Recently I was introduced to the Japanese art of fish rubbing, or Gyotaku (pronounced Ghee-oh-TAH-ku) and became fascinated by this fine art form. I was so entranced by the little I had been told that I spent five hours studying it the next day, and then went out to purchase the needed supplies. My husband and sons were out fishing and I wanted to be ready to print their catch when they arrived home.
As a beginner I decided to start with simple, inexpensive supplies so I bought a large pad of newsprint, which holds up well when wet, and dug out my acrylic paints and paintbrushes. I bought pins, a foam base to put the fish on, and a few foam brushes for applying the paint to the fish. Knowing the children would love doing their own fish printings, I brought a folding table and extra supplies so they could have fun with Gyotaku, also. I met up with my family at a friend’s house where we planned to enjoy a fresh fish dinner.
Studies show that the best way to teach a child about the natural world is to allow them the freedom to engage in it. – Chad Crawford
What I immediately loved about this art form was the way it fit seemlessly into my family’s lifestyle of fishing and diving. I love both creating art and spending time on the water with my family, so Gyotaku is perfect for me! Taking a print of a fish is a inexpensive and fun way to document a memorable hunt or a special day on the water with your children. Gyotaku is also a great way to engage children in the sport of fishing by combining learning to fish with teaching them how to create an artistic keepsake of their special catch. The following video captures this concept beautifully:
So how did I create my first Gyotaku fish print?
Using my 8-year-old son’s freshly caught mangrove snapper, I washed the fish with soap and water to remove the slime and then thoroughly dried it, paying particular attention to the anus, gills, fins, and eye. I actually removed the eye so there would be a white space created during printing where I could go back later and paint in a realistic eye. This helps bring your fish rubbing to life.
I put the fish on a piece of foam into a hollow my husband cut out to fit the fish shape so the foam could support the fins. This left one whole side of the fish exposed. I put soft tissue in any areas that I knew could leak fluids and ruin my print. I also pinned the fins open and supported the pectoral fins with tissue to make sure I got a good print of them. After waiting several minutes for the fins to set in their pinned open position, I removed these pins.
Next, I took several close up photographs of the fish to help me in applying realistic finishing touches after the printing process. I then chose my colors and blended them and carefully applied them directly to the fish, trying to avoid having the paint too thick or too thin. After painting the fish surface, I blotted any excess paint. I was now ready to take a fish print.
Carefully positioning my paper to place the fish in the center, I slowly laid it on top of the fish. Then I placed one hand on the paper on top of the fish and held it firmly in place to keep the paper from moving as I rubbed every area of the fish, transferring the paint to the paper. When I felt I had a complete print, I carefully peeled it off the fish and had a look. Although there were some mistakes, overall I was quite pleased with my first attempt. I carried it inside and laid it on a table to dry.
Back at home, I pulled up my photographs of the fish – the eye in particular, and applied some finishing touches to my fish print.
My first go at it produced rather primitive results, but I’m not displeased at this initial attempt. It takes time to master this skill and I read if you get three good prints out of 20 when you’re beginning, you’re doing well. With all the fish that come through my door, I will have no shortage of opportunities to practice this new found passion. I’m pretty sure I’m going to enjoy the process.
If you’d like to get inspired by the work of a Gyotaku master, visit the online gallery of John Tolmie. He has some truly phenomenal pieces and I especially like the fact he’s a spearfisherman! I hope you have fun creating your own Gyotaku prints!