This weekend (August 25-26, 2007), my Mom (Betty) & I attended a gyotaku or "fish printing" seminar, with Mineo Ryuka Yamamoto, in Campbell River, British Columbia. Yamamoto-sensei uses the "indirect" method of fish printing: the ink is applied to a fine polyester or silk cloth, which is laid over the object being printed, so that the texture comes through the cloth and shows up as the ink is deposited on the high points of the subject but not on the low points (just like relief printing!). The result is a beautifully detailed, extremely fine print of the fish (or just about anything else).
The tradition of gyotaku apparently began when fishermen were competing to see who had the largest catch. Fishermen from far away couldn't get their catch to the competition fast enough before their catch began to shrink from dessication. Someone decided to make a print of their fish and send that - all that was needed for proof was the "fork length", from tip of the snout to the fork of the tail. One of the oldest surviving fish prints, from the mid-nineteenth century, is on exhibition in Japan. Yamamoto-sensei has been printing for about 35 years, and has printed many creatures from fish to crustaceans & molluscs, to insects, reptiles & mammals (including humans)! Details of his work can be found on his website (in Japanese), and information about upcoming North American workshops at International Fish Print Studio.
On our first day, we printed a dungeness crab, and the second day, students printed a coho salmon. In this first part, I shall overview the process for the crab. This is merely an overview, and by no means meant to replace Yamamoto-sensei's detailed instruction. If you are interested in this process, I highly recommend
contacting Yamamoto-sensei to arrange attendance at one of his workshops. He is a wonderful teacher; very patient, with a gentle sense of humour, and he is very generous with his assistance and knowledge.
Yamamoto-sensei took us through all the steps required to produce an indirect-printed image. First the (marine!) subject must be cleaned thoroughly. Set up of the subject is the next, and in some respects, the most time-consuming part. Yamamoto-sensei says that he can spend up to 40% of the overall time on set up alone. With the crab, you can arrange the legs any way you'd like, but you need to use a very lightweight "paper clay" to set them up so that everything is as level with the back of the carapace as you can get it. Whatever is below "level" will not be printed.
The inks are specially formulated oil-based inks that Yamamoto-sensei has developed for this indirect method fish-printing (although he also applies them in a similar manner for direct printing when he wishes to print onto heavier cloth, such as a cotton t-shirt). You must make a tampo, a silk-covered cotton ball (I'll go over making them in a later post), in order to gently dab thin layers of ink onto the material over your subject. Very delicate work is done with a tiny tampo made on a toothpick. Sometimes you need to mask your material from the ink with either a mylar template, or a piece of cut or torn blotting paper, so that the ink doesn't bleed beyond where you wish it to appear.
The ink is applied from lightest to darkest, in very thin layers. You have to gently tamp the ink repeatedly in one spot in order to get sufficient build-up, but it's easy to go too far, or to blob on too much ink at any time. Patience is definitely the order of the day for this method!
Once the inking is complete, gently remove the fabric from the subject.
Once the print has been removed, the ink needs to be heat-set, so the piece is ironed, face down, between two sheets of craft paper. Once fixed, the eyes and feelers can be painted on. Again, the print has to be heat fixed. The piece should be washed to remove any "juicy" stains from the subject. If you wish, you can mount your image onto a decorative paper mount.
Next, the piece is carefully laid onto the glued mounting paper.
Finally, air bubbles are gently brushed away from the centre outwards, using a very soft, wide brush.
Once the piece has dried overnight, the mounting paper can be gently released from the mounting board with the fabric still attached to the paper. This can then be mounted and framed as desired.
As with any other work of art, the piece is signed, and in this case, sealed with a chop.
As with any other printmaking method, there are many challenges with this one. We were using cooked crabs, so the legs had fallen off of many of our subjects. While that wasn't such an enormous problem for those who chose to print the back of the carapace of the crab, I really wanted to print the under parts, because the textures are so very interesting. I had to crazy glue the legs of my crab back in place, which didn't work very well. I thought that the glue had set completely, but it hadn't, so the crazy glue also bonded to my fabric. I now have lovely rents around the points where I'd had to reattach the legs, but with the mounting paper, the damage is not as severe. Definitely wait for all crazy glue to dry!!!!
Inking requires much patience, especially with such a detailed, fiddly subject as a crab with all of its legs at different angles & levels to the main carapace. Getting the correct amount of ink on the tampo and then getting it onto the fabric carefully without bleeding is also a challenge. And finally, when you do heat-set the inks, they seem to ooze a bit and loose crispness. Perhaps if we let them dry a little first? Or maybe the heat was too high? And the final challenge for me was of a physical nature: the oil-based inks made be very nauseous by the end of the day, so I was not able to print the salmon on the next day. This method is obviously something that would take years of practice to refine, as demonstrated by Yamamoto-sensei's facility and skill with this technique.
(samples of Yamamoto-sensei's work in background, and on his t-shirt!)