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Activity: Fish Printing for Form and Function

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices:

NGSS Crosscutting Concepts:


  • Acrylic paint in trays
  • Water
  • Paint brushes
  • Towel
  • Fish (fresh, frozen, or rubber)
  • Fabric or paper
  • Cardboard 
  • Newspaper
  • Large bucket or sink
  • Cups for rinsing brushes
  • Permanent marker
  • Straight pins (optional)
  • Clay (optional)
  • Paper towels (optional)


  1. Cover the work surface with cardboard or newspaper.
  2. Choose a fish. If your fish has not yet been printed, gently clean the outside of the fish with soapy water to remove any gelatinous covering. Rinse the fish and pat it dry with a towel.
  3. Carefully lay the fish on the cardboard or newspaper.
  4. Fins, mouth, and gill covers, are important features of your fish. The following are all optional techniques for displaying fins and additional fish features:
    1. Fins: With the help of a partner, or with a straight pin, hold each fin in place. If using a pin, place the straight pin behind the largest spine of each fin and anchor it into the cardboard.
    2. Mouth: Insert a small piece of clay or paper towel to hold the mouth open the way you want it to appear. Make sure the clay or paper towel does not protrude from the mouth.
    3. Gill Covers: Support the gill covers by putting a small, piece of clay or paper towel under the gill opening. Dry the gill opening by blotting it with a paper towel.
  5. Paint the fish.
    1. Dip the paintbrush into one color of paint.
    2. Apply a thin, even coat of paint from the head to the tail of the fish. Do not paint back the other way from tail to head. Do not paint the eye. Be careful not to damage the scales when applying the paint. 
    3. Clean up any paint on the cardboard or newspaper that might get on the print.

<p><strong>Fig. 4.20.</strong> (<strong>A</strong>) painting the fish</p><br />
<p><b>Fig. 4.20.</b> (<strong>B</strong>) pressing paper over the fish to print</p><br />

  1. Make a practice print (Fig. 4.20).
    1. Carefully position the paper or fabric over the fish.
    2. Use clean, dry fingertips or palms to gently press the paper or fabric onto the painted fish. Lightly rub the fish in one direction only. The harder you press, the less detail you will get.
  2. Carefully peel the paper or fabric off the fish and let the print dry.
  3. Examine the print. Decide how to improve your technique and make an additional print.
    1. Many times a fish will print better after it has been printed a few times because the paint gets under the scales and helps them to show up.
    2. If some areas on the print are too light, you might repaint your fish and press the paper harder to the fish in those areas.
    3. If some areas on the fish have too much paint, you might remove excess paint and press the paper more lightly to the fish in those areas
    4. Check for watery areas, especially around the eyes, gill openings, and anal openings. Make sure that you do not damage the fish if you remove excess moisture.
  4. Try new techniques and make a third print. Some suggestions include
    1. Use more than one color on the fish.
    2. Highlight one fish feature using a different color of paint.
    3. Make a group of prints of the same fish on one piece of paper.
  5. If you have time and there are multiple types of fish to print, repeat   Procedures 3-9 with a new species of fish.
  6. When you are finished, clean the brushes thoroughly.
  7. If the fish will be used again (i.e., for additional fish printing, for external anatomy studies, for dissection, etc.) gently wash the fish in a sink or bucket and store the fish in the appropriate way.
  8. Label the external anatomy of one your fish prints (refer to Fig. 4.9 B Anatomy of a soldierfish). Fig. 4.9 B may have features your fish does not have; your fish may have features Fig. 4.9 B does not have.

<p><strong>Fig. 4.9.</strong>&nbsp;(<strong>B</strong>) Anatomy of a soldierfish, <em>Myripristis </em><em>berndti</em></p><br />



Activity Questions: 
  1. Describe how you developed your fish printing technique.
  2. What techniques produced the most detailed fish print?
  3. What are some factors that limit the detail attained from fish printing?
  4. How does fish printing compare with photography or drawings as a way of recording and displaying information about the features of a fish?
  5. Were you able to find all the anatomical parts labeled on the soldierfish on your fish (Fig. 4.9)? How is your fish similar to and different from the soliderfish?
  6. What did you observe, infer, or learn about your fish (or fish in general) through fish printing?
  7. If you printed more than one kind of fish or if one of your classmates printed fish that were different from yours, compare your specimens.
    1. How are the specimens alike and different?
    2. Which structures would you use to differentiate between different kinds of fish? Are these differences observable from a fish print?
  8. Do you think you were you able to print more features using gyotaku than if you had drawn the fish, or vice versa? Hypothesize reasons for your answer.
Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawaii, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.