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Discovering the ancient Japanese art of Gyotaku “fish printing”… in Wales

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By Kate Dewmartin.   

Gyotaku literally means “fish rubbing” and is a Japanese practice from the mid 1800s that enabled fishermen to record their catch. It developed into an art form in its own right; a most unusual way to capture the beauty of the natural world.

I've been intrigued by Deborah Withey’s Gyotaku Printing courses since I first clapped eyes on them, partly because her courses are in nearby St. David’s,  Pembrokeshire, but also because it’s, well, fish printing. I admire the art form, but have never done any kind of print-making before; why not start with fish?

Deborah has agreed to be a guest tutor at the upcoming Christmas Craft Workshop Taster event in Pembrokeshire I am helping to organise, so it's time to travel up the coast to her Cheese and Pickles Studio to discuss ideas and find out more about this ancient but little-known medium.

Just before the workshop there is panic as Storm Brian means all the fish have ‘gone to ground’. Hm. And the local shop has a new policy of cutting fish heads off! Luckily Deborah has the foresight to drive to Haverfordwest early and by the time I arrive there are two handsome looking Bream on the draining board.

Deborah normally uses plaice or sole for her print making workshops, but these well rounded plump-figured bream work perfectly. They have been freshly washed and pat-dried and there is no smell. We are encouraged to be mindful of the intricacy of the scales, gills and fins as part of the process and it's truly absorbing to examine the details of these often overlooked creatures of the sea. Not on a dinner plate, but as mono print originals. An opportunity to observe and document the sublime beauty of nature.

 

The actual Gyotaku process is remarkably simple; we cover rollers in printing ink using rolling boards, lightly cover the fish with ink, strategically place our bursts of colour and then carefully place the bamboo paper or fabric over the whole thing to capture the print, a mirror image of our beautiful bream.

Watching Deborah at work it is clear that practice makes perfect. The effects can never be replicated and each print is unique.

The ink is non-toxic so these fishes can still be washed and prepared into a tasty supper. I was very happy with the several prints I took home, this beautiful Bream will be honoured on my wall for years to come.


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