I can almost see the motion of the fish. Their mouth open, as if exhaling, fins erect, cutting through the water of a phantom sea. These past movements refract in my eyes as I stand above the lifeless body, preparing to paint it red.
In the basement of Nash Hall, the Oregon State University Fish and Wildlife Club hosts meetings twice a month. These gatherings usually center around job opportunities, internships, and educational presentations given by students and professionals in relevant fields; but on one special night, the meeting featured Gyotaku printmaking.
The meeting was hosted by artist and scientist, Bruce Koike, of Little Pond Nature Prints. Koike has previously led Gyotaku workshops at the Lincoln City and Newport campuses of Oregon Coast Community College, and also last year with the OSU Fisheries and Wildlife Club. Koike has been practicing Gyotaku printmaking for 30 years, and has printed more than 400 different plants and aquatic life, most of them fish. His work has been shown at the Lake Oswego Festival of the Arts, Bellevue Art and Craft Festival, and Blackfish Café in Lincoln City. Koike received his Master’s in Fisheries Science from OSU. After receiving his degree, Koike worked as an animal husbandry specialist at the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Before starting the printmaking workshop, Koike presented on the history of Gyotaku, and how it became an art form. Gyotaku originated in the late 19th century, at the end of the Edo period in Japan. The oldest known print was made in 1862, and is of a red seabream. Previously other forms of nature printing had come to Japan in 1549, with the arrival of the Jesuits. Gyotaku, literally translated to fish-rubbing, was a type of printmaking used by fishermen to preserve records of their catch. The technique quickly became revered as an art form for the detail that it was able to reveal in the fish being printed.
There are two primary methods for creating a Gyotaku print: indirect and direct method. The indirect method consists of molding wet paper onto the fish that is being printed and then applying ink to the exterior of the paper. The paper is then left to dry on the fish, and then carefully removed. This technique requires more skill and practice than the direct method.
The direct method is the method that we used in the Fisheries and Wildlife workshop. It consists of applying ink or paint directly to the body of the fish and then covering it in a sheet of rice paper that is then gently pressed against the paint to create a print of the fish’s details. The paper is then carefully peeled back to reveal a mirror image of the animal.
I chose three colors for my Gyotaku. As Koike’s presentation and tutorial came to an end we divided into groups. Six groups of three artists, including one fish. It was heavy in my hands as Koike handed the small cold body to me. A body that would transcend its original being and teach us about the history of a form of measurement and record keeping, turned art. It would show us how a fish’s fins retract and stretch in order to move through water efficiently, and it could even teach us something about ourselves. Koike told stories of his most prized prints, the fish that he transported by overnight mail when he moved from New Orleans to Oregon, the prints he made from fish that his father caught.
The colors were purple, red, and blue, they bled into one another across the fish’s back, creating a gradient, a tricolor rainbow. There’s some technique needed in the prep work before making the print: making sure the fins are supported, pinning them open in order to portray movement in the animal, putting a small piece of foam in the fish’s mouth, to keep it open. It all felt scientific, like I was preparing a frog for dissection, studying the width of the small mouth, the distance between the fins, their ability to stretch.
Scientists and artists have used Gyotaku printing to teach children—and adults—about marine organisms. It has been argued that the art form can be used to teach about basic fish anatomy, the mechanics of how they swim, and even their—and wider—evolutionary adaptations, showing the importance of the intersection between science and art.
As I pressed the rice paper into the side of the fish it began to reveal its secrets. The paint slowly showed through the paper as I gently moved my hands down the small being’s body. Red, blue, purple. When peeling the paper off, the subtle patterns of the fish’s scales, the shape of its gills, the details of its fins, things that hadn’t been so plainly seen against its unaltered flesh, now stood out prominently.
When done properly, Gyotaku prints can retain even the subtlest patterns and textures of the fish. I felt I was seeing something with fresh eyes, in fresh paint.