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.  🙂