Gyotaku Art: History & Technique

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Can you use a real fish to make artwork? Does it make a mess, and what kind of materials do you need? In this lesson, explore the Japanese art of gyotaku.

What is Gyotaku?

Have you ever made a print of something? A print is artwork made by leaving an impression of an image or object on a surface like paper or fabric through the use of ink and gentle pressure.

Japan has a unique type of print art. Now remember, Japan is an island country surrounded by water, which means a plentiful supply of fish. This method of print art is called gyotaku or fish printing. Literally, 'gyo' is fish and 'taku' is rubbing. So gyotaku is the method of making a print by rubbing the body of an inked fish.

Gyotaku print of a red snapper
Example of gyotaku

Sounds appealing, right? How did such an unusual art get its start?

History of Gyotaku

Gyotaku has been around since the mid-19th century. It began as a method of documentation. Before cameras were invented, fishermen made impressions of fish they caught to provide a record of trophy catches. The images proved claims of size and appearance. Over time, fish printing evolved into an art form that's still practiced today and very popular. A skilled gyotaku artist can create beautiful images that catch subtle details and textures.

Now let's learn how to make a gyotaku.

How to Create Gyotaku

First, you need several simple tools. Of course, the most obvious is a fish. Species with distinct features and large scales work well for this process. You can use a real fish or, if you're just starting out, you can buy accurate rubber fish models.

You also need paper. If you want to do an authentic gyotaku, use washi paper, made from natural substances like mulberry tree bark. You could also use rice paper or similar papers made from natural materials.

Next, you need ink or paint. Traditionally the ink is sumi, a water-based ink made from carbon (burned substances like plant materials). You could also use acrylic paint. And finally, you need something called a tampo or dauber, a piece of foam with a handle, to apply the ink. For the dauber, you could also use a cosmetic sponge.

With these materials gathered, you're ready to make a gyotaku.

Two methods are normally used. The first is an indirect method, known as kansetsu-ho. In this method, you take a fish and press wet paper around it. Then you carefully ink the paper, picking up the details of the fish below. The paper is allowed to dry and then carefully removed. This method produces a single print from a single fish.

The other method is a direct method, known as chokusetsu-ho. This method begins with inking the body of the fish. A piece of paper is then placed over the fish and carefully pressed against it, which picks up the details and shape of the fish's body. The paper is then removed. The advantage of this method is that one inking can provide more than one print.

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