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Nature Art: Fish Printing by the Chesapeake Bay - Explore

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Nature Art: Fish Printing by the Chesapeake Bay


Last week I collaborated with a sixth grade science teacher, Traci Fairbairn, to bring art into her students' study of the Chesapeake Bay. For drama, I began by printing an eight-pound carp. Though not Bay natives, carp print well because they have large scales that catch ink. They are also beautiful fish, especially the golden kind.


If you've tried fish printing, or gyotaku, you know how much fun it is. And how easy--a fish, some Speedball ink, a piece of copy paper, and you've got a piece of art. Japanese fishermen invented the art of printing fish to document their catch in the days before photography. After they printed their fish with sumi ink, they washed and ate it. Today, using the technique of direct printing, I apply a thin coat of ink directly to the fish using my fingers. I plug the gills with paper towel so they won't leak fluid. When the fish is entirely covered with ink, I wipe off my hands, prop up the fins and tail, and lay a clean sheet of white paper on top of the inked fish. I gently rub the fish, taking care to avoid the eye and the spines in the fins. When the print is ready to be pulled off of the fish, the pattern of the scales and the shape of the body and fins show through the paper:


I chose the fish at a local Asian market, and I was able to find rockfish and spot from the Bay. Spot are fun to use because they have a great lateral line that prints clearly. I was secretly hoping to find shad, too, another fish that has recently returned to the Bay, and one that the students raise from eggs in the spring. But shad won't return to the Bay until April. These are large mouth bass:


I filled out the fish order with butterfish and squid. The butterfish have tiny scales, but they are flat-bodied and small, a tough little fish for student printing.

Squid were amazingly resilient and made great prints even after some boys swung them around by their tentacles when my back was turned. Because of the lively boys, I now use a rubber flounder in place of a real one. Flounder make fascinating prints because both eyes print on the top side of the fish. But one afternoon one flounder had been printed once too often...and the guts flew!


This year, we printed on rice paper and matted the prints for a student art show.

For more about fish printing and nature printing in general, check out these two books: "Nature Printing" by Laura Bethmann, and "Natural Impressions" by Carolyn Dahl. For videos on the technique from a Japanese master printer, see Mineo Yamamoto's work at this link.

-- Sue Fierston

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