Peter Brown

Netsuke - Fox or Tanuki Wrapped in Monk's Robes

In November last year I made another trip to Bristol Museum to draw netsuke. Kate brought me down to the basement of the museum, unlocking a door to a small room. She opened a cupboard on one side and pulled out a drawer filled with netsuke. I picked a dog, a snail and a fox, headed back upstairs and made some sketches.

Three Views of Fox or Tanuki Wrapped in Monk’s Robes

"Netsuke, ivory, Japanese fox or Tanuki kneeling up, wrapped in monk's robe - unsigned" - Bristol Museum


In the museum's collection this netsuke is described as Japanese fox or tanuki. There appear to be quite a few similarities between the fox and the tanuki in Japanese folklore. Mark Shumacher's wonderfully rich and informative online dictionary on Buddhism & Shintōism in Japan, reveals more in-depth writing on the folklore of these animals. Here's a snippet from his site.

In Japanese folklore, the kitsune (fox) and tanuki (racoon dog) are masters of transformation - Kitsune are renowned tricksters. In many Japanese folk tales, the kitsune appears in the form of a bewitching woman who seduces and tricks unworthy men or rewards and protects deserving people - Fox folk can also cast illusions, appear in dreams, and read thoughts.
Tanuki as a Monk (Bōzu Tanuki 坊主狸 or Tanuki Bōzu 狸坊主). A common theme in Tanuki lore and artwork, wherein Tanuki disguises himself as a fat well-nourished Buddhist monk (see discussion of iconography under Big Belly). The tanuki, mujina, and fox appear often as trickster priests in Edo-era Japanese tales.

Copyright Mark Shumacher

Fox or Tanuki in the Studio

Today I decide to make a carving of the netsuke using kento registration. I find my notes from Peter Brown’s Japanese woodblock printing course at Spike Print Studio and work out the measurements to fit my block. As I look at my sketch I feel it looks more like a tanuki than a fox with it's small rounded ears and darkness circling its eyes. When I first saw this netsuke in the drawer, I saw a fox. Now I see a tanuki and I can understand why the museum haven't been able to label it as one or the other. Maybe this netsuke holds deeply its magical folklore as it shape-shifts between fox and tanuki showing us that the need to define ourselves by labels only constricts and hinders our potential. What is more interesting is the spirit of transformation to realise our potential and deepen our understanding of our true nature.

Fox or Tanuki - Transformation from Paper to Paper

Pasting Image on Gampi paper to Woodblock

Pasting Image on Gampi paper to Woodblock

Kento Registration and Carving Fox on Magnolia Wood

Kento Registration and Carving Fox on Magnolia Wood

Printing Fox with Japanese Carbon Ink

Printing Fox with Japanese Carbon Ink

Original netsuke 'Fox or Tanuki Wrapped in Monk's Robes' from Bristol Museum. Unsigned.

Original netsuke 'Fox or Tanuki Wrapped in Monk's Robes' from Bristol Museum. Unsigned.

Goats Herons & Whales

Netsuke - Recumbent Goat

In the last week I've been trying out my new tools carving a galloping horse and an ama suckling an octopus. Today I've carved a larger Recumbent Goat from Edmund De Waal's collection on magnolia wood. The resulting print is much better than the print I made from the smaller sketch.



Alongside this new netsuke project I have been working on another carving which is much bigger than the netsuke.

I make a simple sketch of the heron directly on to the larger plywood, then trace the outline with black pen. It's much more tough to cut than the magnolia but I'm not ready to blunt my new tools yet so I carve the heron into plywood with my old tools. As the sketch is quite loose, it frees up the carving resulting in an imperfect but dynamic heron.


Travelling with Birch Plywood

I bought this plywood a few years ago. This gigantic piece of birch plywood was stacked amongst more gigantic pieces of plywood in the warehouse of Robbins Timber Yard. I had cycled up to buy the wood and didn't think about the logistics of getting this giant home! They kindly offered to cut the plywood into smaller squares so we went for 30cm x 30cm. Even at 30cm x 30cm, when you have over twenty of these, it's a heavy load for a bicycle but somehow miraculously I managed to fit them all into my panniers and cycle home without any problems. I remember as soon as I arrived home I dived into my box of wood cutting tools and started carving immediately. I didn't draw or trace an image first, I just carved straight into the wood not knowing where I was going but just following the grain. I enjoyed the freedom of just letting the grain do it's own magic with no preconceived idea or pressure for any kind of result, only the process of carving. When I had finished I had made a carving which was more figurative and than I expected. I didn't have the facilities to print at home so I put it back on the pile and started to work on a new block with the idea of making a two colour print.

Woodblock Registration Block

I had kept the copy of Peter Brown's clear instructions for registration and re-written these for myself help me clarify the process. I drew out the registration marks. Instead of carving the block I initiated the idea of bringing the blocks to a fellow print making friend's house with a view to exploring the process of two colour prints together. If we could get our heads around it together, we might get there quicker. So one morning I arrived with the blocks with my instructions in my bag and as I pulled the blocks out of my bag my heart sank. I realised my idea wasn't going to work. One of us needed to have some knowledge on how to do this and I had given the impression that I did know but I had spent just one day on a Japanese woodblock printing course and hadn't got my head around the two colour printing. I was not ready to step into this process as a group until I had got to grips with the process myself.

I had lost the enthusiasm to print the first image which had felt so dynamic and free. So instead of following up on my quest to get more experience I felt so overwhelmed by what felt like a huge hurdle that I left the blocks stacked up in a pile under my desk at home gathering dust.


A few months ago when I brought the blocks to my studio I finally made the time and space to have a go at printing this block which I had enjoyed carving so much. I used my letterpress inks with a hand roller; laid a large piece of white somerset satin 300gsms paper on the plywood and rubbed the back of the paper with a baren. When I peeled back the paper there was a sea of swimming whales and mountains flowing from the wood. Although it's a faint print and would need a press to get a good even solid colour I like the immediacy of the image and free flowing expansiveness.


Netsuke - Hare & Rat

Edmund's Hare with the Amber Eyes

I have been looking forward to making a print of Edmund's Hare, who along with 264 other netsuke has had many adventures, travelling great distances and been on display in many spectacular places. I wonder where Edmund has placed this hare which by now is probably reaching celebrity status. It's photograph published in books, magazines, newspapers and in centre of Edmund's writing page on his website the hare looks out from behind the words 'Gallery' with its paw lifted up and ready to shake your hand. Here you meet Ambassador for Edmund's netsuke collection.

I draw the hare directly on to the tracing paper and rub the tracing onto the plywood. My new tools haven't arrived yet so I continue with blunt tools and rough plywood and begin to carve. I then print the finished carving on some Japon Simile paper and some on Somerset Satin 300gms. It's quite a challenge to get the right mix of nori paste with ink. I've read that you don't need to mix nori with the ink for the key block but I quite like the effect even though, again, it's quite a crude image.


Piebald Rat Gnawing on its Tail

This little rat in Edmund's gallery has a has mischievous nature - holding it's tail up to his mouth nibbling between its paws as if it was an old rope from a sailing ship. I imagine this rat rocking back and forth on the curve of its tail like a see-saw following the carved lines of its own body. Its beady eyes look jet black. In Edmund's description these dark little circles were originally made from Buffalo horn. I print this piebald rat on Japon Simile and Somerset Satin paper. So far I have only printed on dry paper and at some point it will be good to see how these woodblocks print on dampened paper.


Last November I bought Japanese woodblock printing materials from Intaglio Printmakers to get ready for my My New Years Revolution 2015


  • Japanese Side Grain Woodblocks 100x150mm

  • Japanese Paper Brush 3"

  • Japanese Inking Brush 24mm

  • Japanese Inking Brush 15mm

  • Japanese Inking Brush 60mm

  • 5×Gampi Tissue

  • 1×Bench Hook 200x300mm

  • Japanese Rice Paste (Nori)

  • Japanese Carbon Ink 150ml

  • Chinese Sumi Ink 250g

  • and 1 Hosho Pad.

I remember using dampened paper on the Japanese Woodblock Printing course back in March 2012 with Peter Brown.

I am looking back through some old folders and find the print I made of a tree. I remember the time and effort we put into the registration for this two colour print. I liked my first print of the green tree but lost all sense of understanding two colour printing by the time I came to making the second print. The registration was fine but the image just didn't work. I knew what I wanted to achieve in my head but the result was nothing like it. I can't remember the name of this paper but it's a lovely texture. I contact Peter Brown to find out what paper we used for to print on the course. He's happy to hear I have found my way back to the wood and reminds me the paper we were using was Japanese Hosho paper. This paper is tough but smooth and is very popular. Intaglio sell it by the pad. I add it to the list.