sculptures. Ancient weathered whalebone is another popular carving material, but international restrictions on its use and that of ivory have resulted in a decline in their use. Caribou antler and musk-ox horn are also carved when available. Many works combine two or more of these materials; for example, antler or ivory is often used as inlay in stone sculptures. Although the generic term „soapstone“ is commonly used, this is a bit misleading. Soapstone, a soft talc steatite, is not used nearly as much as the harder serpentine, serpentinite, siltstone, argillite, dolomite, quartz and other types. Stone is the most versatile carving material because it can be worked to almost any size and shape. Its colours range from rather dull grey to luscious, almost semi-precious greens, whites, blue-greens, blacks, etc. Ivory, whalebone, antler and horn are more restrictive, but Inuit sculptors have nevertheless managed to take advantage of their naturally occurring shapes to produce a seemingly endless variety of forms and subjects. Materials are often in short supply, and artists must travel great distances overland or by boat to quarry quantities of good quality stone. Once the materials are obtained, carving proceeds in a fairly straightforward manner. The necessary skills, perfected in the fashioning of traditional implements, have been passed down through generations of Inuit. Most sculptures are still produced with hand tools, although a growing number of artists use small power tools as well. Saws, axes and adzes, hammers and chisels are used for the initial roughing out stages of a carving. Files, rasps and, finally, steel wool and sandpaper are utilized for fine work and finishing. Penknives or nails may be used for detailed incising.



The Stonecut technique is an adaptation of the woodcut, with stone replacing wood as a printing surface. As in the woodcut, the image to be printed stands out in relief from the surface of the printing block. The printer usually traces a drawing by an artist onto a flat stone slab that has been painted white, after which it is retraced carefully with black India ink. Then the areas that will not be printed are chiselled away. Next the printer inks the image with a soft rubber roller, starting with light shades, then adding the darker ones in layers. This hand-inking, with several colours being applied in one process, sometimes takes an hour or more, and has to be repeated for each print in the edition. After the inking is completed, a protective cover is put over the areas that are not to be printed. Now the actual printing onto paper can take place. Only soft rice paper, such as mulberry paper, is absorbent enough to be used for stonecut. Once the piece of mulberry paper has been placed over the inked surface, it is rubbed against the carved image with varying pressure, depending on the degree of sharpness in contour that is required. Then the paper is peeled off and hung to dry. The stonecut print is finished. Where several inks have been applied in layers, they blend and form interesting patterns. The stonecut, a relief technique, which is mainly linear, yields sharp, crisp contours and a variety of textures based on a rhythmical treatment of the stone surface. By blocking out the areas not to be printed the stencil technique, which relies on the basic principle of cutouts, enables the printer to produce multiple copies. The image is applied directly onto the paper by pounding ink through the unblocked openings with the help of stippling brushes. Patience and skill are necessary for this technique, for the ink can be applied only in tiny amounts. The same colour needs to be stippled on over and over again; with too much ink, smudging occurs and the ink blotches. An experienced printmaker can achieve soft transitions from darker to lighter shades by varying the density of the ink applied. Stencil is suitable for printing areas of flat colours, whether it be the background in a landscape, or water in a fishing scene. The white paper, shining through the stippled ink, leaves the stencilled areas somewhat transparent, almost luminous, and prints done exclusively in stencil tend to have a gentle, lyrical quality quite different from that of the stonecut. As with the stonecut, the various printshops in the Arctic have developed different approaches.

Reproduced with permission from the Canadian Government Booklet: Canadian Inuit Sculpture

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