5th grade Gyotaku Prints on a Salted Watercolor Background with a Woven Border

I’ve wanted to do this project ever since I saw it in another art teacher’s end of year art show at McKinney ISD‘s Central Office. The completed artwork wow factor is really high, and there are enough separate wow factor steps that keep the project fresh, even though it takes about a month to finish. Painting, printmaking, weaving, color theory, Japanese cultural exploration, and watercolor effects? Check! You and your students are gonna love this.


Another thing I love is that gyotaku is a printmaking art form that is still practiced by professional artists today, and also that it has such a long, rich history.


I ask the students if they’ve caught a fish before. Hands shoot up, and I pick one of them to tell us more about the fish they caught. Once several students have shared their fishing stories, I ask them one by one what color the fish was, what patterns were on the scales, how big it was (estimating size with both hands), what the fins looked like, and what the eyes looked like. Usually for one of those categories, they couldn’t remember. Then I asked them how they could prove to us how big their fish was and what kind of fish they caught.


When they say they can take a pic and show it to people or post it to social media, I ask them how fishermen and fisherwomen from centuries ago shared the details of their fish with their friends. We watch this amazing Ted Ed gyotaku animation explanation that covers gyotaku’s history and brings it to the present.

You’ll need a set of rubber fish molds to make the prints from. This was the art supply I was the most excited about ordering my first year teaching art full time.


I showed them how to paint a wet-on-wet watercolor background (You paint a small shape with just water, then paint just around the edges of your small shape with liquid watercolor. The liquid watercolor does a wonderful magic trick of traveling in an amazing pattern into the center of your painted water shape. Then you continue with more colors until your paper is painted.)


To make the watercolor background even more interesting, I showed them how to add just a tiny pinch of salt onto the still-wet watercolor. We salted my teacher example at the beginning of class and could see the effects take place by the end of class.


Then, when our backgrounds were painted, I demo’ed how to make a gyotaku print. I used the black tempera paint since our whole background was super-colorful. I showed them how to paint the fish just right with paint (not too much, not too little). Then I showed them how to place their copy paper (or any very thin paper like rice paper, etc.) over the painted fish mold instead of the other way around. I demo’ed how to press my hands all the way around the fish, making sure my hands guided the paper to every part of the painted fish mold. There was always a collective “Wow!” when the first print was pulled.


After each person had 4 prints, we cut them out and arranged them to create a pleasing composition. Then we glued them down.


The last 2 steps are optional, but the gyotaku artworks look even more beautiful with them.

For the 1st of the optional steps, I showed the students how to punch holes around the whole background, and then I showed them how to get the yarn started in a whip-stitch.  They whip-stitched (or running-stitched, their choice) a beautiful border with yarn. The result is stunning! I would frame these and hang them in my house if my children made them.

For the last optional step, early finishers who finished the weaving while the others were still working could print the Japanese symbols that spell out gyotaku. (Or you could plan on the whole class finishing all of it if you wanted.) 🙂


At the end of the project, as a thinking question, I asked the classes why we created our own gyotaku projects when we have so many more accurate, more modern ways to show people what we caught. They shared that we did it to keep the tradition alive. I loved that answer, and then I asked another thinking question to wrap up this project.


“How could we make this project a completely modern project yet still keep the main idea that runs through it all the way to the beginning of gyotaku?”


I seriously love one of the answers! A student said, “We could make our gyotaku prints with a 3D printer, or just print a 3D version of whatever fish print we wanted to use.”

Bravo! ❤

gyotaku teacher example

This was my teacher example that I showed the students at the gyotaku lesson intro


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