31 January, 2011

How to use 魚拓 to make your own ocean shirts

Our class has been spending time over the last couple of weeks, learning about our world's oceans.  I have found wonderful resources at our local library and online, but what I really wanted to show you today, was how we used a traditional form of Japanese fish printing, 魚拓 or gyotaku, to make ocean t-shirts.

What is gyotaku?  Here is Wikipedia's definition:

Gyotaku (Japanese 魚拓, from gyo "fish" + taku "rubbing") is a traditional form of Japanese fish printing, dating from the mid-19th century, a form of nature printing used by fishermen to record their catches. There are two methods used in gyotaku. The direct approach is the best way to do gyotaku. In order to make a gyotaku print, one places the subject (e.g. fish, crab, scallop shell) on a wooden bench and paints one side with sumi ink. Modern gyotaku artists often substitute acrylic or other painting material for the traditional sumi.

From my own research, I found out that some modern artists use rubber replica fish to create gyotaku.  These are probably a bit easier to deal with, but for our children the sensory experience of touching, examining, and smelling the fish was too important to pass up.  It is even more important than perhaps it might be in some other parts of the country or the world since the ocean is so far away from where we live.  Many of the children in our class may never have gone fishing in a lake or a river much less the ocean.  So having a real fish for our project was key.

In preparation for the gyotaku, we wanted to make the shirts look like ocean water and waves.  We read a lovely story called My Life with the Wave, and then talked about how the ocean can seem to have moods.  We said it can seem happy when the water is clear and sparkling, sad when it is dark grey or greenish, or angry when it is dark and the water is rough.  We told the children we were going to use dye to try to make the shirts show the ocean's moods.  

We mixed up three colors of RIT dye.  (Looking back, I wish I would have chosen some greens and perhaps greys to use as well, but I guess that will have to wait for next time.)  We followed the package directions exactly, and added salt to the dye bath.  Be sure to do this if you try this project for yourself as it fixes the dye and makes it less likely to run.

Here are our big buckets of dye.  Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures of our tie dying process as my hands were too wet and blue to use the camera.  I did find this great tie dying tutorial though, where you can find step by step instructions on how to tie dye.

After the children finished creating their "moody ocean waves shirts," I took them home and let them dry overnight.  In the morning, I rinsed them thoroughly in cold water (a little bit of the dye did wash out, but the shirts still look lovely) and dried them in a warm clothes dryer.  I folded them immediately, so they would be ready for gyotaku.

We laid the fish out on a plastic tray, and gave the child a paper plate with 3 or 4 colors of fabric paint, and brushes.  Each child could paint the fish as he or she wished.  We simple rinsed the fish off in between painters.  After the fish was painted, I used a damp cloth to carefully wipe away any excess paint around the edges as we didn't want to design of the tray to show up on the shirts.

Next we gently laid the shirts on top of the fish, and gently "rubbed" the fish's outline and form onto the shirt.  The biggest thing to remember during this part of the process is that it does not work like rubber stamping.  That is you must bring the fabric to the object, not the other way around.  That way you can gently rub the fabric and you can also bring the fabric around the edges of the fish.  That is the best way to get a complete design. 

You can also print with shells for lovely results.  Check out these, made by my students!  Aren't they marvelous?

These shirts will lay flat for at least 4 hours and then the paint will be permanent.  They must be turned inside out for washing, but they should have a good long run and will hopefully serve as a good reminder of the many wonderful creatures that live in our oceans.

As a side note, if you are lucky enough to live near the ocean you can print with almost anything you find.  In my travels I have seen gorgeous prints using small rays, crabs, lobsters, sand dollars, star fish, and horse shoe crabs.  Here is the link to one of my favorite places in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Blue Water Fish Rubbings.  It is right next to the town where I spent much of my growing up years, so just looking it their web site makes me feel nostalgic.  Please check it out for yourself!

And good luck with your own 魚拓!


  1. How you are getting this fabulous ideas anyway? I have never even heard for gyotaku, and even if I had - I would never pop-up with idea like this! Genial!

  2. Thanks! A store near my hometown makes clothing with this technique. The artist gave me permission to make some matching cards with the images. Yay! I did, and there are 5 pages of them! I need to edit them and then I can share them on the blog - artists said okay! : )


Thank you for your comments. They are always much appreciated. : )