Summer 2006: Gyotaku: Process of Fish Printing

Gyotaku: Crossing cultures and boundaries
The work of Marcelo Balzaretti and the prints of Mineo Ryuka Yamamoto
by Jennifer Anderson

The process of fish printing or Gyotaku is a traditional Japanese art form. The process documents the size and surface of a fish by making a print of it. It is interesting to compare two artists, one from Japan, and the other from Mexico who are creating fish prints for different artistic reasons and with different end products.

 Gyotaku print by Mineo Ryuka Yamamoto

     Mineo Ryuka Yamamoto is considered a master nature printer and travels from his home in Japan around the world teaching his process and making gyotaku prints. Mineo uses an indirect method of printing where he first drapes a piece of paper or fabric over the fish, bird, or animal to be printed and then applies color with a special tool. Mineo makes the tampo himself, carefully wrapping pure cotton in the finest silk and securing it with a rubber band. He uses the tampo to gently apply an oil-based paint to the paper or fabric applying color and capturing the surface texture of scale, hair, or feathers. Working in layers, Mineo first applies a light base color and then more colors to capture as accurately as possible the coloring and markings of each creature he is printing.

     In his travels Mineo, has printed a large variety of fish and other aquatic creatures, often working with scientists and other nature conservation groups. But his printing is not limited to sea life; he has even printed a tiger and a horse. Mineo prints are intended to be an exact replica of the animal he is printing as he prints it scale-by-scale or hair-by-hair. The final prints are beautiful items reflecting Mineo’s skill and patience as a printer and the nature of the animal itself. He often prints on fabrics, generally polyester, but also prints on washi. For a recent workshop in gyotaku at Hiromi Paper, Mineo made small gyotaku prints on the sheets of a sample book. He found Mino Gami (HM-3) to be very receptive to his process, having a nice balance of thinness and wet strength. He also got good results with Tengucho (HM-1) and Kozo White (HM-2).

     Marcelo Balzaretti was attracted to gyotaku because of this reproductive and photographic-like quality. Marcelo lives and works in Mexico and began working in printmaking after getting a BFA from the National School of Visual Arts of the National Autonomous University of Mexico where he studied woodcut, engraving and etching.

      He discovered gyotaku while creating a series of work printed directly from three-dimensional objects such a sheep head, a skull and his own body. Work he began after researching the Shroud of Turin which he refers to as being “simultaneously a monoprint, relic and icon that served as a departure-point image for the occidental visual culture”. Marcelo is interested in how a print of an object can be transitory, almost photographic in some areas with poor detail like an inkblot or drawing in other areas. His research led him to the book “Gyotaku: The Japanese Art of Fishprinting” by Yoshio Hiyama which led him in turn to Hiromi Paper.

     Although trained as a printmaker, Marcelo often does not stop with the finished print but works with prints as a means to develop animations. He combines the basic, if not primitive process of gyotaku with contemporary video technology, using prints as the cells of an animated sequence. Shown on an LCD screen on the gallery wall his fish print animations, flicker and move like a real fish moving through water.

     Marcelo works with gyotaku in a direct manner applying ink to the fish or three-dimensional object he is working with and then printing it onto paper by a direct means, as well as the indirect manner than Mineo uses. He uses the process to replicate physical aspects of the world as well as to portray social, political, and individual issues as well. In his Gyotaku series, Marcelo says economical and social issues underlie the decorative images. Simple allegories like “big fish eats small fish” reflect diminishing, global market and social organization. In his own words Marcelo says “In the aim to portray social and economic issues a taste of the long abandoned Mexican Printmaking Tradition remains, I don’t ignore that a coincidence in the theme may be found, but in my work there are no goods nor bads, there are no correct policies or utopias. Refusing anecdotic I just present the thing raw as it is, there are many different species in the ocean, big, small, some times I order them in a way they produce meaning, in others I leave the public to compare them and arrive to their own conclusions.”

     Like Mineo, Marcelo has also experimented with a variety of washi for his prints. He also agrees the best papers for gyotaku printing are thin with a good wet strength, meaning they won’t easily tear when dampened. Marcelo commented on how papers like Tengucho work very well and create an image because of their thinness that seems immaterial and floating. He has also experimented with heavier and thicker papers, such as Kozo-shi Thick (MM-7), Yamada Hanga (YH-1) and Yukyu-shi Medium (HM-56) for larger prints, and to back prints on thinner papers producing larger compositions.