Crusty Old Fish Art

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

Lore has it that back in the late 19th century Japan; Lord Sakai landed the largest Red Sea Bream of his life, so he commissioned an artist to ink the fish and press a piece of rice paper onto its scales. Once the paper had been removed the Lord’s catch had been preserved on paper. These oldest known fish prints, commissioned in 1862, are currently on display at the Homma Museum in Sakata City, Yamagata Prefecture, Japan. Roughly translated, “Gyo” for ‘fish’ and “Taku” for ‘rubbing’, Gyotaku had officially come into the world and would soon take hold as a popular art-form and tool for anglers.

Traditional Japanese fish rubbings are printed on handmade rice paper with Sumi ink. Sumi is made by mixing fine charcoal with water which produces a deep black ink. This non-toxic ink is easily washed from the fish after printing so that the fillets remain edible. Gyotaku held onto its traditional beginnings and continued to be used as a tool to preserve the true record of a harvested fish. Prior to the widespread availability of cameras, a Gyotaku was printed and placed above the iced bins of fresh fillets in Japanese fish markets; a custom that is practiced today. Likewise, Gyotaku was the official method in Japan to certify the size and species of a fish during angling tournaments. This traditional also holds true today; many anglers seek out a Gyotaku artist to preserve their memory of a fish of a lifetime.

Gyotaku has also recently been adopted by ichthyologists as a means to study endangered and extinct fish. Fish prints are already used to teach kids about fish anatomy and as inspiration for modern artists. But their use as a data source could help preserve the kinds of fish they so beautifully document. It’s hard to find good sources for historical information about bygone animal populations. These fish rubbings, however, contain a surprising wealth of information. The fishermen of yesteryear, who had printed their catches, had often included dates, locations and tackle used. Scientists could one day validate their findings by extracting the DNA that made its way onto the rubbings. To say the least, Gyotaku has afforded many practical uses and aesthetic qualities since its humble inception.

Thirteen years ago I was spearfishing for Tautog off the coast of Mystic. Usually these reef fish weigh in around five to seven pounds on average. However, on this occasion I speared a whopper! It was over fifteen pounds and measured over thirty inches. I had a bit of experience in the arts and thought I’d give Gyotaku a try. I foundered horribly on my first attempt. I made over twenty prints but the majority just looked like ink blobs from misbegotten Rorschach tests. However, I finally learned as I went and was able to make one nice print to commemorate my personal best Tautog. I was bit by the bug and soon found myself printing more and more. My angler and spearfishing friends caught wind of what I was doing and I soon found myself busy printing other folks’ catches. It has become a wonderful hobby over the years as my walls fill with memories of my time on the ocean with good friends.

Early on, I was impatient and rushed through the process. However, I have found that time and patience in the preparation process was the key to success. Cleaning the fish and prepping it for the studio is always a challenge, especially with larger species. Most fish have a thin film of protective slime on their bodies. This layer needs to be removed in order for the ink the rest directly on the scales. Then the fish is dried and positioned on the printing table. I splay out the fins in a lifelike manner and then pin them in place. I will often open the mouth agape in a predatory stance. Once the fish is in position, I brush on the ink, thicker on top and fade lighter down to the belly. This will give the fish depth once printed. I then take an artist sponge and blend away any brush strokes. Lastly, I paint the fins with a medium coat of ink.

I always pre-cut my paper and have it close at hand. I do my best to center the paper over the fish and drop it softly down like a blanket. I start with the head, as it is the most rounded part of the fish, and then rub the fish top to bottom moving towards the tail. Once the fish is completely inked to the paper, I peak underneath to ensure there are no “holidays” or spots that I’ve missed. More often than not, I find myself rubbing in these small areas. Once I’m satisfied, it’s time for the reveal. I pull the paper up slowly, from head to tail and release the impression. I pin the print up to dry and start the process all over again. I try to make at least three prints of each specimen. However, I do not want the fish to go bad, so I usually work for about two hours until it’s off to the filleting table. After the print has dried, I start to add some detail. I leave many of my prints traditional black and white and just give detail to the eye. Others are splashed with vibrant colors or detailed with muted underwater camouflage.

There are a few different media that can be used to add color to a Gyotaku. For the most part I use quality watercolor pencils. These can be blended by using a damp brush, after the color has been applied to the print. Recently, my art instructor advised me to add oil pastels to my arsenal. I took his advice and soon new doors of creativity opened wide. I recently completed a commission of three African Pompano’s. One of my customers wanted the traditional black and white print and the other two wanted their prints colored. Since Pompano’s are a silver fish, my instructor and I worked on using colors to emulate silver skin. With his help I believe we did just that. It came out amazing and my customer was ecstatic with the results.

Gyotaku is a fun and addicting art form. It’s also another interesting way to enjoy the experience of harvesting your own healthy food from the sea. For more information on Gyotaku, or to have one of your fish printed, please click the contact button and message me.

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