GYOTAKU — Now Anybody can have Original Artwork at Home

Gyotaku — Now Anybody can have artwork at home

Gyotaku (魚拓) is a method for Japanese fishermen in the old days to keep a picture of the fish they caught. Ink is painted onto the body of the fish, and then a sheet of rice paper is placed over the fish and carefully rubbed to capture a print of the fish on paper, hence the meaning in the name Gyo meaning fish and Taku which mean rubbing. I like that with Gyotaku, I could make a graphic image of the true size of the fish, (including its smell) – something a photograph is not effective in reproducing.

Furthermore, the graphic nature of the print, enhanced by very fine details of scales and fin patterns when you step in closer to examine the print gives the art an interactive quality. And lastly, you get to relive how you caught the fish and how it tasted when you ate it just makes it so all-round appealing to me.

Slowly, the empty walls in my home began to get covered in original artwork.

Now, those of you who fish with me will know that I try my best to release all fish that I’ve caught. However, there are times when doing so is not possible, e.g. when a fish is mortally hurt and cannot be revived. In such a situation, we usually give the fish to somebody who needs it most e.g. migrant workers. There are times too that none are around to give to. In such a case, the person who caught the fish will take it home to eat, so that no fish should die in vain.

On one trip, we had a baby barramundi which couldn’t be revived, so I brought it home to eat. As I was washing up, I was thinking about what to do with it. Should I steam it? Or make a sweet and sour dish since it is small, and the fins will be delicious and crispy in sweet and sour sauce. “Maybe I can sashimi this,” I thought, “but it was caught in brackish water and was not Ike Jime’d so it would not taste the best raw”… Many thoughts and ideas ran through my sleep deprived mind as I rinsed off the gear and unspooled line from the reel. But cooking was not my greatest priority then, so the fish went into the fridge and I crawled into bed at 0530h.

How it began for me to do Gyotaku
The next day, I was browsing at Kinokuniya Bookshop when I saw this calligraphic brush. I thought to myself, if I could find some non-toxic ink and rice paper, I’d make a Gyotaku of the barra before I cook it. As fate would have it, the sales lady showed me all I needed and thus I was committed to making my first Gyotaku. I bought a pad of rice paper, washable non-toxic ink, (this was the deciding factor as I wanted to be able to still eat the fish after Gyotaku so none is wasted) and a calligraphic brush – I didn’t know why I bought this brush since I can’t even write my name in Chinese properly, let alone write calligraphy in Kanji. But I thought it looked like a set so I bought it anyway, and went home feeling kinda scholarly.

That evening, I was at Daiso, browsing to kill time. I’ve come to realise that is a bad idea as I can never walk through Daiso without coming out with baskets full of gizmos I thought I would need but really didn’t. Everything $2 they say, so without much of a second thought, I picked up an Inkstone even though I don’t need it, simply because it looked like a set with the rice paper, brush and ink.

Rice paper and calligraphic pen from Kinokuniya Bookshop.

Washable, non-toxic ink from Kinokuniya and Inkstone from Daiso.

And so it began

Baby barra was taken out of the freezer and slowly defrosted by storing it for two days in the refrigerator.

Using a kitchen towel, dry the fish as well as you could, taking special care to dry off fluids from beneath the gill covers, the pectoral fins, and the anus. Failure to effectively clean off body fluids may result in it reacting with the ink at a later date.

Lay cleaned and dried fish on a bed of newspapers, and open the mouth for a more natural look. Next, fold sheets of newspapers so that they can support the fins and tail. With the help of a toothpick, carefully flare the fins. As the fish dries, the fins will stick to the newspaper and stay flared.

If your fish is colder than the room temperature, condensation tends to form. So it is best if you do all these in an air conditioned room with no breeze blowing on the work area. Continue to wipe away any condensation or body fluids which ooze out as you work.

Apply ink against the direction of the fish, so that ink is caught beneath the scales. In the final print, it is the outline that gives an impression of scales in the print. I apply a darker layer on top and lesser at the bottom to simulate the coloration of this Barra. I carefully avoid getting ink on the eye and will paint it in by hand later. Finally, I ink the fins and tail with a thicker coat of ink.

Made my final adjustments to the fins’ positioning, then apply rice paper over the fish.

Note that there are two faces to a sheet of rice paper. The smooth (shiny side) is preferred as it will capture finer details than the rough side. Take careful measure of how you want to lay your paper before you apply it because once it touch the fish, you cannot reposition it again without smudging your print. That also means that you need to re-ink, re position etc all over again if you want to do a reprint.

Start rubbing the paper onto the fish, by following the lateral line. Once the paper is firmly pasted onto the fish, I move to rubbing over the dorsal fins and tail. Then I work the head. Finally I rub the bottom half of the fish starting from the anal fin working up to the stomach. Be careful not to apply too much pressure on the stomach as it may cause body fluids or faeces to leak out. In this print, you can see liquid had leaked out from the gills.

Finally, manually pull the pelvic fin outwards and press it to the paper with your thumb, then fold it back under the fish,to avoid smudging the print. Carefully peel the rice paper off starting from the head. Lay the Gyotaku on a flat sheet of newspaper to dry, ensuring that no wind will blow it away. After the print had dried, paint on the eyes and touch up some parts that you may have missed. (I will illustrate this in a future piece).

Label, sign and stamp your Guotaku and you have an artwork ready for framing.

Waste not Want not

So what happens to the fish? Well, this ink left a bluish-black stain on one side of the fish. After gutting and scaling the fish, the stain is still there. However, when I cooked it, I laid the fish on the printed side, so nobody knows that it had an ink stain. It still tasted great in Sweet and Sour.

So that’s all to making your own original artwork! It is simple, costs almost nothing, and you can see the fish you caught and reminisce the catch over and over.




©Lawrence Lee
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2 responses to “GYOTAKU — Now Anybody can have Original Artwork at Home

  1. Pingback: Gyotaku — The Eye Make it Come Alive | Gasping Gurami·

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