Artwork by Dwight Hwang
Three albacore move through the water as if they are flying, canting their bodies, graceful as terns. Several flying fish are pursued by a mahi-mahi, and a pair of marlin streak past.
The creator of these scenes is Dwight Hwang, who specializes in the traditional Japanese gyotaku method of fish printing. “The gyotaku process is very simple,” Hwang says. “Ink is brushed onto the fish, and then paper is rubbed onto it, transferring the inked image to the paper.” Easier said than done, especially working with quick-drying ink and irregular-shaped fish with pectoral fins and other protrusions.
Hwang created the gyotaku print for the cover of the Spring issue of Anglers Journal using traditional black sumi ink and a sheet of Japanese washi paper. Careful hand rubbing captured the image of the snook.
Traditional gyotaku prints typically display static, two-dimensional profile representations of their subjects. Hwang creates movement and depth by bending the fish and changing poses and perspectives, which is challenging for the artist but makes the fish come alive. “I want to bring the viewer in so deep that they forget they are looking at a print, but instead begin to sense the life, motion and emotion of the piece,” says Hwang, who is 47 and lives in Mission Viejo, California. “And a change in angle, perspectives, poses and depth are all ways to achieve that.”
The work requires patience and forethought. “The snook cover piece had to be approached in sections and layers,” he explains. “I wanted the snook to be turning with a change of perspective throughout its body. We did this by printing the front half of the fish first, lifting the paper and then printing the rear half to create visual cues that read as turning.”
Hwang created the marbling effect of the water at the surface through a process called suminagashi. “It can be intimidating to dunk a nearly completed piece into a tub of swirling ink,” he says. “But worse than absolutely ruining the piece is to regret not having tried it at all.”
The artist obtains most of his fish from a network of seafood wholesalers, marine biologists and commercial fishing skippers whom he’s befriended. The friend who secured the cover snook drove to a fish market in Baja, Mexico, to purchase it.
Born in Los Angeles to Korean immigrants, Hwang has been drawn to art since he was a boy. “Art is really the only thing I know how to do, and it has always been that way,” he says. “As a child, I would rather draw than to go outside and play sports. During my college years, I kept a journal that didn’t have a single word written in it. Instead, it was filled with sketches of all that went on in my life.”
Before finding gyotaku, Hwang worked for more than 20 years as a storyboard artist for live-action movies, animation and games; he lived and worked for seven years in Tokyo, learning the language and culture. While in Japan, Hwang discovered gyotaku fish prints, which are commonly tacked to the walls and ceilings of tackle shops. “When I saw a gyotaku piece in Japan, my love for art and obsession for fishing came together,” recalls Hwang, who at 7 began fishing with an uncle. “Most of them were rough, but I was captivated regardless.”
Returning to the United States in 2011, Hwang continued making fish prints as a way of staying connected to the life he lived in Japan. About three years ago, he turned what he calls his “obscure hobby” into a full-time profession. He enjoys the challenge of working in new ways with traditional materials: sumi ink and mulberry-based Japanese or Korean paper. “It’s the process that I wake up thinking about,” Hwang says. “It’s the process that I work out in my head as I go to sleep.”
Although gyotaku prints are typically created by a single person, Hwang often works in tandem with his wife, Hazel. “In the beginning, we were often frustrated with the process of working together,” he says. “But now we work quietly together, synchronized and knowing where and what to do for the other.”
The oddest fish the artist has printed was a tapertail ribbonfish, a deep-water species that reminded him of mythical East Asian dragons, says Hwang, who also prints botanicals, birds and profiles of people’s faces. “I think the most technically and mentally exhausting project was to print a spiny lobster from the underside,” he says. “I decided to take apart the lobster piece by piece, ink and reassemble on paper one piece at a time.”
A single print might take between 10 and 30 minutes to complete. “But what most people don’t get to see are all the mistakes and retries,” he says. The goal is to create something that appears to have been done effortlessly.
Hwang says he’s inspired by the Japanese admiration for simplicity, fleeting moments and what he calls the “perfect imperfection” — taking a flawed subject and focusing on it to the point where it becomes beautiful.