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How to Practice Gyotaku

Image courtesy Chemical Heritage Foundation/Wikimedia Commons

Gyotaku (guh-yo-tah-koo)—the Japanese art of fish painting—originated more than 100 years ago as a way for fisherman to record the size and species of their catch. Freshly caught fish were painted with a non-toxic ink and covered with a piece of rice paper. The paper was carefully smoothed down, and then removed to produce an exact size replica of the fish. Once the print was finished, the fish could be washed and prepared for a meal. By using this technique, Japanese fisherman were able to both record and eat their catch.

Image courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Pacific Region/Flickr

Over the years Gyotaku has developed into an art form. Prints are no longer just stark black ink outlines, but colorful replicas of the original species. Gyotaku art has been displayed at museums around the world. Most recently, this art form has been used in classrooms to help students understand fish anatomy and the Japanese culture. This activity engages students of all age levels, and is an easy hands-on way to examine the natural world.

What supplies will you need?

  • Fish (real or rubber)
  • Block ink, fabric ink or tempera paint
  • Newspaper
  • Paper towels
  • Paper or fabric for printing
  • Brushes or rollers

How do you make a print?

  1.  Cover the work surface with newspaper.
  2.  If you are using real fish, be sure to wash them off and pat them dry. If you prefer to avoid the mess of real fish, rubber fish can be obtained from an art supply company.
  3.  Lay the fish flat on the newspaper, then cover it with paint using a roller or a brush.
  4.  Carefully lay the paper or fabric over the painted surface of the fish.
  5.  Gently press the paper or fabric onto all parts of the fish, making sure to get all the fins and tail. Be sure not to press the same area twice or to move the paper while pressing: this will cause smudging.
  6.  Carefully peel off the paper or fabric beginning at one end and moving to the other.
  7.  If you are using the same color for additional prints, you may repeat the steps above. To use a different color, simply wash the fish and move onto the next print.
Keywords: fish, education, art


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