Japanese Fish Art Lesson Plans

Japanese fish art

Japan has an unusual artistic tradition: gyotaku, fish printing. The image above is “Pisces Indecision,” a print by Canadian artist Jeanette Jobson, who extends the technique beyond its traditional boundaries. Traditional Japanese fish art is an exciting art project with cross-curricular opportunities.

Gyotaku began as a means for fishermen to record a catch, but now it is well recognized as an art form. I’ve rounded up some lesson plans for you, but essentially gyotaku has these steps:

  • roll paint or ink onto a nice, clean fish
  • press paper onto the fish
  • remove the fish

The question, for the classroom, is where to get the fish. Some recommend using frozen fish. This makes the fish more manageable and less likely to smell. You can also use Learning Resources Fun Fish Counters. These are quite small, so it requires some dexterity to use them, but there is a nice variety of fish included. They’re great math manipulatives for counting and sorting, too — wash off the paint when you’re through with your gyotaku lesson and toss them back in their tub for later use. You can also use a Rubber Fish, though I have fewer ideas for how else to use this; it would certainly make a good play prop, though. And there are Gyotaku Fish Printing Replicas purpose-made for tidy fish printing. Any plastic or rubber fish you choose must have quite a bit of texture in order for this project to be successful.

I’d use real fish, myself, for the sake of the biology lesson as well as the experience, but much depends on the logistics of your classroom, and you know best how your class and your custodial staff will handle it.

Have students spend some time researching gyotaku before you try it out. Sunburst Visual media has made a DVD, Art In The Classroom Series: Gyotaku. The Met has a nice collection of pictures.

The following lessons bring in various other curriculum connections, though all approach the art project in much the same way:

  • The Huntington Library has a fish printing lesson with interesting questions about cultural attitudes toward animals.
  • Artsedge has a lesson on gyotaku with a science component.
  • A gyotaku  lesson from the Canton museum looks at fish more closely.
  • Blick uses fabric paint to make gyotaku T-shirts.
  • A gyotaku lesson plan from the Allen Memorial Art Museum  explores the traditional Japanese fish print in combination with haiku, a traditional Japanese poetic form.

If you aren’t in the mood to deal with fish, an excellent simple alternative is to use Triangle Pencil Grips. Have each student draw a fish shape lightly onto paper with a pencil. Pour out a little puddle of craft paint for each student,  and have dip them the triangular end of the pencil grip into paint. The pencil grip will now make a very nice design of a circle within a triangle. Stamp the triangles into scale-like rows on the fish, turning them to tessellate correctly — or masking and overlapping them to get a more realistic scale effect. While I can’t claim that this is as thrilling as fish printing, it does turn out a surprisingly nice fish painting, and it lets you get some math lessons in as well.

Fish turn up in much Japanese art besides gyotaku. Visit the library or online sources to admire Japanese paintings of koi. Another popular fish-themed art project is the koi or carp kite:

Do you have Adobe Illustrator on your classroom computer? Lucky you! Try out Vectortuts koi painting tutorial.


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