I first came across Debra’s fish prints at the Made in Maui Festival a couple of years ago. What drew me to her work was her mastery of color and detail. Her fish prints took me right back to my childhood, where I spent much of my time snorkeling the reefs around Maui. The colors and details that she captures are realistic and bring life to her prints. I hadn’t seen gyotaku done with such mastery until I saw Debra's work. The prints look just like the fish that dot Hawaii’s reefs. It was apparent that she had spent a lot of time studying her subjects in their natural environment. Debra has an eye for detail, which if for a brief second, can transport you to Hawaii's beautiful underwater habitats.
Debra’s love for fish printing or fish rubbing was founded years ago when she visited an exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. It was there that she learned the tradition is from Japan and is known there as Gyotaku. In the mid-1800's Japanese fisherman would use Gyotaku or fish rubbing to record their catches. This art appealed to Debra who has always been attracted to simplistic beauty and refined detail.
Debra is lucky enough to never be out of fish to print as her friends and Husband are often spearfishing along Maui’s coastlines. Having a fisherman for a spouse has enabled her to experiment with colors and allowed her to find her style. She follows the roots of the tradition by making sure to use nontoxic paint for her artful recordings so that the family can enjoy the catch for dinner.
Here are her steps for fish printing. She encourages all to record their catches before eating just like tradition has taught us.
Step 1 – Go fishing!
Step 2 - Prep the fish.
My kitchen is my "studio," and the first task is to clean the slime off the fish, pat it dry, and pin the fins into position. This is the most important step to getting a good print, but it is a wet, slimy, and smelly process. I recommend that you work somewhere that you can get messy.
Step 3 - Inking the fish
The fish is painted using non-toxic soy-based inks. I work quickly keeping the fish cool so that it will be suitable for eating once I'm finished. I strive to capture the essence of the fish as I paint it, staying true to its markings and colors.
Step 4 - Making the rubbing
I gently lay rice paper or fabric over the fish and using my hands I gently rub an impression.
Step 5 - Pulling the print
As I carefully pull the paper away from my subject, the impression becomes visible. There's an element of surprise when I first see my print. You never really know how it will come out.
Step 6 - Painting the Eye
Painting in the eye is done by hand with a brush. This is my favorite part.
And finally, I wash the ink off the fish and we put it on the grill and enjoy a fresh fish dinner. So ono!
You can find some of Debra's best work here, including Hawaii's State fish the Humuhumunukunukuapua'a and my favorites for eating the Mahi Mahi and the Ahi.
*Looking to go fishing on Maui, we are friends with awesome brothers who take avid fishermen out daily. Check them out!
*Best places to view fish in their natural habitat on Maui: Black Rock, Ka'anapali, Honolua Bay, and Molokini Crater.