Nature printing

DIY fish printing 

Nature printing DIY fish printing
Keepsake print of my fish

Lets start by saying that I am a romantic for you to understand the origin of this post idea. We had a very special fish for 8 years and the day she passed I had this sudden impulse to make a nature printing of her as a keepsake. I had recently read a book about the Japanese art of fish printing on fabric “Gyotaku” and this was the perfect occasion to try. I sewed a simple reversible shopping bag with Simplicity Pattern 1750 and decorated the bag with fabric appliqués made from the fish printings.

DIY how to embellish clothes with nail art supplies


I did another fabric coloring technique using nail art supplies to embellish a denim jacket. If you are interested in learning the technique  DIY Grommet jean jacket   



Let’s start by a brief story of “Sparky” our beloved blood parrot fish.

A few words about Sparky

When we introduced this new blood parrot fish to our aquarium it’s mannerism was calm, smooth and I decided that she was female. After only a few hours in the aquarium she was doing funny movements unlike the other fish. She was swimming backward or she would remain completely still without moving her fins. We even spotted her swimming upside down.

Although what was most striking was how curious she seemed about life outside of the aquarium. She seamed to be following us when we moved about the room. Because of her vibrant orange colour and her spunky nature we named her Sparky as she immediately brought so much life to the environment.

Our home fish
Sparky making friends

Sparky loved to play, her favorite game was to swim and follow us when we walked alongside the aquarium. She would also follow us up and down. Little people visiting our house loved playing with Sparky.

We had Sparky in our home from June 2007 to August 2015 (we know the exact dates thanks to our digital camera). Sparky lived 8 years with us and she grew to her specie potential of 8 inches.

Tshirt cut outs for fabric printing
Cut in a hurry

As I wrote, when she passed I had this sudden urge to make a nature printing of her body on fabric. I had nothing planned, but I knew that I needed some kind of fabric so I ran to find old T- shirts that I quickly cut into jagged pieces. Then fetch for tubes of acrylic paint.

Fish printing on fabric  

For the traditional art of Gyotaku the fishermen use ink to print their fish on paper as a way to record their catches.

For this  DIY I will print on cotton fabric using acrylic paint. The following steps are the same if you choose to use fabric paint.

I won’t show the actual pictures of Sparky covered with paint. Some people may be sensitive to the subject including my young nieces who read my blog (but I will show the printing results).

Therefore to demonstrate the fish printing technique I will use a dried seahorse. It will be good practice to demonstrate that many objects, even those with many angles (sea shells, plastic toys, vintage jewelry) can be used for fabric printing.

First protect your working surface with a tablecloth or some newspapers.

Nature printing
Prepare your water base paint

We paint only one side of the object. If your acrylic paint is too thick you can thin it slightly, but don’t make your paint too watery or it won’t work well. Use a paint brush to paint the object.

If you are painting a real fish use paint strokes in one direction only. Apply your brush strokes from head to tail. If you paint in both directions you will have too much paint and the prints will be blurry without any sharp details. (For Gyotaku printing we are supposed to leave the eye blank and hand paint later on. However I left the paint over the eye as I liked the results).

If your painting other objects the direction of the brush strokes are not important. If you paint an object that has many angles and dimensions (like this seahorse) it is important to entirely cover the surface and make sure to apply paint in every nook and cranny.

Nature printing dried seahorse
Apply one thin paint coat

Work quickly when you apply the paint because you don’t want the paint to dry before you transfer onto your fabric.

Once your object is painted, move it to a clean surface.

Nature printing dried seahorse
Place a clean piece of fabric over your object

Our next step is to lay a piece of fabric over the object.

Take your time to decide where you want your print to be positioned on your fabric because you won’t be able to move the fabric once it has touched the paint.

Start by bringing your fabric close to one end of your object, gently deposit the fabric over the object. Your fabric has to lay flat without any creases or wrinkles.

Nature printing dried seahorse
Rub the fabric with a dry clean brush

To transfer the paint onto the fabric we can rub over the fabric with our fingers or with a clean paint brush. Rub gently on the entire object and it’s contours to get an even paint transfer.

To best way to prevent the fabric from moving or creasing is to start by rubbing the middle of the object and move outward towards the object contours. If your fish has a round-bodied you may have to move the fabric to avoid wrinkles, be careful not to create double-prints.

The paint will wet the fabric and it will be easy to distinguish the areas that you still need to rub or brush to complete the paint transfer.

If your object has many edges (like this prickly seahorse), it is best to use a paint brush to rub the fabric and gently brush the entire surfaces not missing any crevasses.

When you finish rubbing, gently remove the fabric. Then study your results for mistakes. To correct mistakes or to make additional copies re-apply paint on the fish/object and do another print.

Here’s my two cents; I made many prints with Sparky and other objects and I found that the second prints of the same object made without re-applying paint rendered a more refined and detailed image.

Let me show you.

Nature printing comparing the prints
Which print do you prefer?

In my opinion the first print removed the excess of paint and the second print better reveals the seahorse contours and angles.

And I got the same results when printing the Sparky.

DIY fish printing
Which print do you prefer?

Note: The arrow points to what happens when they’re is a wrinkle in the fabric; you see the diagonal line where paint is missing?

It is a question of taste, you might prefer the result of a first print with more paint and less detail.

But if you prefer the result of the second print let me explain my technique.

Technique for a detailed fish printing on fabric

To re-create the above fish printing you will need to apply two thin coats of acrylic paint on the fish.

1– For the first coat I used a glimmer pigment in the color rich gold.

2– For the second coat I used a glimmer pigment in the color burnished copper.

3– Lay a piece of scrap fabric or absorbent paper over the fish and only just rub the fish with your fingers. We simply want to remove the excess paint.

4– Remove the piece of scrap fabric.

5– Lay a clean piece of fabric over the fish to make your final product second print. Give a gentle all over finger rub in order for the remaining paint to adhere/bond to the fabric.

6– Brush the fabric with a dry paint brush (I found that using a brush rendered more details than rubbing with my fingers). Keep your brush strokes going in one direction.

DIY fish printing Gyotaku
Beautiful detailed fish silhouette

This is a close-up showing the details of a second print. We see the iridescence of the glimmering gold paint of the first coat with some traces of burnished copper in some areas.

Below, other prints for which I used different paint colors. For reference, I did not wash the fish between the several  paint applications.

DIY fish printing on fabric
Making a gradient print

The above image is a first print. The color gradient is obtained by applying a first coat of  navy all over the fish, followed by a thin coat of burnished copper on the front part of the fish. The rub revealed some under layers of rich gold that was applied for a preceding print.

I would suggest that you experiment and try your fish printing with different fabric colors. In my opinion my nature printing looked much better on the light blue cotton then it did on the white fabric.

DIY fish printing on fabric
Close-up details of the fish head

Here is a close up of the fish head printed on light blue fabric.

Fish printing
Different paint application

This is a second print; for the first layer I applied a very thin uneven coat of rich gold. For the second layer I applied a diluted coat of turquoise.

I really liked this print. I probably rubbed a little harder on the fish lips and the fabric picked up some burnished copper applied on a previous print. The way the lips stood out……..  it made me smile. All the kids who came to our house would all press their lips against the aquarium window to get a kiss from Sparky. Sweet memories.

Fish printing faded third print
Example of a third print

For a reference this is how a third print looks like, faded but still a good results.

I have to tell you that fish printing is really a continuous hands-on affair with no time off before the paint dries. You have to do it to understand what works and develop your own technique. Be prepared with many pieces of fabric cut out in advance (such as your to be finished T-shirt or material bag or other garment you wish to print on).

Your results will depend on the type of paint you use and how you rub the fish or your object. For your reference I got about 10-12 prints before drying paint no longer adhered/bonded well.

Carole Cardinal Sewist and Blogger

My hubby gave me a glass of wine and said let’s toast to Sparky! (she is on the counter under the blue piece of fabric). I couldn’t help but smile, watching Sparky go about her day (moving gravels with her mouth and creating mountains within a few hours or doing her afternoon somersaults) always made me happy.

I kept the prints for years and the other day I decided that it was time to do something with some of them. I will use the prints as fabric appliqué on a reusable shopping bag. This way Sparky could go places…… I warned you, I am one of those hopeless romantics.

Now let’s make the shopping bag and decorate it with fabric appliqués of the fish prints.

Reversible shopping bag

Simplicity 1750 shopping bag
Commercial pattern of a reusable bag

I used a sewing pattern that I already owned; Simplicity 1750 from their It’s so easy collection.

Navy blue repe back satin fabric
Crepe back satin fabric

Well of course the shopping bag has to be blue. I used a piece of left over navy blue crepe back satin, it will make a nice reversible bag (the satin will be inside). Cut two pieces of fabric using the paper pattern.

I will make two reverse round appliqués, one for each side of the bag.

DIY Nature printing
Prepare the appliqué

Use a service dish or a stencil to trace a circle around each fish printing.

DIY Nature printing
Add a seam allowance

Add 1/2 ” (.07 cm) seam allowance around the traced circle.

Protect your fish printing
Protect your fish printings

In my case I had to protect the fish prints since I used acrylic paint instead of fabric paint. I choose to Apply iron-on vinyl over the fish prints. I know that the finish would be shiny and I thought that it would look as if the fish were in water….. please bare with me ;  )

Be careful when you apply your iron-on vinyl. (As you see on the above image left image) My iron became too hot when I applied the film on my second piece and the vinyl stretched out a little near the end.

Decide where the reverse appliqué will be placed
Decide where the reverse appliqué will be placed

Find the center of each bag, decide the level where you want to place the fabric appliqué. Trace a circle using the same stencil you use to trace around the fish printings. (On dark fabric you can use a regular white gel pen to draw your line).

Cut out the fabric
Cut out the fabric

Cut out the circle from the bag carefully following your traced line.

Prepare the bag to receive the reverse appliqué
Place the fish print under the cut out circle

Place the fish print inside the bag under the cut out circle. Secure the fabric appliqué in place using permanent washable fabric glue (optional, but I did not want to use pins and make holes in the vinyl).

Apply permanent washable glue on the print
Use permanent washable glue to hold the print in place

Use a paint brush to apply the glue making sure that the glue wont extend outside the line traced on the appliqué. The glue will hold everything in place until we can secure it with machine stitches.

Hold the fabric appliqué in place with a zigzag stitches
Hold the fabric appliqué in place with a zigzag stitches

I sew a simple zigzag stitch around the edge of the cut out. The crepe back satin polyester fabric does not fray and the appliqué is secured with a coat of vinyl. I didn’t need to use a thigh and narrow satin stitch. I also added a straight machine stitch close to the edge of the cotton fabric. The glue really made it easy to sew the reverse appliqué and the cut out circle kept it’s shape.

Simplicity 1750 grocery bag with reverse appliqué
Reusable shopping bag with fish printing

I followed the direction on the pattern Simplicity 1750 to assemble the grocery bag.

Simplicity 1750 grocery bag with reverse appliqué
Reversible shopping bag

And here is my romantic keepsake memory bag.

I really enjoyed experimenting with nature printing and I hope that this tutorial will inspire you to try your own fabric printing. Myself, I think that I will make cushions cover decorated with fish printings of Sparky for the cottage.

Thank you for passing by

Au revoir!

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