Something fishy

Tara Bradbury
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Artist Jeanette Jobson practises traditional painting technique of Japanese gyotaku

The biggest challenge Jeanette Jobson has in completing her art is finding her materials locally. Japanese rice paper and printmaking inks are all readily available to her online; what she has the most trouble finding is dead fish.

Jobson specializes in the traditional Japanese technique of gyotaku, or fish printing, and in 2010 she embarked on a year-long project to print fish found in Newfoundland and Labrador waters.

Gyotaku is a century-old technique used by Japanese fishermen to accurately record the size of their catches. It involves painting a fish on one side, covering it in rice paper and carefully rubbing it in order to get a clear print.

Jobson, an established artist and one of the founding members of Arts Northeast, had long been painting images of fish and aquatic scenes — among others — when she was introduced to gyotaku by a friend in Italy.

“It all came from a drawing I did of a fish eye. I just posted it on (my) blog and a friend said, ‘Oh, you should look at gyotaku, because the eye is the part that brings the beast alive.’ I have never heard of gyotaku at this point. I looked it up and I thought it looked interesting, so I started experimenting.”

It was difficult to find information on the technique, so Jobson, with the help of a grant from the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council, started experimenting.

Experienced gyotaku artists online provided her with recommendations for paper and paint types, and the rest involved a lot of experimentation.

Jobson’s only trouble was actually finding the fish, which must be whole and relatively uncut.

“You can’t often find a whole fish; they’re all sanitized, so you’ve got fillets and pieces but you don’t have a head and a tail. It’s like people don’t want to see that,” Jobson explained.

“If you ask local fishermen to get you one, they often think you’re with DFO and you’re checking up on them, so you can’t get anything.

“I get them from anyone who has any — I’m begging them, ‘please, please.’ It’s like buying drugs,” Jobson joked, laughing.

Jobson bought scientific replica fish of some species she wasn’t able to access (which she also uses when offering workshops in gyotaku, in case participants have fish allergies or aren’t willing to touch real fish), which have been cast in rubber and are perfectly life-like.

When using real fish, Jobson must dry them off as well as possible and stuff the cavities with paper towel, to ensure they don’t leak onto the paper. Using Plasticine, she’s able to keep the fins and tail in the position she wants.

She inks the fish carefully using a water-soluble oil paint, omitting the eye, and then covers it in a thin paper, meticulously rubbing and massaging to make a detailed print before slowly peeling the paper away.

By now, Jobson has a good idea not only about marine biology and anatomy, but which type of papers work best with which species of fish. The prints vary on the texture of the fish and the kind of paper used, and each one is unique.

With traditional gyotaku, the eye of the fish is created afterwards using ink or watercolour. Jobson also uses watercolour to embellish and define the fish, choosing more often than not to stay true to its natural colour and pattern. Her precision and the dreamy translucence of the watercolours bring the fish back to life, so the finished product has all the energy of a swimming, breathing species.

Jobson has printed a large variety of fish — perch, cod, caplin, lumpfish, skate, flounder, sole and trout, among others — and has experimented with sculpins (which didn’t print well, thanks to their many protuberances and faint scale pattern), starfish, lobster claws and shrimp.

“It was nigh on impossible to get shrimp,” she said, laughing. “I did finally find some, but even those were very difficult, because all their whiskers were missing and some of their legs were missing,” she said.

She’s also printed salt fish flakes, by first rehydrating them as if preparing them to eat. Her largest print was a three-foot salmon, which she said was a challenge because it was too big to be tested on a scrap of paper.

She has dreams of one day having the opportunity to print a shark or tuna tail or the baleen of a whale.

Jobson can usually get about 15 prints from a single fish, and will often use them, freeze them, thaw them and use them again. When she gets her hands on a hard-to-get species, she’ll print them over and over “until they disintegrate,” she explained.

She sells her gyotaku pieces online and through Spurrell Gallery on Long’s Hill. Next month, she’ll show some of her pieces in “Reflections on Cod: The Fishery, The Moratorium,” a group exhibit at Five Island gallery in Tors Cove, marking the 20th anniversary of the cod moratorium. Jobson’s biggest markets to date for her gyotaku pieces seem to be the United States and Europe.

Jobson admits people often think she’s weird when she explains what she’s doing — until they see the finished product.

It’s the shapes and textures of the different species that draw Jobson and her admirers to the art.

“There’s an ick factor for a lot of people who don’t want to touch it. The more you look at it and the more you get involved with it, the more beautiful it becomes, which sounds kind of strange about fish,” she said.

“People get to see it and examine it, and when you can present something to people to get a different spin on it, that’s part of the appeal. Playing around with the different shapes and colours and seeing what comes from it, that’s interesting, too.”

More information about Jobson, her art and her gyotaku project, as well as videos and a book she has put together, are available online at

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

This is a corrected version

Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Italy, Iceland Tors Cove United States

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