Fish, ink, and paper

The most critical element in gyotaku, says instructor Bruce Koike, is getting the eyes right

As a young man, Bruce Koike thought of himself as a science kind of guy, not one particularly interested in art. So when he happened upon a handful of students creating gyotaku — prints created from fish rubbings — at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, he was surprised to find himself drawn to the art.

Thirty-five years later, Koike is known for his masterful prints, as well as his workshops to teach the craft to others. His next is set for Jan. 25 at the Pacific Maritime Heritage Center in Newport.

Koike encountered the Japanese art form in 1985, the same year he started grad school, which led to his master’s degree in fisheries science from the Hatfield Center. He made his first print that summer.

Bruce Koike’s gyotaku print of lingcod incorporates habitat by adding bullwhip kelp to the image, which appeared on the cover of the May 2016 Fisheries magazine, published by the American Fisheries Society.

“I bought a tube of black paint and went to the hardware store and bought a brush, some paper, and gave it a shot,” Koike said. “I still have that print, and it was of a pile perch. It was good enough to keep it.”

His technique evolved over the years, as the self-taught artist learned through trial and error the tricks to creating a print that could truly be called art. One is to remove standing water, likely to be found in depressions on the fish, and not to use too much or too little paint. Ink is applied to the fish with a brush, then paper is laid on the fish and pressed down to transfer the image.

The critical last step is properly capturing the eyes.

Painting eyes on flatfish is challenging, Bruce Koike says, because of the angle between the viewer and the direction the fish is looking. 

“When you are putting paint on the fish, you don’t put paint on the eyes,” he said. “You leave that open space, a perfect landmark of where to put the eyes.

“For a typical-shaped fish, like a rockfish or rainbow trout, you paint the eyes looking out from the paper at you,” he said. But a flatfish, such as  flounder or halibut or sole, is lying on the ground with its eyes looking along the plane of the paper. “You’re looking on top of it,” Koike said. “Your perspective is way different than with a rockfish or trout. If you paint the eyes on a sole the same as you would a rockfish, it will look really strange.”

The process calls for the artist to freehand the last detail, and it’s hard, Koike said. “I’ve seen some prints, and think that’s a really nice print, but oh, they lost it in the eyes.”

Whether fish rubbings were originally considered an art form or used for practical purposes is up for debate. Some believe fishermen used them to document their catches. Others hold that the prints were for people of a higher class, such as samurai warriors, who were encouraged to be familiar with the arts, Koike said.

The oldest existing print dates from the mid-1800s and was identified as belonging to a nobleman, Lord Sakai, he said. “People brought to him their pieces and if he liked it, he would buy it.” Koike noted that gyotaku is properly pronounced ghio-tah-ku, which means fish rubbing. “When mispronounced as guy-tah-ku,” Koike said, “it means an impression left behind by a woman, like lipstick on a handkerchief or shirt collar.” 

Bruce Koike prepares to print a geoduck clam in the studio of his Newport home.

Over the years, Koike has printed all manner of sea life, including crab, shrimp (particularly challenging, he noted), sea stars, shells, squid, and octopus. One fish in particular stands out:

 “Someone came to me and she said, ‘My goldfish has died. Will you make a print of it?’ That goldfish was like a 14-year companion. She got it at the county fair where you throw ping-pong balls into glass containers and you go home with that goldfish. It was a neat way she memorialized that fish.”

Koike also acknowledges the special contribution of his wife, Mary, whom he calls a “very patient woman to allow me to keep three chest freezers of specimens at home,” permitting him to reuse the fish multiple times. For the first 20 years he was printing, he added, he worked on the dining room table – “I typically printed during the evening, after the dishes were done.”

The Jan. 25 workshop takes place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and will focus on fish. The cost is $90. Space is limited to 12. Sign up at the Maritime Center or by calling the Lincoln County Historical Society at (541) 265-7509.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

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