Japan has a fascinating art history. From early cord designs on clay vessels in the Jomon period (c. 11000–c. 300 BC) through to picture scrolls, ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and the distinctive style of animation that exists today, people in Japan have always found unique ways to capture the world around them for the rest of the world to see.
One little-known art technique from the 1800s is now making a comeback, and while its roots are firmly planted in Japan’s traditional history, it’s a method of printing that people all around the world can enjoy. All you need is paper, some paint and a nice-looking fish.
Called gyotaku (fish rubbing), this is the art that brings seafood to life on land, and the designs you can create are absolutely stunning. The traditional Japanese method of printing fish came about before the advent of photography, when fishermen were looking for a way to record the size and species of their catch.
While nature prints using flat objects like leaves had been around for some time, printing from the thick, curved body of a fish was an unusual but natural development, considering fishermen usually carried paper, ink and brushes on board with them while out at sea.
After catching a particularly impressive fish, fishermen would coat one side of it with ink and then cover with rice-straw paper, rubbing gently until an impression was made. The non-toxic ink was then washed off the fish so it could be sold at market, while the more revered catches were returned to the ocean.
After some time, fishermen began enhancing their prints by painting in the eyes and other details.
In Japan, gyotaku is primarily the domain of fishermen, where you’ll find prints of great catches in their homes and on the walls of fishmonger’s shops. Artists abroad, however, are taking the technique to a whole new level, creating colourful and creative underwater scenes in the same style.
Artist Heather Fortner has been creating gyotaku artworks for almost 40 years. She often uses multiple prints on the one sheet of paper for her beautiful designs.
Fortner often set up makeshift studios on board large merchant vessels while living in Hawaii, where she could use fish that had been caught or otherwise found in the markets at foreign ports.
Now based on the Central Oregon Coast, Fortner offers workshops in gyotaku, paper-making and nature-printing.
To see how she creates her beautiful artworks, take a look at her gyotaku tutorial below.
Another experienced gyotaku artist, Odessa Kelley, uses the technique with an octopus:
And now for an enormous Grouper:
That’s a quick way to make an enormous artwork!
Is this your first brush with (or should that be impression of?) gyotaku? Would you be interested in giving it a try?