How to rub a fish

One of the most unlikely titles for a post is actually the title of a booklet written by Eleanor Morgan, currently artist in residence at the Grant Museum of Zoology, part of University College London (my alma mater).

how to rub a fish

I attended a workshop run by Eleanor last night on the art of fish rubbing, or gyotaku as it is known in Japanese. As obscure as it sounds, the workshop was ludicrously popular (I only managed to get a place – or plaice!) because someone cancelled.

I became interested in gyotaku a few years ago, when I entered a competition to win a trip to Japan by submitting a blog about why I wanted to go there – gyotaku was one of the reasons. The technique originated in the early 19th century so that fishermen could record the size of their catch in the days before photography.

I thought I would have to go to Japan to witness this esoteric technique, but in fact I had a go at the Slow Fish stand at the Salone del Gusto in Turin last year. Because Slow Fish is all about sustainability, they had made flexible moulds from real fish and were offering the public the chance to print one on a tote bag. As you can see, my attempt was not entirely successful – though that’s probably more about my technique than the rubber fish!

gyotaku slow fish

Last night we used real fish – and printed with squid ink, so the fish could be eaten afterwards! 🙂

Essentially you rub the ink onto the fish and then place the paper on top, rubbing it against the surface to pick up the detail. It works better with scaly fish that have some texture, rather than smooth fish such as mackerel. The paper also needs to be thin but strong – Japanese paper is ideal because the longer fibres make it stronger.

gyotaku demonstration
Gyotaku demonstration

After the demonstration we had a go ourselves, first using tissue paper and then Japanese paper.

Small ladyfish printed on tissue paper
Dover sole on tissue paper
Dover sole on Japanese paper

Then Eleanor demonstrated a slightly different method for squid and octopus, placing the inked-up fish down on the paper rather than vice versa. And Sam Curtis from the Centre for Innovative and Radical Fishmongery (yes, really!) showed us how to gut an octopus.

Here’s my first attempt at printing a squid using the fish down method:


Previously I’d applied the ink with a dauber (a ball of stuffed muslin), but this time I use a brush, and I really like the visual brush strokes that show on the smooth skin of the squid – they seem to add a sense of movement.

I re-inked the squid and tried a print with the fish-up method (putting Japanese paper on top of the squid). The paper is so thin that you can see the squid beautifully through it:

Inked up squid underneath Japanese paper
Squid print on Japanese paper

Then I took another print on tissue paper without re-inking the squid. This gave a fainter, more ghostly print:

Second squid print on tissue paper

All in all, a fantastically fun evening, although my dining room now smells very fishy, due to the squid ink!

Luckily, Brixton is not short of fishmongers, so future experimentation is on the cards.  🙂

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Flextiles uses shibori, ecoprinting and felting to create original, one-off upcycled pieces. Extending the life of a garment by an extra nine months reduces its environmental impact by 20-30%.

12 thoughts on “How to rub a fish”

    1. It was great fun Elizabeth! I’m not sure what I’ll do with them yet – wait until the fishy smell dies down first. 😉 Eleanor talked about how they can be coloured, but I quite like the monochrome effect, so they would probably look good framed and shown as a group.

  1. There’s no end to the variety of nights out to be had in this great city of ours Kim! Your squid print is beautiful. You could do a series and offer them to upmarket fish restaurants. Bizarrely thee night you were printing fish, I bought myself some fish & chips on the way home from work. 😋

  2. That looks like loads of fun, even though it sounds very stinky. Your prints turned out great and I especially like the squid prints. I look forward to seeing further experiments!

  3. Great post Thankyou – and very helpful tip to try printing squiddy things by reversing the process and placing fish on top. I recently tried gyotaku for the first time and have bought some squid ink to try more – I found it such a refreshing alternative to lino printing as it’s so satisfyingly immediate. I wanted to ask – do your squid ink prints still smell pongy? If not how long did it take for the fishiness to wear off? Eagerly awaiting my fisherman neighbour providing me with a few ‘volunteers’ that have wandered into his lobster pots. Have you tried printing onto cloth? Or using other inks? I’m also planning to try making indigo ink but squid ink means we can eat the fish…

    1. Hi Pam,

      I’m glad to report that the fishy smell has disappeared. 🙂 Tricky to say how long it took, as I didn’t inspect the prints every day, but it was probably a couple of weeks or so.

      I haven’t yet tried printing on cloth, as I’m not sure about fastness – I guess some standard print binder would do if I ironed it or put it in a heat press afterwards.

      I have had another go at printing on paper with drawing inks, lino printing inks and acrylics. The drawing inks were too thin; lino inks were better, and acrylics were best. The bigger problem I had was finding suitable paper – it needs to be thin enough to mould over the fish but tough enough not to tear!

      Good luck with your gyotaku – let me know how you get on!


      1. Thankyou Kim good to know the fishy smell isn’t going to hang around my studio forever! When I tried gyotaku recently with a group of other artists we tried tattoo ink (good) alcohol ink ( evaporated too fast and we just had a nice black fish) & drawing ink (reasonable results by brushing on then blotting off but as you say thin). I’ll let you know how I get on and thanks again for the post.

  4. I like this blog, but it makes me very sad to see dead fishes as material – every living being deserves respect

    1. Hi there,

      Sorry you feel that way. All I can say is that the fish were not specifically killed for the workshop – they were bought from a fish market. And because we used squid ink for printing the fish were taken home afterwards and eaten, so nothing was wasted.

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