Gyotaku: Japan’s Old School Fishy Prints

Any keen fisher(wo)men among our readers?

Nowadays just about every phone is also a camera and a camcorder, so keeping a record of your latest catch is a trivial matter – and of course you’d want to, if only to avoid having to insist “I swear it was this big!” to disbelieving friends and family. But way back in the day there was no such technology available, so the Japanese had to get creative – and lo, gyotaku was born.

oldest gyotaku

The oldest known gyotaku print is that of a carp, and is from 1839.

Gyotaku (魚拓) or “fish rubbing” dates back to at least the Tempou era, and is still in practice today. Gyotaku prints are appreciated as works of art, but have a practical aspect too: many fishing contests in Japan are still decided by gyotaku prints because photographs do not always express the true size of a catch.

The two main variants, namely the direct and indirect methods, both use inks to transfer the likeness of the fish to a sheet of paper or cloth. Finer details like the eyes are painted or drawn in by hand later. The following video demonstrates the direct method by Naoki Hayashi:

Mineo Yamamoto has been a gyotaku artist since 1973, and a great proponent of the indirect method. In the following video, where he instructs a student in the making of a gyotaku print, ink is dabbed onto the paper or cloth instead of being painted directly onto the fish:

As you might have guessed, a skilled gyotaku artist can produce incredibly detailed and lifelike images, especially if colored inks are used. Here are just a few examples I found on the interwebs:

trout

gaping fish

mejina

Caught something that wasn’t quite a fish? No problem!

ika

kani

ray

Hmm… I wonder what else we could gyotaku-fy…

dog gyotaku


So, has anyone tried gyotaku before? If you don’t fish, do you have a particularly docile cat or dog willing to stand in? Let us know in the comments!


Header image

  • sillysamurai

    I’ve been fish printing since college. It’s easy and fun. You can make fine art, or do projects with kids. You can print on paper, cloth or whatever you choose. Check out the website of the Nature Printing Society at: http://www.natureprintingsociety.org The members are dedicated to sharing and have published some good instruction books. There are as many styles of printing as there are artists. No fish? No problem. Nature printers also create art by printing spider’s webs, stones, wood, insects, flowers and plants. The technique is as simple as taking a rubbing from a penny or making potato prints, like you did in elementary school, or as delicate and complicated as the work of Yamamoto-sensei. He teaches at his Saitama studio and also at the annual Society workshop in the USA. He’s making a presentation on October 7 at 2 p.m. at Stormtree Studio in North Hudson, New York. Many other Society members teach workshops, so check out the website for one near you.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    dahaha, I love the header image… that poor fish on the right…

  • DAVIDPD

    This is one of the most obvious cool things I have never heard of.

  • Mescale

    When I was a child I did a gyotaku of my fingers.

    Sometimes when I hang out with my police chums they make me do finger gyotaku too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eliza.porter.5 Eliza Porter

    I’ve seen pictures like the first color fish picture, but I never thought that anyone uses real fish to make the prints and then fills them in. I thought they were just all painted by hand. I wonder if my kids would be grossed out by a live fish printing for art class?

  • sillysamurai

    Our local elementary schools do fish printing–with rubber fish! Then, they put fancy paper on the edges and make it into something that looks like a hanging scroll. They also sometimes print on fabric, which is more pliable and less-likely to tear than paper. As long as you don’t plan to wash it, you can use any kinds of paint or ink. If you are looking for art-quality or want to do t-shirts, check out the nature printing society info. There are many cool techniques. The mono-color prints are done by direct printing: putting the paper on top of the inked/painted fish, akin to rubber-stamping. The delicate multicolored ones are done by indirect printing: putting the paper or cloth on the fish, then gently dabbing on layers of transparent color to bring out the texture of the fish underneath, a more sophisticated version of gravestone rubbing. You can also do a single-color direct print using oil-based ink, let it dry, and overpaint with watercolors or colored inks. Doing an interesting background before or after printing is fun, too. If you are a teacher, the Nature Printing Society has a special feeling for educators and sometimes offers scholarships to the annual workshop.

  • FoxiBiri

    I agree. And there aren’t enough comments about the sheer coolness of the topic.

  • km

    Not really a live fish, but rather a “real” fish