What is gyotaku?
It’s the spring of 2009; I’m sitting on a couch admiring a wall hanging a friend of mine had on his office wall. It’s what I thought was at the time an impressionistic painting of a large fish in bold strokes of orange, blue and gold on three large sheets of newsprint. The great thing about it was that you could see every little scale and fin in detail and the caudal fin almost looked like it could tail slap the wall. He said a friend of ours, Matt Smith- had given it to him and it was actually a print lifted directly from the fish. I thought it was absolutely incredible and would be a perfect trophy for a kayak fishing tourney I was running later that summer, best of all it looked really simple to do, at least simple enough for a guy who graduated from a prestigious art school and loved to fish. I knew the guys that would walk away with these prints would cherish these fine one of kind works of art. Well it’s been five months since I attempted my first fish prints, I never finished them in time for our award ceremony, I’m trying to get an ink stain out of our new carpet floor, my wife wants me to build a studio, my conference room table at my office has become a wasteland for reference materials, I’ve got scup in the freezer, stray pelvic fins in a jar and I’m pretty much bribing people to catch me fish that I can make prints of. What started off, as an experiment has become an obsession. I love making fish prints.
If you are going to try to make a fish print my advice would be to do some research. It’s easy enough to Google ‘fish prints” or “gyotaku’ and find videos on YouTube of people that have already spent years perfecting their art. I can only explain so much in a fishing magazine but I’ll do my best. The second thing I’d advise is not to subject a prized fish you’ve caught to this process right off the bat. Its already dead why humiliate it? In making fish prints my top priority is that I would eat any fish I made prints of, if they were edible. I didn’t want to learn on the fly and risk ruining a striped bass or having the meat go sour for the sake of getting a print. So go to the local fish market and start with any whole fish they may have on hand, the scalier the better.
The first print I ever created was of a red snapper (Whole Foods variety) and the print was surprisingly pretty good. So good in fact that I thought making a striped bass print would be no sweat and I’d be able to create dozens of them in time for the fishing tourney event I was involved with. I caught my first striper “candidate” in early June. I rushed it home and went to town on this fish. All I can say is controlled chaos- someone dropped a fish in the printing press. Ink, paper and fish scales were everywhere, on my clothing, on our tile floor, on the dog and I even got some on the fish. The first few prints I made looked a bit like a striped bass but at the same time they looked like a tuna- mahi-mahi, hybrid and they looked stiff as a board. The next few were great except I rubbed a little hard on the stomach and the fish decided to relieve itself all over the print. After the fourth and fifth print I started to panic that the meat was going to go bad and began to have doubts about meeting my goal. These are things I really didn’t think about. I cleaned the ink off the fish and put the filets in the fridge. Okay so maybe this isn’t that easy.
I tried another fish a couple weeks later and had a much more successful outing. I took my time, I was delicate not frantic. The prints I pulled actually looked like a striped bass. After getting a few good striper prints, my confidence grew, my obsessive-compulsive behavior kicked into overdrive, and I needed to do more. I made green stripers, blue stripers, purple stripers, rainbow stripers, metallic ink stripers, and even pink ones on black paper. I’d post a few photos of them on some online fishing forums to see what people thought of them, get their comments (pink stripers did not go over well) and then try to do better ones. And then I’d repeat the process. I experimented with different inks and rubbing techniques and would eventually get a few nice ones done and auctioned them off for charity at the fishing tourney. I gave my best print to my father for his birthday, I think he likes it; it sits in an antique frame above the mantle. With my limited success I wanted to try some other species. I was celebrating my 20thwedding anniversary this summer in Hawaii and spent the early mornings fishing and catching some gorgeous reef fish and could only think of what great fish prints they would make, - fortunately for my wife I did not have any paper or ink packed. We did however spend a lot of time in a little art gallery perusing the native gyotaku prints that gave me some ideas for when I got back home. If you want to see some really nice gyotaku Google “Hawaii gyotaku”.
I thought bluefish would be cool and thought they’d be easy enough to catch and print. I saw some busting off of West Beach in Beverly one day, I launched kayak and came back with a nice 30 inch blue and made several prints of it. It was the only blue I caught the entire season. I wanted to catch more species, fish I had never really thought about catching. Living on the North Shore we don’t have a huge variety of fish, so I began to go on fish finding missions. I never caught an albie before, I learned how to catch them, caught it, loved it, printed it. Never targeted scup before, kept one, made some great prints and ate it…. not bad. “Hey there’s no stripers in Salem Sound but there’s busting hickory shad in the harbor”, awesome to catch on a fly rod but even “awesomerer” to make a print of. Tautog? Heard about them, never seen one, delicious. Who knew they had a mouth as soft as a jellyfish? Need to catch more. So now it’s November I’ve got about 50 fish prints stacked on the floor –and am searching Craigslist for flat files. Who knows when a good fish print will come in handy? There’s no one way to make a fish print but here’s how I do it.
Catching a fish.
Most of you know how to catch fish, but if you are going to keep a fish and plan on making a print of it make sure you are prepared to keep it fresh. It takes between 2 and 4 hours to complete a print, so the fish should be immediately placed and kept on ice for at least four to six hours before starting a print. The meat will survive the printing process very easily and make for a great meal after you’ve made your prints, unless you are a crappy cook. If I am targeting a fish I make sure I’ve got a container and some ice at the ready. I find the best way to transport a fish is in the fish boxes you can pick up at your local fish market- that is typically how they get whole salmon or large fish shipped to them and most will gladly give them to you. I now have a number of boxes in my garage and will pop one in the car if I am going to keep a fish. I also target fish, which are no longer than the length of the box or the paper I am printing on. I fish out of a kayak and most of the fish I’ve caught were carefully bled with a cut to the gills and a quick paddle to the car. Avoid making punctures, cuts, gaff marks to the fish-meaning don’t gut the fish. Any puncture or cut will show on the print.
I find myself examining every fish I catch, if it’s got any bruises, wounds or deformed fins back it goes, beautiful fish hate me. When it come to the species of fish you are making prints of –a good rule of thumb is – the scalier the better. Striped bass, black sea bass, and scup make for great prints because of the detail. Bluefish, false albacore, mackerel and other tunoids are a lot more difficult to print.
I’ve made one 40 inch print but I tend to target 28-32 inch striped bass- not only do they taste better, they fit the size of the paper I work with. Over the course of the summer I kept 5 striped bass and made 5-6 prints and a couple great meals from each one. I caught one bass late in season and wasn’t sure if it was too large, I’d been catching a lot of 34-40 inch fish and no small keepers and was getting desperate for a fish to eat and print. On that particular day I neglected to bring a measuring tape but I was close to the beach and my car. I paddled back with bass in tow, raced up to my car and gently lay the bass in the box. Sadly the tail fell over the edge of box, it was too big, I raced back down to the water and quickly revived the fish, watched it tail slap and race away. A stranger saw me do this and asked why I let such a nice fish go, he later bought two prints.
Tools of the trade.
For starters - keep it simple. Buy some rolls or large sheets of sumi paper, which is thin rice paper or newsprint, a couple of 1” paintbrushes, some black ink or some water-soluble block printing ink, and something to place the fish on, I like the pink foam insulation board you can find at your local Home Depot or Lowes.
A well prepared fish.
One of the more crucial steps in making fish prints is preparing a fish for the rubbing. This involves a lot of washing, scraping, poking, and prodding. If it’s a fish that has a lot of fish slime on it, you’ll want to clean it thoroughly, not only will it make your prints less stinky it will allow the ink to adhere to the paper much better. I use a little lemon juice and scrape with a chef knife (go with the grain of scales) to help lift the gooey stuff, I wouldn’t recommend any cleaning solutions or solvents- you’re going to eat the fish. Once you’ve washed the fish you’ll want to choose the side of the fish you’ll be making the print from. My first fish prints happen to face to the right, the next ones to the left but I’m swinging back to the right, I’m not sure what this says about my politics. After you’ve picked a side to print, remove the eye. The reason for this is that you’ll get a nice clean circle to indicate where the eye is and you can paint it in later on. Removing the eye is a bit messy and there is no great way to do it, it took me about half a dozen times before I could do it with ease. A good rule of thumb is that when you remove an eye or a fin, remember where you put them, the last thing you want is a pet or small child running around with fish bits in their mouths.
You’ll now want to position the fish for printing. Place the fish on a large enough piece of insulation board to hold the fish. You’ll need some pins. I raided my wife’s sewing kit and borrowed some of hers, I also used one of her Pampered Chef knives to scrape the fish and I used a few of her favorite glasses and containers to hold inks and paints. I recommend that if you’re already on thin ice with your fishing time you buy your own supplies and don’t go near your wife’s stuff. Lesson learned.
Great fin display is one of the key parts of making the fish appear alive- I open up the dorsal, anal and pelvic fins and pin behind the bone of the fins to keep them open. You may want to prop up the dorsal fin with some extra foam, cardboard or sponge material before pinning to make it easier. I’ll open up the tail fin and the pectoral fins and lightly pin them. I also position the mouth by positioning pegs inside the mouth. Once you have fins pinned let the fish dry out for an hour or so- you’ll then be able to remove the pins and they should stay open. At this point your fish should look like a mounted fish.
Painting the fish.
The first few prints I created were with black ink, as I got more confident in my skills I added more color. You’ll want to keep your first prints simple-so keep it to one or two ink colors. You can use paintbrushes, small rollers, your fingers, really anything will do.
Paint the fish with the ink. You can’t really do anything wrong at this point, you just want to make sure the ink is spread evenly—you want to paint ‘sparse’ – just enough ink to cover the fish and avoid puddles or pools of ink.
Once you’ve placed the paper on the fish there’s no going back. Gently lay the paper over the fish making sure that you have enough paper to cover the head and tail. I like to start right below the gill in the middle of fish. I gently rub and push my fingers towards the edges of the head trying to imagine what the fish looks like as I do. Once I have the head done I go down the lateral line of the fish and gently roll my fingers down the side, when I get to a fin I make sure I get the bones and ridges. It’s okay to peek at your print as it progresses, just don’t shift the paper, no one likes a crooked fish. Continue down to the dorsal fin and end your rubbing with the tail. This process is quick and shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. If you want an area to appear darker apply more pressure in that area, if you want it to appear lighter don’t rub very hard at all. Gently peel back the paper and see what you’ve done. If it looks at all like a fish that’s all you can ask.
To finish off your print you can paint in the eye or any other details. I take photos of the fish before I print and use them for reference. A well-painted eye can bring a print to life. At this point you can also add in stripes, dots or additional color. I prefer to leave the prints alone and not fix the mistakes or errant brush marks or smudges. If you’d like more information or have any suggestions on how to remove ink stains out of carpet you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org