Fish to Print
August 5, 2019
The ancient art of Japanese fish printing, or gyotaku, is a simple, fun way to record a trophy catch or simply unleash your artistic spirit. By Tom Richardson/Photography by Tom Croke
Joe Higgins of Beverly, Massachusetts, is a longtime angler and a founding member of New England Kayak Fishing, an association of kayak anglers. Early in 2009, Higgins was looking for unique trophies to hand out to winners in the club’s annual tournament when he hit upon the idea of gyotaku—an ancient Japanese printing technique that involves applying ink to the body of a fish and pressing paper onto it to create an impression. Given his background in art and design, Higgins decided to make the prints himself, so he purchased a red snapper from his local fish market and got to work with various inks and paper.
In short order, Higgins became an accomplished fish printer, and today his work can be found in galleries and shops throughout New England. He also runs a shop in Salem, Massachusetts, where individuals can bring their fish to him for printing. Over the years, Higgins has made prints from all sorts of fish, including striped bass, bluefish, false albacore, shad, flounder, sea bass and even blue marlin.
While Higgins’s fish prints qualify as fine art, the technique is not especially complicated or costly. Indeed, gyotaku is a great way for kids to record their catch or simply get creative. Plus, you can often eat the fish after it has been printed. Here are some tips on getting started.
Ink & Paper
Higgins purchases his printing inks and papers from a local art-supply store, but points out that they are readily available through on-line retailers (see below). He says the most important item—other than a fish—is a soft, fibrous paper, such as Japanese Suji Gami or Washi paper, that can be pressed around the contours of the subject. Higgins uses cloth-like Kozo medium-natural Washi paper, a tough yet malleable paper that holds up well during the printing process (softer paper tears easily when it absorbs too much ink).
For inking the fish he uses non-toxic, water-soluble block-printing ink, although he says that traditional Japanese sumi ink works well, too. He dilutes the block-printing ink with an extender base so that it doesn’t dry before he’s ready to make a print.
After catching a fish he wants to print, Higgins keeps it flat on a bed of ice until he gets it home. “I try to print the fish within a day or two of catching it,” he explains, adding that the printing process can take several hours. “The prep work takes the longest time,” says Higgins, who starts by laying the fish on a thick piece of pink, foam-board insulation, available from home-supply stores. He then carefully removes the slime from the fish by coating the scales and skin with lemon juice and gently scraping with the edge of a knife. Another way to remove the slime is by gently wiping the body with kosher salt and a damp rag or paper towel.
Once the fish is thoroughly de-slimed, Higgins removes the eyeball with a knife and packs the socket with a paper towel. This is necessary to prevent the eye from leaving a dark ink blot or stain on the finished print. The pupil will be painted on later.
The next step is to splay the dorsal and ventral fins using small push pins or toothpicks pressed into the foam board. To hold the fins open. Higgins also recommends supporting the fins with small wedges or blocks cut from the foam. Once the fins have been splayed for an hour, they will usually stay in position after the pins have been removed.
Another tip is to open the fish’s mouth slightly for a more realistic presentation. Higgins often uses a small dowel to hold the mouth open, and cautions about opening the fish’s mouth too wide, which makes for an unnatural-looking print.
With the fish prepped, Higgins begins to apply the ink with a brush, working from the head to the tail. Large portions of the fish can be covered with a wide brush or even a small foam roller, while the fins and body edges should be inked with a narrow brush. Be sure to apply the ink in a light coat or it will pond up in small depressions and creases and beneath the gill plates and pectoral fins, creating dark blotches in the print.
After inking the fish, Higgins makes a gentle sweep or two along the entire body with a four-inch brush. “Excess ink can also be blotted with a sponge or a paper towel, but a brush produces a more realistic print in my opinion,” he says.
Higgins, who uses several ink colors in his prints, will sometimes move the ink around with his fingers to create highlights and blending effects. “However, I’ve found that the best prints come from not doing too much to the fish,” he adds.
Applying the Paper
Once ink has been applied to the fish, it’s time to make the print by pressing the paper onto its body. Higgins starts at the gill plate and works forward toward the mouth, being careful not to create creases in the paper. As he presses and rubs the paper to capture details, he sometimes lifts the paper to see how the print is coming along. When he’s finished with the head, he places a piece of clean paper under that section to prevent the ink from smearing if the paper accidentally slips. Then he’ll begin pressing the paper onto the rest of fish’s body, moving from gill plate to tail. “When printing the midsection of the fish, I’ve found that I can make the print more realistic by pressing harder on the back and belly to make these parts darker. It gives the fish a three-dimensional look,” says Higgins.
When he has completed the first print, Higgins studies it to see if he needs to make adjustments in the inking process, then reapplies ink and makes another print. “I usually find that my second print is the best,” he says. Higgins makes up to five or six prints before he needs to wash off the ink and clean the fish.
Once the print has dried, Higgins applies highlights and details, such as the pupil, stripes or dots, using India ink, which is transparent enough to allow the underlying colors show through. The level of detail is up to the individual printer, and there are no rules!
Gyotaku Supplies & Resources
Fish-printing paper and ink can be found in many art-supply stores, as well as through on-line sources such as All Art Supplies, Cheap Joe’s and Dick Blick. Look for non-toxic block-printing ink or Sumi ink. You will also want to buy an assortment of inexpensive soft-bristle brushes for applying the ink. Small rollers can also be used for inking large areas.
Fish-printing kits (some with rubber fish) can also be purchased online via the following sources:
- Go small, go flat: Small, flat species such as skate, flounder and scup are much easier to print than round-bodied fish such as tuna and tautog.
- Scales rule: Try to pick a species with large scales, which add more detail to the print. Smooth-bodied species such as tuna are harder to print.
- Keep it simple: Stick to one color of ink until you get more comfortable with fish printing.
- Give yourself some space: Fish printing can be messy business, so wear old clothes and pick a large, uncluttered work area.
- Fish free: If you’re not wild about the smell and mess of printing real fish, turn your gyotaku skills on other objects, such as shells, seaweed, beach grass or leaves. Or try printing of the rubber fish sold by many art-supply retailers (see accompanying sidebar).
- Eye for detail: Don’t forget to color in the fish’s pupil once the print has dried. The eye can make or break a fish print.