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Anytime Lesson Plan: Fish Prints


In this hands-on art activity, students will study and identify features of the external anatomy of a fish, and learn about issues related to conservation of fish.


In this hands-on art activity, students will:
  1. study and identify features of the external anatomy of a fish.
  2. learn about issues related to conservation of fish.


  • 2-4 whole fish*
  • 3 newspapers
  • 2-4 rolls of paper towels
  • 2-4 containers of water-soluble paint (liquid tempera paint works the best) in each color: blue, red and green
  • paint brushes (one per student)
  • 1 roll of masking tape
  • round sticky dots
  • blank sheets of paper (one per student)
  • colored pencils or crayon assortment (one set per student)

    *Be sure you are buying sustainable seafood. Try to buy at least two different types of fish so students can make comparisons.  For subsequent fish print art activities, consider purchasing Gyotaku Fish Print Replicas.  The perch, bass, bluegill, and flounder illustrate anatomical features clearly, and are great representatives of species that inhabit California.


  • fins: the wing-like or paddle-like structures of a fish, dolphin, or whale that are used for propelling, steering, and balancing in water.
  • gills: the respiratory organ consisting of a series of membranes rich in blood vessels which enables most aquatic animals to take dissolved oxygen from the water and rid their bloodstream of excess carbon dioxide.
  • lateral line: a sensory organ in fish used for detecting vibrations in the surrounding water. The lateral line is usually visible as a faint line running lengthwise from the gill covers to the base of the tail along each side of the fish.
  • scales:  thin protective plates forming the outer skin of fish, reptiles, and certain other animals.



  1. Wash the fish with soap and water.
  2. Wipe off excess water with paper towels.
  3. Tape 3-4 layers of newspaper on a flat surface (table or floor).
  4. Lay the fish on the newspaper.
  5. If the fish is “gutted” fill the empty cavity with newspaper.
  6. Set up the stations where each group (5-6 kids per group) will work. Each station should have: one fish, two or three different colors of paint, a paint brush for each paint color, newspaper, and one roll of paper towels.


Start the activity by asking students if they have ever wondered why fish come in all different shapes and sizes.  Introduce the following general fish facts:

  • Fish live in water and most breathe through gills.
  • Fish have evolved a variety of shapes and sizes and can be found in most marine and freshwater habitats on Earth.
  • All fish have backbones and are classified as vertebrates. Ask students to touch the back of their necks and run their hands along their backs to feel their spines.
  • The internal body temperature of fish changes as the surrounding temperature changes.

Let’s learn about fish anatomy! Review with your students the following body parts of fish and draw this diagram on the board:

Fish Anatomy


a. Fins - fins are made up of spines or rays with skin covering them and joining them together. A fin can contain just spiny rays, only soft rays, or a combination of both. Spines are generally stiff and sharp. Rays are generally soft, flexible and segmented.

The large caudal fin (or tail) on many species acts like a propeller, providing energy to move the fish forward.  Dorsal fins (those on top) prevent the fish from rolling and assists in sudden stops and turns.  Pelvic fins (those below) assist the fish in going up or down, turning sharply and stopping quickly. Anal fins (close to the tail) provide stability while swimming.  The pectoral fins (midline on the fish’s sides) are used for turning and other fine-tuned movements and in some fish, like the mudskipper and flying fish, are highly developed for walking or lifting out of the water, respectively.

b. Gills - a delicate system of blood vessels covered by a very thin layer of tissue through which gas exchange takes place.  The gills are protected by gill covers, much like the pages of a book are protected by a book’s binding.

c. Lateral line - The lateral line consists of a series of scales, each modified by a pore that connects to a system of canals containing sensory cells and nerve fibers. It forms a line from the gills to the tail fin and can be seen in most fish as a band of darker-looking scales running along each side. The lateral line has been shown to be an important sensory organ in fish for detecting vibrations in the surrounding water. Its function is similar to echolocation in that it helps the fish locate its surroundings.

d. Scales - There are two primary types of scales - both types are round, but in one, the edges are serrated, and in the other the edges are completely smooth. In some fish, the scales are replaced by bony plates, and in other species there are no scales at all.

Fish have different characteristics that make it suited to living in a particular habitat. These characteristics, or adaptations, include overall shape of the body, shape of the mouth, color, pattern, tail shape, and many other external features. The shape of a fish's body can reveal a lot about its lifestyle. Those with streamlined bodies are well-adapted to living in fast-moving water.  Those with sucker-like, down-turned mouths are better adapted to slow-moving water where food that settles to the bottom is eaten. Eel-like fish can maneuver easily through matrices of rocks or vegetation. All of these adaptations provide fish with some type of improved function in their environment, such as the ability to take advantage of a new food resource or escape predation.

Some examples of a fish’s body shape and function are below:

  • Tuna have a body shape similar to a torpedo (called a fusiform shape), and can cruise through the water at very high speeds.
  • The long and narrow (attenuated) shape of an eel allows it to wiggle into small crevices to hide or hunt prey. 
  • The flattened top-to-bottom (dorso-ventrally depressed) shape of the angler fish is advantageous for its "sit and wait" strategy of hunting. 
  • The flattened side-to-side (laterally compressed) shape found on many reef fishes such as the butterfly fish gives the fish great agility for movement around the reef and can support sudden bursts of acceleration.


  1. Divide the students into small groups (group size will depend on amount of fish available) and assign them to a station.
  2. Give each group several sheets of paper towel.
  3. Instruct students to paint one side of the fish at their station with the paint (any color will do, although blue works great!). If necessary, you can thin your paint with some water.  Paint the fish from tail to head (the paint will catch under the scales and spines and will improve the print, especially if students use a thin coat of paint).  Make sure the students paint the fins and tail last, since they tend to dry out quickly. Do not paint the eye.
  4. If the newspaper under the fish becomes wet with paint while they’re painting, move the fish to a clean sheet of newspaper before printing. If they don't, the print may pick up leftover splotches of color.
  5. Carefully and slowly lay 2 sheets of paper towels over the fish. Taking care not to move the paper towels, use your hands and fingers to gently “pet” (press) the paper starting from the center to the sides. Press the paper towels gently over the fins and tail. Be careful not to wrinkle the paper towels or you will get a blurred or double image.
  6. Instruct students to slowly and carefully peel the paper off.  On the paper print, have them paint the eye with a small brush.  They should tape the print to a wall to allow it to dry.
  7. When the fish print is dry, students can add numbered labels to parts of the fish anatomy and make a corresponding legend that links numbers to fish parts.  The name of the fish can be added as well.
  8. Be sure to have students wash their hands thoroughly with warm water and soap when they’re done.


Discuss with the students:

  1. What is the shape of the fish’s body? Why is shape important?
  2. What is the name of the fish?  Where does it live? Note: All fish markets must label country of origin on fresh fish.  Be sure to ask when you buy the fish what it is.  Students can research other information about the fish on the internet.
  3. Ask students why they think some fish species are becoming less abundant or even going extinct?
    • Overfishing: modern technology allows fisherman to catch more fish in a shorter period of time. In addition, increasing human populations are putting higher demands on the fishing industry to increase their harvests. Unsustainable fishing practices of commercial species leads to smaller fish populations that cannot reproduce fast enough to survive and which may lead to extinctions.
    • Habitat destruction: pollution, water diversion for human use and other types of habitat alteration all adversely affect fish populations.
    • Invasive species: expanding world trade via international shipping has increased the incidence of exotic species being introduced via ballast water. These invasive species often have no natural predators and out-compete native species for the same habitat and food resources.
  4. Ask students to brainstorm what they can do to support healthy populations of fish in both fresh water and salt water habitats.
    • Don’t litter, particularly near lakes, rivers and at the ocean.
    • Don’t release pet fish into the wild.
    • Download and use the “Seafood Watch Card” next time you go to the grocery store and encourage restaurants to offer only sustainable seafood: http://www.mbayaq.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/download.asp.
    • Have students ask their parents to dispose of motor oil and chemicals (including fertilizers) properly. Overuse of fertilizers pollutes too. Do not pour these items down the street drain!
    • Fix automotive leaks to prevent motor oil from reaching our oceans.


  • Adapted from: Ayres, Roberta. 2005. Fish prints: Draft. California Academy of Sciences.



California Content Standards

Grade Three

Life Sciences

  • 3a. Students know plants and animals have structures that serve different functions in growth, survival, and reproduction.
  • 3d. Students know when the environment changes, some plants and animals survive and reproduce; others die or move to new locations.

Grade Four

Life Sciences

  • 3b. Students know that in any particular environment, some kinds of plants and animals survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all.



This activity is inspired by a Japanese tradition called gyotaku (pronounced ghio-ta-koo). In Japanese, the word gyo means fish and the word taku means rubbing. This rubbing or printing technique originated in the 1800’s as a way for fisherman to record their catches and is still used in Japan today.

The technique of gyotaku has evolved over time and is now recognized throughout the world as an art form. Your students will create a beautiful fish print that they can display and/or take home.

You may need to practice this activity several times to get the technique down. Be patient and you will discover that the more you practice, the more detailed your fish prints will become. 


Share how you adapted this activity for your grade level. Or, ask us a question!
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