Gyotaku (from gyo “fish” + taku “rubbing”) is the traditional Japanese method of printing fish, a practice which dates back to the mid-1800s. This form of nature printing may have been used by fishermen to record their catches, but has also become an art form of its own.
In the earliest nature prints, inks or pigments were applied directly to the relief surface of leaves and/or other relatively flat natural subjects in order to capture images of their sizes, shapes, surface textures, and delicate vein or scale patterns. Typically both sides of a leaf were coated with ink and the leaf was then placed inside a folded sheet or between two sheets of paper. When rubbed by hand or run through a printing press a mirror image was produced of the topside and underside of the same leaf. Often the prints were done in black ink and the flowers later painted or drawn in by the artist. In other cases a flattened, dried leaf or plant was coated once with black ink and then repeatedly printed in a printing press. The initial dark print was used as a work copy or proof print. The subsequent prints, with fainter traces of ink, were hand colored to more closely resemble the appearance of the real subjects. This methodology is generally applicable to making a print from a fish. They also used wood and carved images into that.
The direct method currently is used throughout the world to record images of a wide diversity of subjects. For example, most western fish printers utilizing the direct method but apply colored inks to more closely duplicate the natural colors of their subjects. Unlike prints from plates or blocks in which identical, duplicate images can be created the direct method produces unique, one-of-a-kind prints, termed monotypes.
As a form of art, gyotaku is also practiced around the world.