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Tradition of Japanese fish printing reels in Marble Falls artist

Hector Garcia

Marble Falls artist Hector Garcia among a ‘school’ of his fish paintings. Garcia uses the traditional Japanese gyotaku method to capture real-life fish in lifelike relief on paper. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

Hector Garcia is an angler and an artist in equal measure. Through the traditional Japanese practice of gyotaku, he captures his catches in stark relief on paper and paints them back to life. 

“I love art, I love fishing, so I combined them,” he said. “It was such a natural transition for me to just put the two together.”

Gyotaku means “fish print” in Japanese. It refers to the 19th-century method of creating prints using the bodies of actual fish that are posed and coated in paint. The artist then presses rice paper along the fish’s length and peels it away to reveal an imperfect, yet detailed, impression.

The practice was originally developed by Japanese fishermen to accurately measure the size of their catches. Over time, gyotaku became an art form rather than a means of documentation. 

Garcia embraced the practical origins of the method and its newer, more refined status as an art form. All of his prints are of fish he has personally caught, cooked, and later eaten. These aren’t exotic, far-flung species. They’re native fish that any Highland Lakes angler would recognize: crappie, flathead catfish, largemouth bass, white bass, and bluegill. 

“Whenever I’m showing the art, people don’t realize these are our fish,” he said. “These are actually fish from our lakes. When I tell them that, they light up.”

Garcia laid out dozens of prints in his kitchen, each with its own story. Every work can be connected to a specific moment and memory spent on the water. His record largemouth bass was split between two pieces of rice paper to emphasize its size. 

A current project is a collage using several prints in the same piece to recreate a scene from the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament of the Bible when Jesus blessed the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee with a bountiful catch.

Garcia grew up near a different kind of sea, the Gulf of Mexico, in the small South Texas town of Alice. Years in the Boy Scouts and proximity to the nearby coastline and inland bay systems developed his appreciation for the outdoors. His first love was saltwater fishing, snagging red drum and speckled trout, but he has since adopted the Highland Lakes as new hunting grounds and become a formidable freshwater angler.

“The lakes around here are great, but it took me about a year and a half to really start fishing and feel comfortable up here,” he said. “I started going out here and honing my skills and catching bigger and bigger fish, and now it can be really exciting.”

A large print of a flathead catfish in gyotaku style. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

Garcia has been in Marble Falls for 11 years. He and wife Patty moved to the area at the recommendation of a longtime pastor and friend. The couple felt called by God to live in the Highland Lakes.

“We just did what the Lord told us to do, and we’ve really enjoyed the area,” Garcia said. 

He described his hometown of Alice as a “rough oil town” and his upbringing as challenging, but art offered an escape. He painted throughout school but put down the palette once he graduated and started working. After a stint in the petroleum industry, he got a job in insurance, where he met Patty, and the responsibilities of life took over. 

After decades on the back burner, his passion for painting re-emerged when he helped his daughters with a school art project. He began collecting supplies and painting whenever he had free time. While his family slept, he would stay up and create.

“There was just something in me when I’d look at art,” Garcia said. “I always had this feeling like, ‘I could do that.’ We go through life so many times not doing what we’re called to do.”

He was inspired to try Japanese fish printing in 2021 after reading about it in a magazine. He watched instructional videos and conducted a few test runs, eventually developing his own style and methodology. His “recipe” for fish painting goes something like this:

  • Catch a fish.
  • Put it in the fridge overnight to “firm it up.”
  • Clean off the fish, removing slime, especially from the gills.
  • Pose the fish on a clean surface.
  • Spread a thin layer of non-toxic acrylic paint over the fish.
  • Carefully press a sheet of rice paper along the body. 
  • Carefully peel away the paper and let it dry.

The process is a bit more detailed and nuanced, Garcia said, but this is his basic process to capture a stunning impression of his catch. He explained that catfish are particularly difficult to print because of their sticky skin. 

Unlike traditional gyotaku, he adds color to the print, painting in details. Gyotaku traditionalists use black ink and leave the final product in stark black and white. 

Garcia doesn’t let the paint on the fish stop him from putting it on a plate. He cooks and eats his catch once he has captured its image on paper.

“To be able to go out and fish and carry that along into a print, then taking it through the gyotaku process and eating it takes everything to a whole other level,” he said. “All of us are artistic, creative people, we just need to pull it out. Once you get going, you see inspiration all around you.”

To commission your own gyotaku piece or learn more about Garcia’s work, visit his online store at g5-fine-art.myshopify.com or his Facebook page at facebook.com/G5fineart. You can also contact him at garciacoinfo@yahoo.com or 512-734-7671.

dakota@thepicayune.com

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