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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Fish Printing for Art and Commerce

I’m always excited when the art therapy work my fiancee and I do with our autistic students overlaps with my work in the commercial printing industry. Recently, at my fiancee’s behest, we bought rubber fish to ink and then print, just as the Japanese fishermen did in the 1800s to record the fish they caught. What’s old is new again, so to speak.

The traditional term for this artform is “gyotaku.” Fishermen in Japan used to ink up their fish with sumi ink and then print them on rice paper. If you’ve seen any of these images online or in museums, you may also have noticed the red marks at the bottom right of the prints. These were the artists’ names and/or information about the prints.

Once the imprint had been made, the fishermen could rinse off the ink and then sell or eat the fish they had caught.

Preparation for Our Classes

Needless to say, we had no rice paper, sumi ink, or knowledge of the Kanji characters for writing names, and our fish were rubber (made from molds that resembled fish). But we had enthusiasm. We had a total of eight fish (which were essentially custom printing plates for relief printing) that ranged from a flounder to a starfish to a piranha.

Before the class we made a handful of test prints, first rolling out the Speedball printing ink on plastic mats with a rubber printing roller or brayer (also not traditional; presumably the fishermen in Japan had used some form of stuffed dauber to collect the ink and blot it onto the fish). Then we laid tissue paper (our version of rice paper) over the inked rubber plates.

We learned two things. First, regular paper didn’t work well because it was flat and could not be nestled into all the inked nooks and crannies of the rubber fish the way the more flexible tissue paper could. Also, it was nice to be able to see the ink through the tissue paper. We could make sure that all of the paper had come into contact with the inked rubber fish. This would yield a complete, intricate print.

We also learned that overinking was not ideal. After all, this is relief custom printing. The goal was to distinguish between the raised areas of the fish that would take the ink and the recessed areas that would not print. With practice, we could print very detailed ridges in the fish and even a number of the scales. Delicate inking worked best.

How the Project Went

We did this custom printing project with three classes. Some of the autistic members were more skilled, some less. However, everyone loved the tactile nature of the project and even the mess. They also liked the surprising, sometimes uncontrollable, outcomes (kind of like watercolor painting). Each student chose the best two prints they had done, which we then mounted. All images received the traditional red signature (called a “chop”) in the right-hand bottom portion of the print. Then we used glue sticks to mount the printed tissue paper on black or white bristol board backing.

While the autistic students worked on their projects, I explained the custom printing process. I distinguished between relief printing and intaglio printing. I told the students about such relief processes as letterpress, linoleum printing, and woodcut printing.

I also explained that intaglio printing allowed the press operator to print using ink in the recesses of the printing plate, while the ink on the raised areas would be wiped off before printing. In contrast, in relief printing I told the students that the raised areas alone carried the image to be printed.

My fiancee and I even contrasted these techniques to offset commercial printing, in which both the image area and non-image area are on the same level of the custom printing plate, with only the inability of oil (the ink) and water to mix allowing the image area to remain separate from the non-image area in the final print.

In short, my fiancee and I discussed the art project within the context of fine art printing and commercial printing throughout history. And since the original purpose of gyotaku or fish printing was as a recording device for commerce (printing the fish as a record of what had been caught), we even presented the context of economics in our background information.

The Inks We Used

We stuck with white and black ink, although the tissue paper ranged from black to white to orange to light blue and green. The backgrounds offered a second color in most cases.

Some of the members and their aides even found ways to print both black and white on a single fish, just by using a brush as well as a roller, adding white paint as a highlight color in certain areas.

Another Traditional Approach: Monoprints

I’ve written before in the PIE Blog about monotypes, in which no printing plate is used. You just paint a design onto a glass sheet and then lay a piece of custom printing paper over it and then rub the back of the sheet with a spoon to transfer the image. This makes only one unique print.

Similar to this is the monoprint, in which a simple (not blank like the glass sheet of monotypes but with some image in the metal “matrix”) plate is used repeatedly, but it is altered by adding ink in different ways (like painting ink onto the plate). When the students first inked up the fish with black ink and then added the white ink with a brush, this was closer to the traditional monoprint (that is, the consistent base of the printing plate with each image altered and doctored up differently).

What the Students Learned; What You Can Learn

    1. First of all, if you’re used to printing your jobs digitally on inkjet or laser equipment, it helps to see how printing has evolved over the centuries. (You may also want to read about Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the 1400s, plus the ensuing democratization of printed materials and reading once books became available, supplanting the hand-lettered Bibles copied by the monks.)


    1. The more you know about traditional relief printing, intaglio printing, and offset printing, the more appreciation you will have for the art and craft of commercial printing. You will also understand why you do what you do. For example, the student who painted white highlights on the fish after rolling black ink onto the rubber plate with a brayer, could have done the same thing by making two passes with the same plate (one with black ink and one with white). In this way he would have learned how to print custom printing plates “in register.”


    1. Seeing the nuances of overinked and underinked plates will give you an appreciation for both graphic arts and fine arts. You will grow to both recognize and appreciate delicacy in these disciplines.


    1. You’ll understand right away what flexography is. After all, flexography is just inking up rubber relief plates, which is exactly what this kind of fish printing is. You’ll appreciate the process by which printers decorate everything from the plastic wrapping material used for loaves of bread to holiday wrapping paper to the cardboard packaging your frozen dinner comes in.


    1. You might even decide to cut a potato in half and then carve an image into one side and print it. This is the kind of relief printing I used to do as a kid.


  1. Also, if you go to a Renaissance Faire and watch a printing exhibition of letterpress work, you’ll understand the whole process of relief printing from having made your own fish prints.

Knowledge is power. It also gives you an historical and economic perspective, and it helps you appreciate the intricacies of fine arts and commercial arts.

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