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Jeanette Jobson:
Gyotaku/Japanese Fish Prints

Jeanette Jobson: Gyotaku/Japanese Fish Prints
Jeanette Jobson:
Gyotaku/Japanese Fish Prints

City: Flatrock
NLAC Program Funded Under:
Professional Project Grants Program
Amount Funded: $2,700

Visual artist Jeanette Jobson has created a series of prints exploring the traditional Japanese technique of “gyotaku” or fish printing, using fish found in the waters of Newfoundland and Labrador. On April 16 she will conduct a day-long workshop in the technique at the Anna Templeton Centre in St. John’s.

Gyotaku Workshop: learn the Japanese technique
of fish printing with Jeanette Jobson

Date: Saturday, April 16, 2011
Time: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Venue: Anna Templeton Centre
Cost: $65
Contact: Jeanette Jobson
Phone: 709-746-9968

About Jeanette Jobson...

Red Fish

Jeanette Jobson is a visual artist based in Flatrock. She was born in Nova Scotia in 1954, grew up in Newfoundland and Labrador, and lived in Ireland and the United Kingdom for fourteen years, before returning to the province in 1988.

For thirty years, she has explored the world of people and animals through portraiture in a variety of mediums, with her work evolving over time into a current mix of representational and impressionist techniques.

In 2010 she embarked on a year-long project to develop a body of work in the traditional Japanese technique of gyotaku, or fish printing, using fish found in the waters of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Q and A with Jeanette Jobson...

NLAC: What is gyotaku? Is it literally making prints using real fish? Sounds stinky and slimy - is it?

JJ: Gyotaku (gee-oh-TAH-koo) is an old Japanese technique originally used to record fishermen’s catches. Simplistically, it is using a fish for relief printing. A real fish is prepared for printing and this stage can take the longest time. The prepared fish is coated with printmaking ink, leaving the eye uncoated. Thin Japanese paper is pressed onto the body of the fish and a mirror image is revealed when the paper is pulled off the fish. The eye is recreated, using ink or watercolour and the image can be complete at that stage or additional colour may be added.

Everyone does think it’s stinky and slimy and it has its moments. However, fresh fish has very little odour and the only time you will find a smell is when the fish has been used for several days in a row and starts to deteriorate. The paper that it’s printed on can retain a faint scent of the sea when wet, depending on the fish and how well prepared the fish was, but the smell is non-existent when the paper is dry.

As for slimy, yes, fish do have a mucus covering that must be removed before printing can take place. Some fish have a more pronounced layer than others. It’s the fish’s protection against disease as well as helping water move more efficiently over its body. To remove it we use a soft scrubbing brush, salt, and running water. Rubber gloves help...

NLAC: How familiar were you with this technique when you started this project?

JJ: The whole process of learning about gyotaku started after I posted a drawing of a fish eye on my blog. The completion of the eye in gyotaku is an important part of the process, so a friend saw the drawing and suggested I might like to check out a gyotaku link. Once I saw the technique, I was fascinated and started researching more about the technique and artists who produce it. That was about two years ago.

Before starting the Gyotaku Project, I had a good base knowledge of the technique through producing small pieces and providing a workshop in the technique previously. But I did not have a lot of hands-on experience using traditional materials, nor had I accessed a broader range of species to print from. Because I was learning as I went, there was a degree of trial and error involved.

My learning curve was on several levels. Handling fish wasn’t something I was very familiar with, so learning the best methods of cleaning and prepping different fish for printing came as I found new fish to use. I learned that some fish have very sharp spines and teeth...

The Japanese papers that I accessed were a new experience and I would not be without them now. Understanding how each paper works in the printing process, and how they react to other media, gave successes and failures. I learned how to save mistakes by incorporating them into new pieces, or using them as backgrounds where they would show through as shadows.

I was already familiar with printmaking inks, but mostly water-based ones. Using water soluble oil-based inks worked well in the gyotaku process, and I switched between both for prints.

Lumpfish (Ruby)
Lumpfish (Ruby)

Ruby (print)
Ruby (print)

NLAC: What kinds of fish did you end up using and which were your favorites?

JJ: I used as many species of fish that I could access including capelin, smelt, trout, fresh and dried cod, salmon, herring, mackerel, ocean perch, ocean pout, winter and yellowtail flatfish, starfish, shrimp, lobster, crab, lumpfish, even a sculpin. I also used replica bluegill and skate for printing.

For ease of printing, the flatfish and ocean perch were the easiest, the flatfish, being flat of course, didn’t cause problems in molding the paper around the form. The ocean perch has a distinct scale pattern and gill formation so it gives a strong print and either of these fish are good for beginners to try.

Of them all, I became most fond of the lumpsucker – I even nicknamed her Ruby. These are fascinating prehistoric looking fish that I had never seen up close. It was challenging to print because of the round form and the many points of armour. I spent so much time on it, Ruby became the studio pet almost. The process, which I documented on my blog, Illustrated Life, attracted the interest of a lumpsucker researcher in Iceland who thought she was beautiful too.

NLAC: What were the main challenges associated with this project?

JJ: There were several challenges with this project. The main one, that I had not anticipated, was finding whole fish. Fish markets and fish sections of supermarkets often sell fish that is gutted and headless or filleted, as people often don’t want to deal with the butchery side of fish preparation.

I could easily find freshwater fish such as trout or salmon, but accessing ocean fish became a real problem. I tried local fisheries officers and fish processing plants. They were interested, but the majority of fish is processed (gutted and beheaded) at sea before it reaches plants. Some plants showed some willingness, but were too far to travel to and from with fresh fish. Many fish plants were virtually impossible to reach, and didn’t return phone or email messages. I had asked local fishermen if they could provide flatfish, as these are often used for bait in lobster traps. That met with strange looks when I said what I wanted them for, and then questions about whether I was a fisheries officer and if this was a trick question that would get them in trouble. So that was a dead end.

I enlisted the help of friends, and friends of friends to help me find fish. I lucked out with a box of fish left over from an international trade show, including a three foot salmon. I was in fish heaven. Another friend brought me some carefully wrapped fish, including the lumpsucker, back from the Labrador Coast. Others were cod and capelin.

I continued to scour markets and other sources of fish, finding them here and there. I also invested in some rubber replica fish to use, as I was starting to get worried about not having enough real fish. The replicas are also useful for teaching workshops where real fish are either not permitted, or as an option for those squeamish about handling fish.

Another challenge was finding Japanese papers suitable for gyotaku, and water soluble printing inks, as there were none available locally. However, I did find Tara Bryan, also in Flatrock, was the representative in the province for The Japanese Paper Place in Toronto, and she set me up with my initial supply of papers. A couple of different types of inks were located in the USA and some in Canada, as well as the watercolour pigments that I required to complete the images.

Wet mounting the final image became a process that scared me to death the first few times. I had little information about the process, so I learned from experimenting – and ruining – a few prints. Japanese paper is too thin to be framed on its own and it is wrinkled from the printing process. Wet mounting involves sandwiching the print onto another similar sheet of paper using rice or wheat paste. Wetting the piece that you’ve spent hours creating, and then hoping it will not tear, became a breath holding experience.


NLAC: I understand you enhanced the prints using different papers and other media – please explain.

JJ: I wanted as broad an understanding of the different types of papers and how they could be manipulated using this technique. Japanese papers are quite strong, but also quite fragile when wet and vary in strength and how they receive the addition of watercolour or how they react with other media.

I used a broad range of Japanese papers, including Unryu, Kinugawa, Kozuke, Sekishu Tsuru, Iwami, Arashi, Matsuo Kozo, Mizoto Uzaban, as well as a variety of mulberry and rice papers. I also included traditional western supports such as watercolour paper, Japanese newsprint and canvas, with additions of collage, sand, gesso, and molding paste.

Once the original print is dry, I recreate the eye of the fish using watercolour. This brings ‘life’ back to the fish. I add washes of watercolour pigment to the background and the body of the fish and that can vary as to how subtle or strong I want the piece to be.

Fabric was used to create prints from hard shelled crustaceans or species with bony protuberances, otherwise they tear thin papers. This technique requires an indirect method of inking, where the ink is applied through the cloth instead of on the fish. I didn’t spend a lot of time on it, but concentrated on the direct method of inking.

NLAC: When/how will people get to see this work?

JJ: Six of the gyotaku pieces were exhibited at the restaurant Bacalao from December to February. I am currently searching for exhibition space to show the full body of work, which I hope should be available by early summer 2011, as either a solo exhibition or part of a group showing.

I have produced a book The Gyotaku Project that outlines the process and challenges, as well as a number of images produced during the project. This is available online and I will have several copies available for sale at the workshop.

I will also have a virtual exhibition of the gyotaku pieces on my website

NLAC: Tell us a bit about the workshop you’re doing on April 16 – who can attend and what will it cover?

JJ: I believe that part of the role of an artist is sharing information and techniques with others. The gyotaku technique is a relatively new technique, introduced to North America in the 1950s. I don’t know of any other gyotaku artists in this province.

I have scheduled a gyotaku workshop at the Anna Templeton Centre in St. John’s on Saturday April 16th (10 a.m. – 4 p.m.) The workshop is open to artists at all levels, as well as non-artists who may like to learn the technique to record their own fish catches (instead of the traditional wall mounted specimens), or for those interested in learning a new print technique.

I will demonstrate the printing process, from fish preparation to finished image, and will provide real and replica fish, inks, and papers for participants to gain experience with. People attending will have a lot of hands-on time to learn the print process and develop several usable prints during the morning. In the afternoon, the dried prints will be enhanced with colour and the eye completed. I will also explain the process of mounting a finished print, and options that can be used for backgrounds. Workshop participants will take home 3 or 4 prints at varying stages of completion and full knowledge of how to continue creating gyotaku prints on their own.

As Japanese papers are not available locally, I will also have a range of papers available for sale at the workshop that people may see and feel the different varieties as well as purchase and take home to experiment with for instant gratification.