Japanese Fish Prints: The Original Brag Boards

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Legend has it that when one of the great Japanese Lords could not believe the abundance of his catch, he had his crew ink and print a replica of each fish on fabric for posterity. That was Japan in 1862, and without realizing it he had created the ultimate brag board (see ours in this issue!) Fish printing went on to become the standard way of recording the size and scope of each catch in Japan and is still used by some today. In the recreational fishing industry charter captains and fisherman are discovering that Gyotaku has become especially popular with tourists looking to take home a souvenir of their catch, as opposed to taxidermy. With their mantra of “catch – print – eat” Gyotaku artists honor the fish we take from the sea in a beautiful, no-waste art form without interrupting the journey of the catch on its eventual trip to the table.

Japanese fish printing – or Gyotaku – is both an art form and a growing business. It appeals to all from children who create quick art projects to master artists who spend decades perfecting their art as tribute to the sea. What do they all have in common? They have a love for the sea and her creatures, along with a desire to somehow distill the essence in a form which can be preserved and enjoyed, whether on the fridge or in a museum.

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Gyo(fish) taku(imprint) is the art of imprinting fish and sea creatures on paper or fabric. Purists today still use the traditional white paper rice, while others prefer fabric which can be more easily handled. Freshly caught fish are selected. The protective mucous is removed, often using sea salt to prepare the fish for paint. Non-toxic, water-based or acrylic paints are carefully applied, non-toxic paint being used with the objective of keeping the fish fit to be eaten. The imprints are made using either the direct or indirect method.

Most artists and amateurs alike prefer the direct method (Chokusetsu-ho.) Using this method the artist paints the prepared fish with paint and ink. He gently wraps it in rice paper or fabric which creates the imprint. The imprint left by the fish is the art – the only touch up allowed is to create the eye using watercolor paint.

Using the in-direct method (Konsetsu-ho) creates a more impressionistic piece of art. This method involves carefully wrapping the fish in fabric and painting the fabric, as opposed to the fish.
Both methods are used to create the traditional single-fish imprint or the fabulously intricate collages we see today. A hint for your project – the scalier fish such as striped bass produce a more finely detailed imprint than flat fish, such as blues.

We see Gyotaku in Rhode Island from the home refrigerators of the lucky students of teacher and artist Heather Wilson, to the swanky shops in Newport which carry Gyotaku art from the region and around the world.

“Living in Rhode Island, I have always used inspiration from the ocean for both my own art and many of the art projects that I teach to my K – 4 students. I was surprised when one of my friends, who was re-decorating her home, asked me if I had any “Gyotaku” prints that she could frame for her home” says Heather. This interest lead her to investigate more about the art. She found that other artists were making these prints and selling them in galleries, stores and on-line.

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“Luckily, my husband is an avid shore fisherman so I don’t have to worry about where I would find fish that to make prints,” she says. “The size of fish I print range from tiny 2 “choggies (often caught by my 3 daughters at the end of our street) up to 40” striped bass, which we always enjoy grilling after the printing is complete,” and “serving with my famous mango salsa,” she added. Heather uses the direct method for her prints and continues to experiment using different color schemes, placing multiple subjects and different species of fish together, as well as using a variety of handmade papers. Note that she makes custom prints on request to commemorate that special catch and her work can be seen at The Saltwater Edge in Middletown, Arnold Art Gallery in Newport, and Beach House in Middletown and at Etsy.com.

And charter captains – Gyotaku has become especially popular with tourists looking to take home a souvenir of their catch, as opposed to taxidermy. With their mantra of “catch – print – eat” Gyotaku artists honor the fish we take from the sea in a beautiful, no-waste art form without interrupting their eventual trip to the table.

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