What is Gyotaku Fish Printing?


This month we entered the world of gyotaku fish printing. Historically, Japanese fishermen documented catches by applying paint to a fish’s body, placing paper on top of the fish, and printing the fish to create a printed image of it. Today, artists around the world elevate this printing method to fine art, remembering once-in-a-lifetime captures as masterpieces. Experienced guillotine artists, Dwight Hwang and Brian Huestis, explained to us in the printing process, the role of the guillotine in conservation purposes and how they have developed their individual printing styles.

Photo: John Troxell

Dwight Hwang is a gyotak artist currently based in Southern California. After graduating in animated film and live action, Dwight spent seven years living and working as an artist in Tokyo. Along the way he discovered the guillotine at his local grocery store.

Flylords: When and how did you first learn about gyotaku?

Dwight: I first saw the gyotaku during my many years in Japan at a grocery store in Tokyo. I was so in love with it that I took pictures and told it to my Japanese friends. I had no one to teach me, so I spent hours on Japanese YouTube learning the basics. After that, it took a lot of trial and error to finally get an image that looked like a fish instead of a black spot on the paper.

Photo courtesy of Dwight Hwang

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 document his capture in writing. One day, instead of writing down the size of the fish, the recorder coated the fish with ink and rubbed a sheet of paper over the surface of the fish to create the first gyotaku print. Considering how tough they looked, I do not think [the traditional prints] were considered fine art such as Japanese prints of wood blocks or Shodo calligraphy. These days, Japanese gyotaku artists work with color and call their work gyotaku art.

Flylords: How did you develop your style as a gyotaku artist?

Dwight: I fell in love with old pieces of black and white gyotaku and limited myself to using the same handmade sumi paint and handmade kozo paper used centuries ago. It keeps me focused and also keeps my travel kit light as I only need paint, a scroll of paper and a brush. However, over the years, just pressing the fish to its flatter side started to bother me. I wondered if it would be possible to print the same fish at different angles and angles to get a more dynamic and natural look. Now, I try for this effect and it feels fun when I recreate the image I saw in my head.

Photo Credit: John Troxell

Flylords: What sets the gyotak apart as an art form?

Dwight: It is a very accessible art form. Someone who has just started can get cheap ink and paper and experience the process. As simple as turning a fish into an ink seal, there is so much room for improvement and perfection. I encourage those who want to try gyotaku to focus on perfecting their process instead of trying to make a perfect individual print. Like a perfect fly mold, it takes time and practice to achieve a perfect print.

Photo courtesy of Dwight Hwang

For more about Dwight, his work, partnerships and demonstrations, visit his website.

Photo courtesy of Brian Huestis

Brian Huestis lives in Maui and runs his gyotaku art business, Maui Fish Printing, there. Originally from California and Maryland, Brian spent time working as an air 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 the gyotak?

Photo courtesy of Brian Huestis

Brian: I learned about gyotaku a decade after I moved to Maui in 1992. I saw it in a small gallery in Paia, Maui. I did not know that the artist’s work was bloody, I just thought he was painting fish. Then, one day, the lady who worked in the gallery showed me how the art was actually made. “Take a dead fish, smear it on it, put something on it and rub it,” she said. I was completely intrigued and could not believe that this was actually done.

I had no formal training in art or fish printing. I just jumped inside and never looked back. [I learned through] trial and error. I just started and adjusted after each print to get what I wanted [the next one]. I pressed as many fish as I could and went to the local Philippine market to buy whole fish just to print.

Photo courtesy of Brian Huestis

Flylords: What is your process for creating a gyotaku print?

Brian: I take a dead fish, smear it on it, lay rice paper on it and rub it. The amount of ink you leave on the fish, the type of fish, the medium you use and how hard you press, all have big effects on the result.

Photo courtesy of Brian Huestis

Flylords: Do you feel a connection to the creatures you print?

Brian: By actually using the fish to impress, I feel like I am taking his soul to my rice paper. The connection is deep. I just like to look at the small nuances of a fish – the eye, the pattern of the scales and the location of the feather. All fish are incredible and unique.

Photo courtesy of Brian Huestis

Flylords: What role does the guillotine play in conservation?

Brian: Having a dead fish to make an original print at first seems counterproductive to help maintain fishing and durability. I can not answer for all the bloodthirsty artists, but my way of helping is threefold. First, no fish is wasted. Fishermen consume the fish I print or local restaurants sell them. I have found a way to print the fish right out of the ice chest and use water-based acrylic paints that simply wash the fish, which ensures the fish is not endangered. Second, if I print an inedible fish, I give it to our Aquarium or a local family. Third, I do prints for people who can not get their fish to me. Over a decade ago I started scanning all my initial prints and finished parts. That way, if a person caught and released a striped Marlin in Cabo, I’m able to do a custom print for them by getting a quick length estimate and some photos. Now, promoting the capture and release of fish fishermen not consumption is my main focus. It’s a real change of game.

Photo courtesy of Brian Huestis

To learn more about Brian, his business and work, visit his website.

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