Printing with fish

If you live in a small country made up of many islands, the sea is an important part of your life.  Many people of Japan depend on the ocean for their livelihood and food as well as for pleasure and recreation.  Therefore, the ocean and marine life are popular subjects in Japanese woodcuts, paintings, pottery and fabric design.            

A gyotaku print.

     Gyotaku (gee-o-taku) is a fascinating Japanese art form which uses fish to create prints.  At first gyotaku was used as a way of keeping records.  Samurai warriors in Sakai Province, as part of their training, were required to record the fish they caught by inking them and pressing paper to the inked fish.  Often the weight, length, place caught and the year were written on the print.   Archives of gyotaku prints record fish caught over 200 years ago.

     Many fishermen still use gyotaku to keep records, but the process has also become an art form in itself.  There are two methods of making the prints:  indirect and direct.  In the indirect method, moist paper is placed on the unlinked fish and pressed to fit all its contours.  When the paper is dry, ink is rubbed gently over it, much as one takes a rubbing from an engraved stone.

     The direct method is much easier and gives better results for beginners.  In the direct method, ink is painted on the fish and then paper is carefully pressed over it to take an impression. 

The artist Naoki, of Hawaii, is shown taking a gyotaku print from a swordfish.

     To try gyotaku at home, you’ll need a fish fresh from the market or freshly caught on the day of printing.  Use a fish with a distinct scale pattern.  Wipe it carefully to remove mucus or excess moisture, and place the fish on a pad made of newspaper. 

     Although many artists nowadays use acrylics to make gyotaku prints, India ink will make the best prints for beginners.  India ink  is indelible, so wear old clothing.  Brush ink over the fish lightly, being careful to cover every part of the fish including the fins.  If the fins have closed up against the body, you can fan them out and pin them to the newspaper in an open position. 

     Put a sheet of thin paper over the fish and gently, but firmly, press it to the contours of the fish.  Prints can be made with newsprint, but imported paper from Japan (such as rice paper or similar papers) will make better prints because it is more pliable and will conform better to the contours of the fish.  After you have pressed the paper onto every part of the fish, lift the paper off carefully and sign the print.  Let it dry thoroughly.

     You can make multiple prints using this method, but replace the newspaper under the fish frequently.  Any ink that spills there will make spots on the paper used for printing the fish.

     Fish prints are fun to do, and those done on beautiful papers and framed make unique and interesting home decorations.

Published by on March 2013. Filed under Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Bugle Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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