At April Point on Quadra Island I meet up with Mineo Yamamoto. He’s a master Gyotaku printer who has come here to give an international workshop in fish printing. Lots of fish around here: cod, flounder, haddock, salmon. They catch ‘em, print ‘em, and eat ‘em. It’s not your everyday art form.
Yamamoto’s system produces sensitive images on white silk — often understated and gradated into nothingness on the underbelly in soft rich colours. They’re suitable for framing. The dead fish is pinned and crazy-glued down on a balsa board, enhanced and propped with Plasticine. Silk is then laid over the fish and lightly tapped with special inks using various sizes of cotton and silk mushroom-like daubers called “tampos.” The eye of the fish is painted in realistically with a small brush. When finished the silk is peeled off and ceremoniously laundered in peroxide to get rid of the blood and oozy stuff. It’s sort of formal, like the tea ceremony. Everything is pretty neat.
The Master has a diploma in fish printing. He’s president of his own society. He prints fish all over the world. He’s printed a live horse and a nude woman — “Busty” he tells me. Next summer, back in Japan where they still catch them, he’s going to print a whale. His wife helps him. His students worship him.
What’s going on here? In our short spans we honor the marvelous specificity of our world. This type of creativity depends on a remarkable ready-made intaglio. It’s the direct transfer of the mystery of fleeting life to the permanence of art. We who put our modest marks and splashes on canvas and paper are up to the same thing. Across the ageless waters we bow to one another. We’re in the same boat.
PS: “Everything we see disperses and vanishes. Nothing remains of Nature. Our art has to inspire a feeling of permanence while still showing the elements of all its changes. It has to make us sense the eternal.” (Paul Cezanne)
Esoterica: “For printing a flounder gently tap your tampo with the following colours in this order: yellow, red, brown, green, half brown half green, nine tenths brown and one tenth black.” (Mineo Yamamoto)
Information at http://www2a.biglobe.ne.jp/~gyotaku/index_e.html
To get an idea of the popularity of fish printing try typing in gyotaku on Google.
The following are selected responses to this and other letters. Thank you for writing.
Just having fun?
by Beverly Willis, Fresno, Calif, USA
How interesting! Never heard of such a process. I am hopeful that the same process wasn’t used on the horse and the nude woman though and I am assuming that it wasn’t! Otherwise we need to arrest this so-called artist! Also I have to say that this printer and his wife must have lots of muscle – I can just see them bringing the whale in and putting him in on a big sheet of silk – now that’s a picture I would like to see. By the way does this artist have a web page or is that too modern for him? Not to say anything against this person, but his ways of getting a painting seem a bit barbaric. Or are you just having fun this week?
(RG note) A page relating to his work is listed above. He has an excellent colour book which shows his work and methods (in Japanese). He also has a brochure available in English.
by John Evans, Connecticut, USA
Poor fish… if Yamamoto’s so amazing, why doesn’t he paint the fish from memory and not kill it… just another gimmick… and I certainly hope he doesn’t kill the whale.
(RG note) Several artists wrote and suggested we alert Greenpeace. Also if the print of the whale could be made from life and then to somehow release and set free this noble and endangered animal.
by Juvenal Hidalgo, Maui
Aloha from Maui. What a most beautiful letter. I certainly got the sense of reverence that comes with Mr. Yamamoto’s art. It is as if anything done with such passion for every moment of the process is very inspiring. Mahalo Nui Loa for keeping my creative juices flowing with the story of Mineo.
by Fumeo Suzuki, Yokohama, Japan
There are many methods of doing the Gyotaku. My way is to do the direct method which is different than Mr. Yamamoto’s which is indirect in that it takes the positive print. I have done over 200 Tuna, etc. Even do Fugu, Abalone, Squid. This is fine tribute for one print before they are soon sushi.
Pictures of fish printing
by Alec Rutgers, Ontario, Canada
I found this fish printing process fascinating. Too bad there wasn’t step by step pictures. I do have one concern. What happens to the fish once the artist is finished and what is done with the peroxide afterwards? I hope not just thrown out.
(RG note) With regard to the peroxide — he recycles it. Many fish apparently go the way of the previous letter.
by Julie Rodriguez Jones, San Pablo, CA, USA
I had no idea that fish prints were so popular (leaves and shells too according to the link you attached). I will confess that amongst my creations lie two prints though the technique is somewhat different and requires that one paint the object first (the true trick) and then do the pressing, equally carefully.
No exaggeration here
by P N Newell, Cornwall, UK
Gyotaku is a relatively new technique, originating about 100 years ago as a way for Japanese fishermen to record the exact size and kind of fish they had caught. Sometimes gyotaku are displayed on the walls of homes, or sometimes they are kept in a journal to document a successful fishing spot. Japanese fishing magazines hold yearly contests for the largest fish caught; judging is done from the gyotaku. Fishermen in the west are sometimes accused of exaggerating the size of the fish they have caught or let go. In Japan, the gyotaku provides an accurate record of the catch. In addition, the print is a work of art, to be hung on the wall and admired, not only for the size of the fish, but for the aesthetic appeal of the print. The western fisherman might have his fish mounted and hung on the wall to be admired, but it is not a work of art. Also, when fish are prepared in this way by a taxidermist, they cannot be eaten. After the Japanese fisherman records his fish as a gyotaku, he can take the fish home and eat it. There are two methods of printing from a fish. The indirect method (kansetsu-ho) involves molding wet paper directly onto the fish, carefully tamping it down so that it will pick up all the details, then letting it dry. The paper itself then becomes the plate. The second method is called chokusetsu-ho. It is faster and easier to make multiple images with this technique. First, the fish must be fresh, clean, and dry (frozen fish may also be used). Remove the slimy residue from the fish’s scales with salt, vinegar, or alcohol. Lay the fish on a flat surface and gently fan out the fins and tail. Lumps of Plasticine clay can be placed under the fins and tail to elevate them. Apply watercolor, sumi ink, or water-based printing inks directly to the fish with a soft brush, sponge, or foam brayer. Finally, place a sheet of paper over the inked fish. Hold the paper with one hand at the fish’s middle section. With the other hand, gently press the paper so that it comes into contact with the entire inked surface, especially the fins and tail. Then peel back the paper to reveal a mirror image of the fish. Gyotaku may also be done on fabric with the use of fabric paints.
(RG note) See Gyotaku Fish Impressions: The Art of Japanese Fish Printing by Doug Olander. To look at the methods of Gyotaku artist Heather Fortner go to http://heatherfortner.com/
by Ellen Borsman
You can learn about fish anatomy while practicing the Japanese art of Gyotaku by using rubber fish. Rubber replicas are available. (cast directly from real fishes) You also need several items like newspapers, cardboard, paper towels, ink or tempera paints, a brush or roller and paper or fabric for printing. You simply roll paint or ink over the fish and mat with paper. You can clean up with soap and water. Use multiple paint colors for added effects. Rubber fish replicas do not wear out, nor do they have any odors like real fish do. It’s a cleaner and more environmentally sound alternative to using real fish.
(RG note) Rubber fish can be found at Amazon.com
by Elle Fagan, Connecticut, USA
Fish printing sounds exciting. No one portrays fish like the Orientals. I found a book of stereograms at a book sale, also mostly Japanese technicians. I stare the beautiful 2-d photos and magnificent fish, teacups, birds, Adam and Eve, a ballerina dancing Swan Lake. They leap out at the viewer without the use of 3-d lenses… the manipulation of the digital images is so delicate. Some of the stereograms take a number of years to complete. I also found the 60’s icon photo-bible, “The Family of Man” — My treasured copy was mourned when lost in the seventies, and I reacted involuntarily and was embarrassed but delighted to find my old friend for a dollar at a book sale, bound more beautifully than my original copy. With our national crisis, I though it super kismet to find “The Family of Man” and have been sharing it as unselfishly as possible ever since.
by Carol Ann Blank
I was glad to read and find someone winging it or just walking in to class with out a set lesson plan. I’m teaching my first adult education class and I don’t want to overwhelm these Monday night ladies running from TV football. So I just get them slopping paint within the first ten minutes of class. It’s only a two hour class and I don’t want to waste a lot of time talking. More than half the class are total beginners. They came equipped with house painting brushes — had a couple show up with opaque pan colors. Oh well, when you get lemons, you make lemon aid! We are all having fun. That would seem to be the most important thing for them right now.
by Jennifer Garant
This might sound a bit narcissistic but occasionally I check out my name on google to see if another company has picked up my work. Or (nightmare scenario) that all sites on me have been removed. Low and behold my response to one of your letters was in there. I often think of you and Sara and how lucky I was to have read your book when I did. You once told me that the best way to thank you is to succeed. I have done that to the best of results and when I look at what you have done — more on the hope and humanitarian level for artists all around the world now — I have to give my head a shake. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and imparting on artists everywhere that we are not isolated or alone in our feelings and struggles. Your letters make everything more sensible to the dedicated artist.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 93 countries worldwide, including Afghanistan, have visited these pages since January 1, 2001.
That includes Stephen Quiller, now home in Creede, Colorado who writes, “The cement for my new studio is now poured for the foundation. It will be a few days before I get to settle in to paint.”
And Dee Poisson (Yep) who asked, “How did the nude woman feel about being crazy glued to balsa board, enhanced and propped with Plasticine?”
And Diane Hardouin who said, “Whales ought to be left as they are because they’re art in motion.”
And Moncy Barbour who asked, “What is next to learn in this vast but small world?”