Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Elephant No. 93: Gyotaku

I came across this printmaking method a few weeks ago while researching gelatin printing, and tucked it away in the back of my mind to try one day. 

Gyotaku is a Japanese printmaking technique whose name is derived from the words gyo (fish) and taku (rubbing). Dating from the middle of the nineteenth century, it was originally used by fishermen to record their catches.

Traditional gyotaku involves placing your fresh fish, crustacean or mollusk on a wooden bench, and brushing on sumi ink. A piece of fabric or paper is then laid over the inked creature, and the paper or fabric is rubbed until there is a clear image of the fish on the other side.

Cichlid 3 by Scott Maruna.
Traditional gyotaku print on fabric.
Source: http://www.freewebs.com/swampgasbooks/apps/photos/

Among today's fishermen, gyotaku is often done with acrylic paint rather than ink. Gyotaku is also a form of artistic expression in both Japan and Western countries, under the general heading of "nature printing". It is sometimes even a children's activity, with rubber fish usually substituted for real ones. There is a good tutorial by an American fisherman here, and an online search actually turns up a number of established gyotaku artists, along with a few videos.

Gyotaku Series: Pollock II by Jean Kigel
Source: http://www.jeankigel.com/sea%20studio%20tenants%20harbor%20

To be honest, when I happened upon this technique, my first thought was "Why would you want to do this?" It made little sense to me that anyone would take the time to paint a fish in order to record a catch. When I began looking at the kinds of images people produce, however, I began wishing I had a spare fish around to print with.

But I don't fish, and rarely come home with an entire fish from the grocery store, so a printed elephant it is—well, a printed plastic elephant, since I obviously can't print a real elephant. I would dearly love to see a gyotaku print of an actual elephant, but I'll have to leave that to someone else.

It was surprisingly hard to come up with an elephant that wasn't really hard plastic, but I did find this small one that's fairly realistic, textured, and made of a sort of rubbery plastic.

My original thought was that, since I was using a small plastic elephant rather than a real fish, I should at least use traditional rice paper. My reasoning was that rice paper is somewhat soft and flexible, meaning that it should be easy to mould to my elephant, while also picking up the texture.

Wrong. Rice paper is not nearly as soft and flexible as I thought it was and, when you're working with a plastic elephant rather than a mushy fish or smooth-shelled crustacean, you need paper with a bit of give. I tried several kinds of paper before settling on facial tissue.

I know it sounds hopelessly downmarket, but facial tissue actually worked really well. I used a three-ply tissue, which was able to hold together while still allowing me to press it into the elephant rather nicely.

Instead of ink, I chose to use acrylic paints, because I wanted to use colour, and I thought they might pick up the texture of the elephant nicely. This turned out to be a good choice. The only caveat is that the paint should be liquid when you press the tissue into it. If it isn't, the tissue sticks to the paint and the elephant, and tears when you try to lift it away, no matter how gentle you are.

For the first elephant, I tried a mixture of blue and purple, painted loosely over the surface of the elephant.

The resulting print picked up the elephant's texture quite well, and even embossed texture into the facial tissue. Obviously it's very hard to get the tissue into all areas, but as long as you lay the tissue down and press gently, you'll get a pretty good print. I also found it helpful to hold a finger on the belly area of the elephant with my left hand while pressing the rest of the elephant with my right, to keep things from sliding around.

I was pleased with the first one, so I thought I'd try a couple more.

For the final print, in a nod to sumi-e, I decided to try black paint.

These little prints won't last in archival terms, but I really like the way they turned out. And, fair warning: next time I'm in an Asian restaurant, I might just be eyeing that little octopus on your plate for a bit of real gyotaku.

Elephant Lore of the Day
The Japanese kanji character for elephant (zou) looks like an abstract elephant. According to one site, the elephant's head and ear are represented by the double square near the top. The line above the square signifies the elephant's trunk. The bottom part evokes the legs and tail, in the vertical lines sticking out. The sketch below makes it a little more clear, and the series of boxes at the top show you how to draw the character.

Source: http://japanese.about.com/library/blkow23.htm

To hear what the word for elephant sounds like in Japanese, click here and go to the last item on the list.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation

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