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Direct Fish Printing

Direct Fish Printing: Heather Fortner Examines the Ancient Art of Fish Printing

Butterfly Fish Main

Gyotaku is Japanese for "fish rubbing." The term is descriptive of the indirect method of fish printing-a procedure by which the features and details of a fish are reproduced on paper by rubbing or dabbing. Gyotaku originated in Japan and has been practiced there for over 200 years. A print is made by molding a thin, wet sheet of long-fibered paper to a fish and then drying the paper in place. When dry, ink is applied to the paper in a dabbing motion with silk- covered pieces of cotton called tampos. This process transfers the details of the fish's shape and texture to the paper. When finished, the paper is removed from the fish. The indirect method yields a remarkable fish print-with exact color duplication, subtlety of motion and exquisite detail.

This article is concerned with the direct method of fish printing, in which ink is applied directly to the body of the fish. A sheet of paper is laid over the fish and pressed to receive the inked image. Direct fish printing is derivative of the nature printing techniques which have developed in Europe over the last five centuries. The images from this method are much bolder and more graphic in effect than those obtained from indirect printing.


There are many reasons to print fish. Artists embrace fish printing as an innovative art medium and as a variant of the relief printing process. To a biologist, fish printing is a form of scientific illustration which reproduces, in meticulous detail, the external features of a fish specimen. To a fisherman, a print is evidence of a record catch or a creative alternative to taxidermy. School teachers use fish printing as a fun way to introduce their students to fish anatomy and the creative process.

I print fish in an attempt to recreate the images I see in and under the water: the glitter and flashes of silvery schools, the intense, brilliant hues of the tropicals and the soft, ethereal tones of the northern fishes. Since I began printing fish, over ten years ago, I have become more aware of the natural history, colors and habits of the fish around me. I also have become more aware of hues, and tones, light and shadows, as well as balance and design in my everyday routines as a fisherman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

There are many approaches to fish printing. All involve an appreciation of fish and a commitment to the printmaking process. This article presents the print in both artistic and technical terms. The information is derived from my personal printing experience and that of other fish printers-compiled from articles, books and workshops of the Nature Printing Society, located in Santa Barbara, California. This organization, formed in 1976 to promote nature printing, sponsors exhibits and workshops and publishes a quarterly newsletter on various printing subjects. The fish prints presented throughout the text are the work of numerous Nature Printing Society members, including the author. A fish print has all the elements found in other two-dimensional art- composition and balance, design and innovation, illusions of depth and volume, color and shading and the interplay of color and shape. In addition, a good fish print must exhibit technical expertise in specialized printing methods, such as clean sharp margins- without distortion or doubling of the anatomical parts-good relief and detail reproduction and a lack of stain from fluids or blood.


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A Note on Paper
The wide selection of Japanese papers available provides a logical choice for the fish printer. The long fibers used in these papers give them the moisture tolerance and strength to conform to the contours of a fish. There are several features of paper that influence its selection: wet strength, surface texture, ink reception, weight and opacity. Some specialty papers are made with lengths of silky fiber or imbedded with wood, leaves or straw. While some sheets can give the appearance of a water background, others can be very distracting.

The best paper for the beginner is the inexpensive, sulphite-based sumi paper, often sold in rolls or tablets. While it lacks the wet strength of the handmade Japanese sheets, it takes a good ink impression. Sole. By Heather Fortner. 12'x 19".

Rainbow Print Trout

Fish Selection
Large-scaled, rough featured fishes (e.g.- perch, sole) are best for learning the technique. Freshness is a consideration, but not nearly as important as condition. An older fish with intact scales and no gaff marks is preferable to a freshly caught fish with cuts, missing scales or fin damage. Reject any fish that has an obvious cut or fin damage. These breaks in the skin will leak body fluids which are difficult to control. Inspect both sides of the fish. Spread the fin rays to check for torn membranes.

Frozen fish work perfectly well after thawing, as long as they are not dried out. An easy way to freeze fish is to package two together, head to tail, so the head of one makes a platform for the other, thus protecting tail and fins. Wrap tightly with plastic-to hold the fins close to the body and to retard hydration or freezer burn-and finally with freezer paper.

Dog Tooth

There are four basic fish shapes. The archetypal fish has a compressed body, flattened from side to side (e.g.-perch). Other fishes are depressed from top to bottom (e.g-sole). Salmon typify spindle-shaped streamlining and eels have an elongated, snakelike body.

Most fish have one or more lateral lines which run along both sides. This is a row of sensory organs which detect pressure changes in water. The lateral line is an outstanding feature on many prints.

Variation in scale type is evident in the printing process and some scales require extra ink to print. Bass and rockfishes have large, rough scales, while salmon and trout have small scales.

Marine creatures, such as shrimps, crabs, lobsters, octopuses, squids, snails, worms, clams, scallops, sea stars, sea fans, sea urchins, seaweeds, as well as sea grasses and corals also can be printed.

Fish Preparation
These instructions are for fishes which will be used exclusively for printing, and not for human consumption. The sharpest images come from fishes which have been cleaned well. Fishes are covered with mucus, which helps them glide through water and protects them from disease. It collects on and under the fins, gill covers and nostrils. This mucous covering should be removed because it repels ink. It is imperative to plug leaks from cuts not noticed when the fish was chosen. The natural openings in fishes also leak and must be plugged with soft, absorbent material or sealed shut.

To clean the fish, use powdered cleanser, dish soap, salt or baking soda with a soft sponge or towel-moving from head to tail in the direction of the scales. Vinegar and lemon juice also are effective in removing mucus. Use just enough pressure to remove slime, but not scales. On some fishes (e.g-salmon, herring, cod), the scales can be dislodged with the lightest touch. In such cases, remove all the scales and print the empty scale pockets, which produce a scale-like texture in reverse. On other fish which have lost scales, those from the opposite side of the fish can be removed and patched into the scale pockets with super glue.

After washing, dry the fish well with paper towels, and blot all excess fluids from gill covers, mouth, nostrils, anus (vent) and fins. Push firmly on the belly. If fluid spills out, it may leak during printing and ruin your print. Most fish can be plugged with tissue inserted by a probe into the anus. If the fish continues to leak, you need to gut it from the opposite side and stuff the belly cavity with soft tissue paper. The nostrils, located just forward of the eyes, also need to be plugged. Stuff soft tissue into the gill cavity to absorb blood and fluids. It may be necessary to change these tissues several times. An alternative approach to the leakage problem is to seal these openings with super glue.

Many printers remove the eye before printing, leaving a sharply defined orbit. The eyes are a very important part of a print and are reproduced by hand painting after the print is made. Before removal, record the eye characteristics in a colored sketch.

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Positioning and Layout
The feeling of action or motion comes from the positioning of the fish. There are several ways to lay out a fish in the desired perspective and position. The easiest method is to build a platform of cardboard or foamboard to support the fish in the position you desire. In some cases, you may want to use modeling clay to build a nest around the fish body. Fins can he extended to their desired position and held in place with straight pins. Japanese printers make wooden platforms of various sizes and shapes called ateita.

A more laborious method of flattening is to cut the fish in half, or nearly so, leaving all of the single fins on one side and then mounting it on a board. This works well for deep-bodied or extremely large fishes.

Still another method uses a flat tray of fine, wet sand covered with a towel or plastic. A depression is made for the body of the fish. When the fish is set into the depression, the fins are spread and pinned into the sand. This method has the advantage of flexibility, as the sands can easily be shifted to receive another fish. The sand method is used effectively at the beach.

An optional step is to dry the fish. Drying effectively sets the fins in position, seals most of the body openings and brings out the relief features. Fish can be dried for a day in the refrigerator or outside in a cool, protected location. A hair dryer will dry the surface, but does not seal the openings as well as air drying over time.

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Some fishes are camouflaged to match their environment, while others are brilliantly colored. Reproduction of natural coloration can be difficult because fishes lose color after dying. Frozen specimens may look particularly washed out. For references, use books or refer to color drawings or photographs clone just after the fish died. Stripes and spots are difficult to achieve because they get blended during printing. Gradual transitions of color, evident on many fishes, can be copied effectively by blending colors together with soft brushes.

A fish inked in black also makes a striking print and is the best way for a beginner to learn the basics of inking. Projection is the main problem encountered with inking fishes. Pounded and deep-bodied fishes appear distorted or oversized if projected without modification onto the flat surface of paper. When you look straight down on the body of the fish, the centerline which divides the fish bilaterally is obscured by the curve of the body, especially in the head area. To avoid enlargement, apply the ink to the body inside of this anatomical centerline. It is the visual margin, which should be the limit of the ink. The distortion will he minimized in a print taken from this modified inking.

Before applying ink, he sure that the fish is at or near room temperature. A partially thawed or cold fish will not receive the ink well. Placing paper towels under the fish helps absorb any remaining fluids.

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Apply ink to the fish with firm bristle brushes or small brayers. Many printers ink the head first and work toward the tail-brush strokes going with the scales. With water- soluble inks the fins should be inked last, as they dry the fastest.

Fish are often dark on top and paler underneath as a means of camouflage. This shading can be reproduced by applying a heavier layer of ink on the upper portion of the body and blending it toward the uninked belly. Additional three-dimensional affects can be achieved by applying darker ink at the edges and lighter ink on the belly.

After applying ink, use a soft brush to blend and remove brush strokes and excess ink. Loose scales, brush hairs, and pieces of dirt also will collect ink and interfere with the print Remove these with tweezers.

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Printing Procedure

  1. Replace the paper towels under the fins with clean ones. Inspect the adjacent area for unwanted spots of ink. Printers working with large sheets of paper soon realize the importance of this step.
  2. Some printers make light marks on the paper to indicate the desired placement of the fish. Remember that you are working in reverse. The paper can be misted to make it more flexible for printing, if desired.
  3. Place the paper on the inked fish. With your fingers, press to transfer the ink. Start at the head and press the paper evenly over the mouth, jaw and eye region. Move slowly toward the tail, alternately pressing top and bottom. To avoid double images, work each area of the fish only once. Work the paper with the fish-manipulate it around curves and contours. Anticipate creases and try to minimize them by uniformly conforming the paper to the body of the fish. Some creases are inevitable. A fingernail or spoon can he used along the ridges of the fin rays and on high relief areas to pick up more detail.
  4. Gently peel the paper off the fish from head to tail. If the fish has spines, take care not to catch them on the paper as you peel it off. It is possible to take a second and sometimes a third shadow print from one inking. These ghost images can be used to create the effect of one fish swimming behind another. To make a shadow print, reposition the paper on the fish immediately after making the first print and repeat the rubbing process.
  5. Hang the print to dry. Oil-based inks may take two days or longer.
  6. Recreate the eyes with watercolors. Paint some trial eyes on a sheet of the same paper before attempting the final print. Japanese papers, unlike sized printing and watercolor papers, are very absorbent.

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The impression of a marine background can be created with watercolor washes, palette prints, monoprints, airbrush and a variety of other techniques. The pattern produced from a piece of weathered driftwood gives the feeling of waves and motion.

When the paper has dried, folds and wrinkles lead out from the image. These result from the paper being stretched over the body of the fish. They can be removed or minimized by misting the paper and setting it on a flat surface, such as a sheet of glass. The moistened paper is flexible again and the creases can be gently worked out with clean fingers. Cover the print with a clean piece of paper, then with blotters to absorb the moisture. Weight this down, changing the blotters frequently until the print is completely dry. When the paper dries, it will be much flatter.

Advanced Techniques
Creating a school of fish is one of the first techniques a printer tries after mastering the basic printing skill. There are two important aspects to creating a school ii you have only one fish: planning and masking.

Because the fish is printed several times within the same image, the number of fish, the angles of swimming and the basic composition are considerations which require advance planning. Changing the curve of the fish or position of the fins (-an give the impression of different fish. The combination of first and shadow prints taken from a single inking gives a three-dimensional effect.

To overprint a first print with another print, cut masks or templates to cover the original image. Use one of the test prints or a mask cut from a tracing of the print. Tape it lightly over the first print. Place the paper over the inked fish and rub to make the next print. The fish will print on the paper and on the mask. Lift the paper and remove the mask. The second fish will appear to be behind the first fish.

Several fish also can be printed at one time to create a composition. Prepare and ink each fish separately, then position them in the desired arrangement. Place the paper over the group of fish and nib each body individually. It maybe helpful to place paper- weights on the paper to keep it from shifting around on the unprinted fish.

Fish printing in Japan is a highly refined, structured art form. There are guidelines for placement, composition, color and even for the printer's signature. The Japanese fish printer is bound to centuries of tradition which have set the standards for the art. In the West, nature printing has yet to establish such traditions. As fish printing is embraced as a new art form, artists are bringing to it the materials, techniques and innovations of their particular medium. American artists are taking fish printing in new directions-creating images which combine the best of both nature and art.

About the Author
Heather Fortner is a merchant mariner and artist who lives in Florida. She received a Daniel Smith Artist Research Grant in 1987.

Materials List


while water-soluble inks will work, slower-drying oil-based inks are preferable for shading on the fish and yield more intense colors.)


Paper - Japanese and Western printmaking papers

Dissecting Kit

  • Scalpel
  • Tweezers
  • Probe
  • Scissors

Platform of foamboard, cardboard or modelling clay

Straight Pins


Brushes, various sizes

Firm Bristle

Soft Hair Flats

Soft Rubber Brayers (small)
Palette knife