Introduction and History of Gyotaku
“Gyo"=Fish and “Taku"= Rubbing or impression. This Japanese folk-art has its roots in the late 1800’s in Japan. Its “high-brow" genesis story is of a Daimyo or lord that loved fishing and one of his scribes tired of writing poems to describe the fish he had caught and instead used his brush to paint Sumi ink directly on the fish itself. The “low-brow” story is of fishmongers that printed fish in order to sell them to the illiterate workers who came to build Japan's new capitol in Tokyo.
To this day it remains a visual record of sea life in Japan and around the world, preserving a wide variety of creatures at their actual size and in intricate detail, in order to share with others. This tradition has a parallel in the west in what is called nature printing, which was made famous by over a thousand years of botanical prints.
The process is simple but takes skill developed over years of practice. The subject is carefully cleaned and dried and then posed in the intended way. Ink is then carefully applied to the surface and then a lightweight paper is placed over the top of the specimen and rubbed until the entire contours of the inked creature have been transferred to the paper. It is then touched up with fine brushes, signed with a “hanko” or seal accompanied by signatures and other information and is ready for mounting.
Step 1: The fish specimen is prepared by cleaning it thoroughly and pinning out its fins, and is then covering it with high quality, finely ground artists inks.
Step 2: A lightweight archival paper made from the bark of the Paper Mulberry bush is then moistened slightly and applied directly to the surface of the fish, and carefully rubbed with finger tips and small tools to gain a clear impression.
Step 3: The resulting image is a perfect likeness of the surface of the fish. Nature as a printing press!
Step 4: The final print has an illustrated eye added to it, and then finished with a species description, location, red seal and signature.