This month we dove into the world of gyotaku fish printing. Historically, Japanese fishermen documented catches by applying ink to a fish’s body, placing paper on top of the fish, and pressing down on the fish to create a printed image of it. Today, artists around the world elevate this printing method into fine art, memorializing once-in-a-lifetime catches as masterpieces. Experienced gyotaku artists Dwight Hwang and Brian Heustis walked us through the printing process, gyotaku’s role in conservation goals, and how they have developed their individual printing styles.
Dwight Hwang is a gyotaku artist currently based in Southern California. After getting degrees in animation and live action film, Dwight spent seven years living and working as a storyboard artist in Tokyo. Along the way he discovered gyotaku at his local tackle shop.
Flylords: When and how did you first learn about gyotaku?
Dwight: I first saw gyotaku during my many years in Japan at a tackle shop in Tokyo. I was so enamored with it that I took photos and showed my Japanese friends. I didn’t have anyone to teach me, so I poured through hours of Japanese YouTube to learn the basics. After that, it took a great deal of trial and error to finally get an image that looked like a fish instead of a black smear across the paper.
Flylords: What can you tell us about the origins of gyotaku printing?
Dwight: The documented story is that a Daimyo during feudal Japan enjoyed fishing. He would have his catches documented in writing. One day, instead of writing down the fish’s dimensions, the recorder bushed ink onto the fish and rubbed a sheet of paper over the surface of the fish to create the first gyotaku print. Considering how rough they looked, I don’t think [the traditional prints] were considered fine art the way Japanese woodblock prints or Shodo calligraphy were. These days, Japanese gyotaku artists work in color and call their work art gyotaku.
Flylords: How have you developed your style as a gyotaku artist?
Dwight: I fell in love with the black and white gyotaku pieces of old and have restricted myself to using the same sumi ink and handmade kozo paper used centuries ago. It keeps me focused and it also keeps my travel kit light as I only need ink, a roll of paper, and a brush. Over the years, though, only printing fish on its flattest side began to bore me. I wondered if it would be possible to print the same fish at different angles and perspectives to get a more dynamic and natural look. Now, I strive for this effect and find it gratifying when I recreate the image I saw in my head.
Flylords: What sets gyotaku apart as an art form?
Dwight: It’s a very accessible art form. Someone who is just starting out can get inexpensive ink and paper and experience the process. As simple as it is to turn a fish into an ink stamp, there is so much room for improvement and refinement. I encourage those that want to try gyotaku to focus on perfecting their process rather than trying to make an individual print perfect. Much like a perfect fly cast, it takes time and practice to achieve a perfect print.
For more about Dwight, his work, his partnerships, and his demos, visit his website.
Brian Heustis lives in Maui and runs his gyotaku art business, Maui Fish Printing, there. Originally from California and Maryland, Brian spent time working as a wind surfing instructor in Aruba before moving to Maui with his wife. After seeing a print in an art gallery, he tried his hand at gyotaku and the rest is history.
Flylords: When did you discover gyotaku?
Brian: I learned of gyotaku a decade after moving to Maui in 1992. I saw it in a small gallery in Paia, Maui. I didn’t know the artist’s work was gyotaku, I simply thought he painted fish. Then, one day, the lady working at the gallery told me how the art was actually made. “Take a dead fish, paint on it, put something over it, and rub,” she said. I was totally intrigued and couldn’t believe that was actually how it was done.
I had no formal training in art or fish printing. I just jumped right in and never looked back. [I learned through] trial and error. I simply started and adapted after each print to get what I wanted out of [the next one]. I printed as many fish as I could, and would go to the local Filipino market to buy whole fish just to print.
Flylords: What is your process for creating a gyotaku print?
Brian: I get a dead fish, paint on it, lay rice paper over it, and rub. The amount of paint you leave on the fish, the type of fish, the medium you use, and how hard you press all have big effects on the outcome.
Flylords: Do you feel a connection to the creatures you print?
Brian: By actually using the fish to make an impression, I feel like I’m picking up its soul on my rice paper. The connection is deep. I love simply looking at a fish’s little nuances—its eye, scale pattern, and fin locations. All fish are incredible and unique.
Flylords: What role does gyotaku play in conservation?
Brian: Needing a dead fish to make an original print at first seems counterproductive to helping maintain fisheries and sustainability. I can’t answer for all gyotaku artists, but my way of helping is threefold. First, no fish is wasted. Anglers consume the fish I print or local restaurants sell them. I have come up with a way to print fish right out of the ice chest, and use water-based acrylic paints that simply wash off the fish, which ensures the fish is not compromised. Second, if I print a fish that will not be eaten, I give it to our Aquarium or a local family. Third, I do prints for people who can’t get their fish to me. Over a decade ago I started scanning all my initial prints and finished pieces. This way, if a person caught and released a Striped Marlin in Cabo, I am able to do a custom print for them by getting a quick length estimate and some photos. Now, promoting the catch and release of fish anglers don’t consume is my main focus. It’s a real game-changer.
To learn more about Brian, his business, and his work, visit his website.