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Gyotaku: The fish print

A Demonstration on Creating An Original Fish Print Using Sumi Inks by Ray Bliss Rich

completed fish print

In gyotaku printmaking an actual fish is used as the relief printing block. Instead of carving a design in a woodblock or linocut, the artist meticulously prepares the fish to accept the ink for the printing process.

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The first step of this preparation involves extensively cleaning the body of the fish with detergent; then after rinsing and blotting dry, dabbing it with alcohol to further dry the surface. Then any orifices must be cleaned and stuffed with cotton or paper toweling; to prevent any fluids from within the fish oozing out under the pressure of the printing process, and thus spoiling the print. This includes lifting the gill plate and lining the gills with paper toweling.

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The fish is then laid out in the position desired; keep in mind that the finished print will be a mirror image. The tail and fins are splayed out if desired, and the fins are held in place by pinning. With most fish, supports need to be place under the fins to prevent the fish from rolling during the printing process. These can easily be cut from corrugated cardboard. I set up the amount of supports I will need, but then remove them before inking to prevent ink from getting on the supports and transferring onto the print paper. I replace the supports after inking and before printing.

 

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The fish is inked by brush. I use 1.5"-2" hake brushes, as the soft hairs carry a good load of ink. I brush ink onto the tail and fins first. When inking the body, I like to brush against the grain, from tail to head, so the edges of the scales can trap the ink, giving good scale definition in the final print. I use sumi ink that is ground from a solid stick immediately before use; however, most waterproof inks or paints can be used.

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Because the fish is such an irregular shape it requires a very flexible paper when pulling the print. For all but the most round or cylindrical shaped fish I recommend papers made with characteristics of Japanese papers. Daniel Smith offers many in sheets and rolls, so even the largest fish can be accommodated. I have tried a variety of papers in the family often (mistakenly) referred to as "rice paper." Those with high wet strength, medium finish, and extreme flexibility are best. Papers without wet strength are easily damaged in either the printing or wet mounting process; softer papers stick to the fish, while very hard papers don't pick up the ink well.

 

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After inking the fish carefully lay the paper down on it, touching the center of the fish first. While continuing to hold the end of the paper at the head of the fish, keep it from touching and smooth the paper from the middle of the fish to the tail with your hand. The dampness of the ink should hold it in place while you then smooth the remainder towards the head. Using both hands, smooth the paper around the fish, picking up the ink from the remainder of the body and the fins. You should see the print developing through the paper.

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Once you are confident you have picked up ink from the entire side of the fish, including the fins, carefully remove the paper from head to tail. Turn the paper over and admire your original gyotaku fish print.

About the Author
Ray Bliss Rich is a full time artist who has been creating gyotaku prints since 1983. He began to pursue his art full time in 1993; and has his work in fine gift shops and galleries throughout the country. Ray has won numerous awards, and has done gyotaku demonstrations for several organizations, including the Martha Stewart Living TV show.

 

Materials List

  • Whole Fish
  • Detergent
  • Water
  • Paper Towels
  • Alcohol
  • Straight Pins
  • Corrugated Cardboard
  • Xacto Knife or similar cutter
  • sumi & stone; or another waterproof media
  • Haki or other flat brush (1.5"-2")
  • Flexible paper

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