If you’re like me the phrase Japanese Fish Art conjures images of Koi in berets with paint on their fins. I say paint, because I think sculpture is definitely out of the question. As it turns out, Gyotaku (as it is known is Japan) is actually a printmaking art that uses real fish.
The word Gyotaku literally translates to “fish rubbing”. As you might expect the name is self-explanatory. The process involves painting a fish, then creating an impression of the painted fish. It’s not unlike wood block printing – except for the part where they use real fish.
Gyotaku originated in the mid-1800’s when Japanese fishermen began making impressions as a method of preserving the record of their catches. It was only a matter of time before non-fishermen began to notice the artistic merits of the catch records.
Gyotaku print makers face a variety of challenges, not the least of which is finding fresh fish to paint. However, it’s worth noting that Japanese fisherman are still the primary practitioners of Gyotaku. As a result, the fish prints are somewhat like the American sports fisherman’s mounted fish (except that it’s possible to actually eat the fish after the Gyotaku print is made). One Japanese fishing magazine holds a regular competition for the largest catch of the year. Judging is performed by examining Gyotaku.
As the popularity of Japanese Fish Art has caught on art students around the world have begun exploring the process. For the novice artist, the challenges of fish painting can be even more daunting. In response at least one art supply company has developed a line of rubber fish specifically for the print making process. Purists will undoubtedly snicker, but art teachers everywhere are grateful.