It wasn’t your average paint night.
Trading canvas, paint and easel for rice paper, ink and a freshly caught sea bass, our class of about 20 got a hands-on look at the art of gyotaku last Friday.
Dissected, the Japanese word means gyo, fish, and taku, rubbing. Croton-on-Hudson based artist Joe Mullins has been making these fish prints for more than a decade.
It all started in 2005, during a family vacation to the Adirondacks. “I always travel with art supplies,” Mullins said. He usually sketches new and unfamiliar landscapes when inspiration strikes. He caught a fish during that vacation and decided to make an impression—and hundreds of them ever since.
He’s traveled all over the northeast, giving gyotaku workshops that meld art with science at schools, zoos, private events and, most recently, the East End Seaport Museum in Greenport.
Before social media, fishermen in Japan developed this printing method centuries ago to help record their catch. As they ventured off to deeper waters, they started to catch more interesting fish, he explained.
“No one believed them,” Mullins said.
And so gyotaku was born.
After a brief introduction, Mullins produced two fish from a cooler — a black sea bass and a flounder, which he already scrubbed clean and drained of blood. After blotting the sea bass dry, he was ready to make the first print.
Using a piece of cardboard as a work surface, the artist showed us how to spread the fins out and let us in on a pro-tip: pinning them down so they stay fanned out. To add a sense of action, he curved the fish across the paper, so it appeared to be jumping.
Then, the painting began.
From tail to head, he gracefully spread a thin layer of watered-down block printing ink across the fins and scales. Use too much paint, he warned, and we’d be left with an undistinguishable blob.
He made it look easy. Though the process is relatively simple, you have to be patient to ensure all the nuances and detail comes through on the paper. Each taking a turn with either the sea bass or flounder, Mullins helped us wrap the pliable paper around the fish, making sure to press down with gentle firmness on its fins and tail.
When the paper is peeled away, a mirror image of the fish remains. Some chose a traditional black-and-white impression, while others opted for nautical greens and blues. (One group of ladies painted their fish to look like it was wearing lipstick). Mullins will often take his prints to the next level, using black ink and then accentuating details later using watercolor.
We all used the same exact fish, yet no two prints were alike.
At the beginning of the evening, some of us were skeptical. Some were squeamish at the thought of handling a slimy fish, worried that it would smell or stain. But it wasn’t a fluke, and most were surprised by their new artwork.
“What I find most amazing is whatever the age or experience of the participants, the results of this simple process are quite beautiful,” he said. “Everyone is pleased by their print regardless of whether they are a trained artist or a novice.”
If you missed last week’s gyotaku workshop, sign up for the next one. Mullins is planning to return to Greenport in September for the Maritime Festival.