A fishy tail or three – the Gyotaku demo

I was curious about the technique of gyotaku [a Japanese term meaning fish (gyo) rubbing or impression (taku)], having come across mention of it for the first time only in the last year or so, so when an opportunity to see a demonstration of it at Northern Print came up, I promptly booked my place. It didn’t look like a technique I would necessarily use as an artist – but as an art historian, I was keen to learn something about this ancient technique.

Rachel Ramirez, the artist giving the demo, started by telling us that she was keen for us to get a feel for this technique by having a quick go at it after she had shown us the basics. This was a lovely surprise and a great opportunity.

Rachel explained that as she lives on the coast in Portugal, she can get very fresh fish and she usually cooks and eats the (sustainably fished) fish after printing it. The examples of her work that she passed round were beautiful. Gyotaku can be done on fine fabric (silk is traditional) to paper with long fibres that can withstand getting wet without disintegrating. It is a method that is either a direct or indirect print, and there’s a Hawaiian variation that uses colour to recreate how the fish looks when alive. Although the word for the method is about fish, it’s used for printing things other than fish, and it’s also possible to get rubber fish moulded from half-casts of real fish in the USA if one doesn’t want to print actual fish.

She showed us how the fish is prepared, with gentle cleaning and trying to dry it as much as possible. The fish needs to be as flat as possible so the fins and tail are supported underneath.

A sponge roller is best for rolling the non-toxic, water-soluble ink onto the fish. Individual details  such as darker spots can be picked out with a brush or cotton bud, and the eye is painted in afterwards.

The printing is done by hand. The paper (a lightweight Chinese paper in this case) is laid gently over the fish. The print is done by gently stroking the paper against the inky fish with fingertips, in a circular movement and working from head to tail, so the scales stay in the right direction.

While the demonstration was happening, a school party arrived to see the International Print Biennale 2016 exhibition in the gallery. A quick glance showed the teenagers who felt able to watch seemed fascinated and rather repulsed simultaneously.

Then it was our turn to try it. Some opted to share. There were some non-fish alternatives for those who felt unable to try printing a fish (they were beginning to smell). There were more fluids than we had expected because most of us there have been used to fish already gutted and their heads taken off by the fishmonger.

We soon began to understand how it could take Rachel all day to prepare a fish for printing. It also became clear that this was part of the printmaking process. It helped us to get to know our fish before printing so we knew something about where to rub gently when printing. The fish was cool under the paper (they had previously been frozen and were partially thawed) and soft with firmness under the softness. There was a feel of a ritual about the process, of being respectful to the dead fish. I found myself thinking about the life cycle of salmon.

We had time to do a couple of prints and soon the education room and the gallery were covered in large fish prints.

We lined up outside for a group photo, together with assorted fish and fish prints after we’d cleaned up.

I was delighted to have had the opportunity to try gyotaku. I doubt I would ever be able to print a large fish again – and having looked at the price of fish available in the local shop, I think only sprats would be within my price bracket. I will look out for mermaid’s purses (empty, of course) when I go for walks on the beach, and will try printing other things using this method.

I’m very grateful to Northern Print and to Rachel Ramirez for giving us this opportunity. I always enjoy learning new techniques but this unexpected workshop was particularly enjoyable (it also helped that most of us knew each other).

I have to admit that when I went shopping later in the afternoon, I couldn’t bring myself to buy fish for tea as the smell of the fish we’d printed was still in my mind. Printing fish is not a method for vegetarians, vegans or the squeamish, but it can be useful for other subjects.

Mermaids' purses (empty), shells and feather.

Mermaids’ purses (empty), shells and feathers.

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