Several months ago I began learning to do gyotaku artwork. Gyotaku, a traditional Japanese fine art, uses ink to print a caught fish onto paper. Gyotaku literally translates to “fish rubbing” and right there you have a concise explanation for the entire process. Really most of the work involved is in preparing the fish to take and transfer the ink. Traditional gyotaku is done using sumi ink; a Japanese ink made from organic materials, it is non toxic and can be washed off after printing. Sumi ink is available in blocks which must be ground with water in a special type of stone or in premixed bottles. It is also commonly used for traditional Japanese calligraphy. The second component material to a traditional gyotaku is Shoji paper; this is paper made from rice, it comes in different thicknesses and is often used in traditional Japanese interiors.
As aforementioned a substantial portion of the gyotaku is in the preparation. I begin with a canvas painters tarp to keep my work surface clean. I then lay the fish down on the canvas and grab handfuls of clay to prop up and support the fins and tail, sewing pins are then added to splay the fins open and close the mouth should I wish. Next paper towels are stuffed behind the gill plate, in the anus, and into any wounds the fish may have incurred while being caught with a spear, the eye is also removed. A hair dryer or a heat gun is used to dry out the fish or cephalopod prior to the application of sumi ink.
As I have learned so far, the real trick to getting your gyotaku to print correctly is to apply the correct amount of ink to the correct places. You will have to decide whether to use a bristled brush, foam brush, or an air brush to apply an even amount of sumi ink. Certain parts of the fish will soak up the ink and other parts of the fish will cause it to pool. When you find areas that are retaining too much ink use something absorbent, i.e. paper towel, foam sponge, q-tip, to remove the excess ink.
You are now ready to start ruining roles of shoji paper with blotched and blurry fish prints. After you get a feel for how much ink is too much and how much is too little your prints will begin to improve dramatically. One thing I have found to help with applying the shoji paper is to clamp a few pieces of molding strips to the edges of the paper, it prevents the paper from furling and makes it easy to lay it over the fish exactly where you want. Once laid, gently rub the paper into the fish with your fingers, take extra time in the areas that have proven to soak up the ink. This part of the process only takes a few minutes, once completed remove your paper and admire your print. If you feel like it reapply the ink, or don’t (I believe it’s called a ghost print), and rub out another one ;-). After you’ve finished making prints wash off the sumi ink and clean your fish.
I’ve included photos of some of the prints I’ve made. When I get around to painting them and stamping them with a hanko, I’ll post again. Thanks for reading.
26″ California Sheepshead
19.5″ Rubberlip Sea Perch, printed twice
Same Rubberlip Perch, printed four times