ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

Gyotaku Japanese Fish Printing

Art and science meet in this Japanese tradition


Key Staff

Classroom Teacher

Key Skills

Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture


By acquiring knowledge of historical and cultural qualities unique to this particular art form, students can gain an understanding of how Gyotaku reflects a part of Japanese history. Students will select a fish, prepare it, ink it, apply the paper or fabric, and complete the fish print for display. During this process they will also examine the fish and learn the correct names and uses of the external anatomical parts of the fish.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Gain an understanding of the relationship between Japanese culture and the visual arts.
  • Simulate an art form established by Japanese fishermen centuries ago.
  • Recognize and name the external parts of a fish.

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Hands-On Learning
  • Multimedia Instruction
  • Discussion
  • Demonstration
  • Studio Practice

Assessment Type

Informal Assessment


What You'll Need

Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Gyotaku (gyo = fish, taku = rubbing) was invented in the early 1800s in Japan by fishermen who wanted to record their catch. Japanese fishermen took newsprint, ink and brush out to sea with them. Prints were brought back and displayed in the homes of the fishermen either on walls or in journals to be used as conversation pieces and to relate proud and heroic stories of the catch.

Here are some resources for more information on fish and fish printing:

Leading up to the lesson, the teacher should prepare the following:

  • Obtain whole fresh fish from the market. If you are not using them for several days, freeze the fish and thaw just prior to printing. If you would prefer not to use real fish in the printing process, Nasco makes rubber fish replicas for Gyotaku printing. However, you should have at least one real fish for use in discussing the external anatomy.
  • Provide a separate container for each fish, so that they can always be placed back on the same tray.
  • Label the tray with the type of fish.
  • String a clothesline across the room and have clip type clothespins available, for hanging prints to dry.
  • Place all printing materials and the trays for ink on the worktables.
  • Have paper towels and water available for clean up.

Prior Student Knowledge

Familiarity with scientific classification, vertebrates, and types of fish.

Physical Space



Individualized Instruction


This lesson can be taught in a laboratory space, visual arts studio or classroom.

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Elicit prior knowledge from students. Have the class look at a real fish and fill out a KWL Chart (this is available in the Resource Carousel above). Have one student write the chart on the board or chart paper and have the other students fill in the KWL chart handout. Several lead questions could include:

  • Do they breathe? And how?
  • Why do they have such a variety of colors?
  • How do they move?
  • Why don't they flip or roll like we do in the water?
  • Do they have a protective covering?
  • How can you tell the age of a fish?

2. Provide background information about fish. Inform students that fish are the largest group of vertebrates (animals with a skeleton) both in number and diversity. Most fish have skeletons made of bone and are known as bony fish. Bony fish, which the class will be printing, belong to the Osteichthyes class and share the same general anatomy.

3. Discuss fish anatomy. Refer students to the Parts of a Fish Web page. Have students study the anatomy terms listed on the Web site and point them out on the real fish. While showing them where the parts are located, you may also offer short descriptions of their functions.

4. Label fish anatomy. Direct students to visit Label the Fish: Anatomy Web page. They may choose to sketch their own fish or print out the page. Students should fill out the parts of a fish and then check their own work by clicking on the Answers link.

Build Knowledge

1. Show students images of Japanese fish printings. Have students discuss what they see. Ask students the following questions:

  • Who do you think made these printings? (Japanese fishermen, people in cultures that value fish)
  • Why would someone make printings of fish? (to record information about the fish, to remember it later)

2. Explain the importance of fish in Japanese culture and the history of fish printing. Gyotaku (gyo = fish, taku = rubbing) was invented in the early 1800s in Japan by fishermen who wanted to record their catch. This was their livelihood (not sport fishing as we have today) and the print allowed them to document the size and types of fish caught and still take them back to be sold or eaten. Also, because certain fish in Japan are revered, the fisherman could release these fish back into the water after taking their rubbings. Japanese fishermen took newsprint, ink and brush out to sea with them. On occasion, old newspapers printed with water-soluble ink were also used as the ink would bleed with the moisture from the fish and record its shape (a print) on the newspaper. Prints were brought back and displayed in the homes of the fishermen either on walls or in journals to be used as conversation pieces and to relate proud and heroic stories of the catch. Japanese fishing magazines still hold contests where the judging is done from the Gyotaku. It has also developed into an art form; many now create prints for their beauty and artistic elements.

3. Show students the Gyotaku! video in the Build slide of the Resource Carousel above. This video explains in a fun way how Gyotaku works.

3. Explain that today, in our country, we record information about animals in several ways:

  • Taxidermy: stuffing a fish or an animal for use as a type of trophy.
  • Data collection: fish are measured and weighed when caught during fishing contests.
  • Cameras: pictures are also used to document a catch.


1. Model the steps for fish printing for students. Tell them that they will be making their own fish printings. Before printing a fish, students should write their names in the lower corner of the paper along with the type of fish and the date. Remind students to wear latex gloves when handling the fish.

2. Have students use the following steps to create their own fish printing.

  1. Clean and dry the fish. Clean slimy substance from scales with salt and vinegar, alcohol, or lemon juice and gently wipe. Be very careful of the scales.
  2. Have students lay the fish on a dry surface. Slowly and gently fan out any fins or tail. Plasticene clay may be placed under these to raise them, allow for better printing surface, and hold the mouth open. Push straight pins into the clay to hold it down.
  3. Apply water-based ink to the fish with soft brush, sponge, or a foam brush. Apply one or more colors gently in all directions. Use a brush for some of the harder-to-define areas, such as the lips.
  4. Place the paper over the inked fish. Hold with one hand so it does not move and gently press the paper down over the entire fish making sure you have pressed all parts.
  5. Peel back the paper. Start slowly at one end and continue across. Students may need to assist each other with this step.
  6. Review the print. If the print has smudges it means either the paper or fish slipped. Blank spots means either there is not enough ink or the student did not press hard enough to transfer the ink.
  7. Add background details. Students may add various details, including eyes, underwater features or decorative designs. Prints may be mounted on colored construction paper.

3. Make additional prints (optional). Students can wash off the fish between prints if different colors will be applied. Make sure the fish are dried off before printing again.


1. Post and critique the prints. After the prints are dry, remove them from the clothesline and post them around the room. Have students critique three prints using the Peer Assessment handout.

2. Complete the KWL chart. Students should fill in the last column (What I Learned) in the KWL chart.

3. Discuss the KWL chart and print critiques. Ask students if they think this is a good way to record fish and if they can understand how it developed into an art form.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

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