Fishing 101: A New Way to Record Your Catch

By M. McQuillan, USHarbors.

While you are out fishing, do you sometimes encounter an unusual fish that you’ve never seen before? Do you forget to bring a camera to record your catch? Would you like to have beautiful fish prints to frame and hang in your kitchen, or give to friends? Gyotaku is an art form from Japan that is easy to do, and fun for the whole family.

Origins of Gyotaku

Gyotaku in Japanese translates to “fish” (gyo) and “rubbing” (taku). Gyotaku did not originally begin as an art form, but instead was an easy and practical means of recording the size and characteristics of a fisherman’s catch. It has also been said that gyotaku is a way to honor nature, as well as the fish that is giving its life for your sustenance.

The earliest surviving gyotaku dates from the mid 1800s. As photography was rare or practically nonexistent at that time, fishermen would keep rice paper, sumi-e ink and a set of brushes on their boats so they could easily record the size and quality of their catch. After the printing, the fish would be rinsed off and taken to the market or eaten.

What You Will Need

All you need to create gyotaku prints is water-based (acrylic) paint or ink, and paper.  You can experiment with your materials to achieve the result you want. The viscosity of the paint and the quality of the paper make a difference as to the amount of detail you can capture in the print. You can experiment with your technique and easily learn how to retain the subtle patterns and textures of the fish.

The Technique

Traditionally, black or sepia (brown) ink was used, but you can choose any color you want. The high contrast and simplicity of black and white is good to start with, as this way you will quickly figure out how to best capture the most detail without worrying about color.

First, wash and dry your fish. Leave it whole with scales on (you can gut it after you print it). Lay it down on a clean, flat, paper-covered surface (clean newspaper or brown paper is okay). You can use traditional sumi-e ink, or you can use black acrylic paint, watered down just a little to simulate the viscosity of ink. Then take a paintbrush (1/2″ flat watercolor brush works well, or any small brush with fine bristles), dip it in the paint or ink, and carefully but quickly paint the top of the fish, making sure to evenly coat the fins, head, and tail of the fish.

After the top of the fish is coated, carefully move the fish to a clean surface, leaving it ink side up. (This will prevent any excess ink from showing up in your print.) Then, take a sheet of slightly damp paper and lay it over the fish and start rubbing the fish (as if you are giving it a massage:)

The type of paper you use will make a big difference. Traditionally, rice paper was used, which you can buy in an artist’s supply shop or specialty paper store, but you can also use any white paper that is not too thick or rough. The idea is, to gently rub the paper into the fish underneath in order to  transfer the surface characteristics of the fish via the ink/paint to the paper. The paper should be a smooth surface, so any paper with tooth (water color paper for example) will not work.

When you have determined that you have evenly and thoroughly massaged the body of the fish into the paper, while still wet, carefully from one end, lift the paper up and turn it over. With any luck, there is your fish, meticulously recorded in minute detail onto the surface of the paper! If you don’t like the result, try again! You can also use other sea creatures, such as an octopus or a crab, to create a beautiful gyotaku prints. And if you are not a fisherman (or woman), there are whole fish in the grocery store that will do just as well.

The whole process of making the print does not take long. Provided you have enough paper and ink, you can experiment in the moment until you get the results you want. Later, after the print is dry, you can add an eye, or introduce color to your print as you wish. You can also add another fish or many fish, onto the paper, as long as you do it one at a time. Letting each dry before you add another.

Warning, Gyotaku is habit-forming. You will find yourself branching out into t-shirts and scarves (using fabric dye as ink) before you know it!

Send us an image of your gyotaku print, and we will feature it on our site! Email us at [email protected]

Happy printing!