This guest post is by Stephen Di Cerbo, a natural science illustrator I know through the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators. Here, he describes the evolution of a relatively new art form from Japan called Gyotaku, or fish printing, and introduces us to its modern-day ambassador, Mr. Mineo Yamamoto. My first exposure to Gyotaku was through Stephen at a GNSI Conference. Subsequently, I discovered this beautiful book, Antarctic Fishes: Illustrated in the Gyotaku Method by Boshu Nagase. It’s out of print, but you can get your hands on a used copy, or just check out some of Stephen’s beautiful Gyotaku prints at his online portfolio and blog. Fish printing originated as a way for Japanese fishermen to document their prize catches, but as you'll see in this post, has evolved into a true artform. Enjoy!

Kansetsu-ho and the Ambassador of Gyotaku

Ichthyology collides with printmaking

Guest post by Stephen Di Cerbo

His name is Mr. Mineo Yamamoto. His friends in The Nature Printing Society have taken to affectionately calling him the “Ambassador of Gyotaku.”

Born October 16, 1943 in Central Tokyo, Japan, Mineo became hooked on the sport of fishing at the age of 30. His enthusiam for the sport and his artistic inclinations led him to maintain “diaries” of his fishing exploits, including sketches of whatever fish he might catch – naturalist’s journals.

One day, while visiting a fishing tackle store, he espied a display of traditional Gyotaku, a fisherman’s record of catch, printed with Sumi ink on Washi, a Japanese handmade paper. It was a print created with the direct method of Gyotaku, known as Chokusetsu-ho. This method harkens to the origins of Gyotaku in Japan, a parallel evolution to Western fish taxidermy. The direct method of fish printing is also used in children’s craft projects, with which you might be familiar.

Mineo began to print, then clean, cook and eat his catch, using this Gyotaku method. For some time, he refined his methodology, celebrating his excitement about his finned conquests by recording their morphology in ink and, with that, the memory of each fishing adventure.

Several years later, he happened upon a demonstration of Kansetsu-ho fish printing at a boat show. He stayed at the demonstration table for three hours, intrigued by the beauty of color and detail that could be attained with the Indirect method of Gyotaku.

Struck by Mineo’s obvious intense interest in the printing method, one of the artists asked him if he would like to study the method as a member of the Sea Horse Gyotaku Club. Under the tutelage of Mr. Ryuzaburo Takao, Mineo studied Kansetsu-ho, or the Indirect method, for the next seven years. At the end of this apprenticeship, he was awarded a diploma and given his Artist’s name, - Ryu, which means dragon (sea horse). He then became a teacher at the Sea Horse club for three years. At the age of 40, he established his own Gyotaku club which he named ‘The International Fish Print Studio.”

Now, Indirect Gyotaku is no third grade fish slapping ink fest. After some careful cleaning and preparation, the fish is supported and then used as a relief printing plate. In the traditional method of Kansetsu-ho, Washi (handmade paper) is moistened, then carefully and tightly adhered to the fish. Water based inks are then delicately applied to the paper in multiple thinly applied layers of color, using silk wrapped balls of cotton batting, called tampos. The fish beneath the paper provides the textures of the scales, fin rays and minute features of the fish to the print. When completed, the image is delicately detailed and either intensely or subtly colored. But, after hours of repetitious application of inks, the whole effort can wind up in the hands of fate.

Reversing the rice paste and removing the washi (and the finished image) from the scaly printing plate is a very delicate matter and can sometimes end in ruin. Re-activating the water based inks or tearing the paper after such a huge investment of time and mental concentration can be a humbling experience. Out of such defeats, however, advancements in art technique are often born.

While Mineo was printing with the Sea Horse Club, the technique had moved to using oil based inks on the Washi. This was an improvement to the method by eliminating the tenuous nature of the water based inks. Years later, when some students of Mineo’s had difficultly in removing the washi from the fish intact, Mineo advanced to using fabric as a support substrate for the prints. Chinese silk or more affordable polyester has proven to be a stronger and more versatile option to Washi. The delicate nature of the fabric lends itself to the ethereal feeling of the finished work.

The silk innovation was not without consequences, though. Mineo’s developing Kansetsu-ho process of building the fish image with multiple layers of thinly applied color required the use of quick drying inks of vibrant hues. The oil based inks that were being used at that time may have worked with paper, but not so well with the silk, Mineo needed inks that were less oily and tacky, quicker to dry, and more archival in nature. He searched for an adequate product available commercially, but nothing came close.

What would a dedicated and driven creative innovator do? Mineo educated himself in the process of making his own oil colors from pigments. He got the control he needed over the inks and their behavior, and now produces and markets to his students his own brand of Gyotaku inks, which are specifically tuned for the process he teaches.

And teach he does. Several times a year he travels to the US and Canada to run Gyotaku workshops. Quandra Island in British Columbia, Santa Barbara, California; Sarasota, Florida; Bar Harbor, Maine, and Charleston, Oregon are just few of the Western locations Mineo has traveled to and spread his knowledge and love of Japanese fish printing. Even New Zealand has received the ambassador of Gyotkau.

In the East, along with the classes he leads in Japan and his International Fish Print studio club sessions, he has instructed over 2,000 people in China. Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjing, Uigle have all been enriched by Mineo’s cultural art exchange. For the last few years, Mineo has hosted Gyotaku printmakers to travel to Japan and work with him, learning and discovering advanced methodology in Kansetsu-ho printing. The visiting students are also immersed in the fish culture of Japan, and the history of Gyotaku and art of paper making.

Through approximately 40 years, even as Mineo has worked as an innovator in this rapidly evolving art form, he managed to carry forward the traditions and spirit of Gyotaku. One such approach that continues to be seen in his work is the composition within the Gyotaku print that includes the printing of non- fish objects relative to the ichthyologic subject of the piece.

A Japanese Char might be depicted with a background of plants from the nearby stream bank, an ocean fish with aquatic vegetation, or a predator fish shown with images of one of its natural prey species. Sometimes the backgrounds in a series of prints are developed to be relative to the others of the series, such as representation of the seasons of the year, or the varied environments surrounding the waters from whence the fish come. Occasionally a group of fish may be printed to appear to be in a fisherman’s creel, or lying on a bank in cool, dark green ferns, next to a fly rod.

A more recent approach to developing a background for a Kansetsu-ho print involves wet mounting the silk substrate of the print to a separate piece of Washi that has been created with free-form colors, patterns and designs. The combination of absolute realism from the fish print itself and the loosely flowing movement of the abstracted hand made paper yields a unique and perplexing juxtaposition of two worlds. The completed piece first centers on the fish as a subject, but injects impact, movement, or some trigger to an emotional state of mind. The end results can be quite stunning.

For several decades, Mineo has witnessed…., no, been a part of, the exciting and creative evolution of a relatively new printmaking method which began as a simple documentation of a sportsman’s trophy catch, and is now an exquisite expression of the beauty of nature. While he has been a constant force of change within the Gyotaku arena, and a powerful vector of the dissemination of this art form to lands across the globe, he feels that, in Japan at least, Gyotaku is not yet accepted as a fine art form. Making a living there exclusively from the sale of art pieces would represent a challenge for any artist at this point in time. But for Mineo, success is not always measured in the sale of goods. He is passionately dedicated to sharing his knowledge, innovation and enthusiasm for fish printing with as many people in as many places as time may possibly allow. He does so with a tirelessly upbeat and engaging personality and zest for life that affects all who meet him. Mineo is truly the ambassador of Gyotaku.

Mineo Ryuka Yamamoto lives in Higashimatsuyama city , located north of Tokyo, in Saitama prefecture. His work can be seen at his website. He often teaches Kansetsu-ho Gyotaku workshops in the U.S. in affiliation with the Nature Printing Society, and more information about Gyotaku and nature printing can be obtained at their website and on their email listserve.

Stephen Di Cerbo is a Natural Science Illustrator and fine artist, Ichthyographer, and printmaker. He lives in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, in North Hudson, and some examples of his illustrations can be seen on his online portfolio. He also maintains a blog about his work and about Gyotaku.