Gyotaku – The Art of Printing Fish

Gyotaku is a very unique form of printmaking which developed from a very practical need. Nearly 200 years ago in Japan, it is believed that fishermen developed gyotaku or “fish rubbing” as a method of recording a catch. I’m not sure about this romantic origin story, but it has developed into a beautiful art form. It isn’t just fish which are used as printing plates, but also octopus, squid and crab.

"In Motion"- Octopus Gyotaku - By Heather Fortner

“In Motion”- Octopus Gyotaku – By Heather Fortner

The image above is from a wonderful printmaker named Heather Fortner. You can see more of her work in her Etsy shop – here.

So What’s The Method?

The method is relatively simple. Fish with prominent scales seem to make for an impressive print. Though I’m not speaking from experience, octopus gyotaku seem like a lot more faff.

  • 1. Wash the fish and then pat it dry with kitchen paper.
  • 2. Lay the fish on some news sheet or lining paper.
  • 3. If necessary, remove the eye and stuff the socket with cotton wool.
  • 4. Arrange the fish – if necessary, prop up the fins from behind with modelling clay and/or hold them in place with cocktail sticks.
  • 5. Ink the fish by painting block printing ink all over the facing side. I have seen both water and oil based inks used. Carefully work the ink into the scales with a soft brush.
  • 6. Use more kitchen roll to mop up any excess ink on the fish. If you don’t do this you will get a big mess and no detail.
  • 7. Get some Japanese rice paper or similar. Place the paper gently over the fish, taking care not to smudge it.
  • 8. Gently work the paper into the fish with dry hands.
  • 9. Carefully remove the paper and either hang to dry, or place in a drying rack.
  • 10. When dry, the traditional thing to do would be to paint in an eye.
  • 11. Repeat as many times as you like. Though strictly speaking these would be classed as monotypes (each print is unique), clearly each print will be very similar unless you change your inking.
  • 12. If you’ve used non-toxic ink and you’re feeling brave, you can skin the fish and eat it.
  • Me explaining the technique is all very well, but here’s a video which explains it better.

    You may think this is a waste of a good fish. Maybe you’re right, but I think there is something beautiful about the preservation of the image of a once living creature. To have a printed testament to a resource which is becoming more and more scarce due to overfishing is perhaps necessary now, more than ever.
    Have you tried this method of printmaking? If you have, send in a photo, I’d love to see your results.

    Which Lino Is Best for Linocut Printmaking?

    It might seem like a bit of a boring post, but I often find myself having the same conversation about lino. I’ll say that I’m a printmaker, and that I specialise in relief printmaking with Woodcut and Linocut techniques. I’ll get the response – “Oh yes, I tried that a couple of years ago and it was awful. I couldn’t cut it properly and I thought it looked so easy.” I then take awhile to explain what might have been the problems. It saddens me that people get put off so easily.

    Linoleum Marmoleum Softcut

    Fear not, help is at hand.

    First off, I’ll explain a bit about linoleum and where it comes from and how it came to be used for printmaking. Then I’ll explain the difficulties with using it and how to overcome them.

    Lino was first used as a floor covering in the late 19th Century. It was invented by Frederick Walton who noticed that as it dries, linseed oil forms a skin. He started drying out linseed oil and mixing it with a variety of filler materials. In the early 20th Century, members of the German Expressionist group Die Brucke (The Bridge) were among the first to use it as a printing plate. Perhaps I’ll write a more in depth post on lino through the ages, but for now, just understand that its been used for ages mostly because it’s cheap and it doesn’t have any grain, which makes it ideal for carving intricate designs.

    But What About Lino Today?

    Sometimes you hear people call PVC flooring lino. It isn’t the same stuff, and it won’t carve easily.

    There are a few different grades of lino. The heavier ones are called “battleship” because they were once used on the decks of U.S. Navy battleships and submarines.

    I have used 4 kinds;

    Grey Lino – (£42 per square metre) 3.2mm thick – Some people call this “battleship”, but I really doubt it’s as thick as the true battleship lino. It’s pretty easy to come by and I can get it in big sheets, which is cheaper –

    Amber Lino – (£25 per square metre) 3.2mm thick – This I haven’t seen since I was at art school, it is thin and very flexible which makes it easy to carve, but that also means you won’t get as many impressions from it before the structure breaks down.

    Marmoleum (£19 per square metre) – this is the original floor covering and is made by Forbo. We were considering having some fitted in our house, so I had a load of samples. It’s nice to use and again, pretty flexible. Oh, and it smells lovely, but maybe thats just my thing.

    Generic Art Shop Lino (£66 per square metre) – This is thick (5mm) and unforgiving stuff. Use this at your peril. I guess it would be fine for light delicate images, but you really have to watch it when you are clearing out the white spaces, it comes up in chunks if you are not careful and can mess up hours of work. If you want to try this out, they have it at too, but you have been warned.

    Wow, working this out has really made me think I’ve got to get hold of some more Marmoleum, if only because of the price. It looks like a future post might be a video test of all of the varieties to show you the differences.

    The way to get the best out of any lino for printmaking is;

    • 1. Have sharp tools – if you do a lot of lino cutting, your tools will dull more quickly than if you are cutting wood, so look after them.
    • 2. Warm your lino – if you use it cold, lino can be unforgiving, and it may as well have a grain.

    If you are new to linocut I would recommend giving a product called Softcut a try. I was using some this weekend. It very soft and rubbery, so I’m guessing I might have to watch how much pressure I use when I’m printing, but it cuts easily. What are your experiences with linocut? Have you tried it and given up? Drop me a comment…

    By the way – though I’ve linked to and websites, I get no kickbacks from them, I just like the shops and have found them helpful in the past.

    Buy a Printing Press for Under £100

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    Anyone Can Own a Printing Press

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