The art of fishing.
Ever wonder where all the marine art floating around out there comes from? One visit to your favorite boating & fishing accessory store, and you’ll see marine art featured on every form of apparel, different sorts of tackle, stickers, the sides of boats, and of course, complimenting the cover of magazines.
The vast majority if this art was born from someone’s imagination and portrayed with a unique combination of oil or water based paint. We asked avid angler and world renowned marine artist, Carey Chen, to share his views on the process of reincarnating unforgettable sport fishing scenes on canvas. Check it out. It’s pretty interesting stuff…
Carey, please tell our readers a little bit about yourself, and where you find your inspiration for the magnificent, and very realistic, works of art you create. How does it all come together?
I’ve been residing in South Florida for close to three decades. My first experiences on the water were spent spear-fishing off Key Largo in the late 70s. My cousins were hardcore spear-fishermen who taught me the tricks-of-the-trade. Seeing the underwater world first hand before evolving into a recreational angler really helped me understand where to find fish and exactly what to look for.
While free-diving, I would often encounter large schools of fish, and I knew that close by would have to be some form of structure. It didn’t take me long to learn where hog snapper were hiding. The same basic principles apply to offshore fishing. Deep underwater structure causes currents and rips that inevitably attract both bait and prized game fish. I’m telling you this because most of my early research for painting came from these first-hand experiences fishing South Florida and the Bahamas. I have witnessed breathtaking scenes that have inspired me to duplicate them on canvas in an effort to share them with others.
My early painting days really started when the late Capt. Harry Vernon commissioned me to paint the cover of the Capt. Harry’s Fishing Supply catalog. From there I painted a giant mural on the walls of the building. My painting back then was somewhat primitive compared to today, but it sparked a fire in me that led to fishing tournaments. One of the first local events which featured my work was the Miami Billfish Tournament. I went on to become a committee member and featured artist for several years. Afterwards, I got involved with a number of the most prestigious tournaments in all of South Florida- the Capt. Bob Lewis Billfish Challenge, the Cocoplum Fishing Tournament, Miami Dolphins Fishing Tournament, and the Herman Lucerne Backcountry Tournament. These events all raised money for charities and conservation efforts which I admired. Eventually, my work branched off into the Caribbean, Central and South America, and almost every island in the Lesser Antilles. By the turn of the century, I was involved with over 100 prestigious events a year, practically living and painting out of a suitcase. I made so many friends along the way and had the privilege of fishing so often, I managed to release forty-eight blue marlin in a single year, a feat I am not sure if I will ever match.
In the early 80s, I purchased my first boat, a 20 ft. Sea Craft, and began exploring the waters off Miami, the Florida Keys, and the Bahamas. Though the boat was a far cry from some of the multi-million dollar vessels I’ve since had the privilege of fishing on, I ventured over to Bimini on many occasions, running to the Gingerbread Grounds with nothing more than a chart, compass, and Lowrance paper recorder, a far cry from today’s state-of-the-art technology. Somehow or another, we always managed to load up on wahoo, dolphin, and a variety of bottom fish. My good friend Elias Rodriguez, who was employed at Capt. Harry’s Fishing Supply at the time, taught me much of what I still use today.
I vividly recall one particular afternoon bottom fishing on the Pioneer, a popular wreck just off Fowey Light. While attempting to catch amberjack among a group of commercial fishermen, Elias’s first drop with nothing more than a yellow jig resulted in something very big. Just as Elias shouted “big amberjack”, a white marlin shot straight up and cartwheeled between the other boats. We finally landed our surprise first marlin off Miami.
During another memorable trip, Elias and I fished Bimini for close to a week straight searching for a blue marlin for our friend, Frank. We were frustrated with not seeing a single billfish during our entire stay. Disappointed but disheartened, on the sixth day we finally decided to give up hope and head for home. About 15 miles off Miami, we ran across a large school of small blackfin tuna, and quickly decided to drop back a few baits. Two lures were quickly deployed on 20 lb class TLDs, with a third dropped way back on the closest gear at hand, an 80 FinNor. Suddenly, and much to our surprise, we saw a trifecta of blue marlin appear behind our baits. Two looked to be in the 350 pound range, with the third a relative pee-wee at only 100 pounds. Wouldn’t you know it, the large marlin slam the 20 lb. outfits while the little guy eats the lure on the 80. Simultaneously, three blue marlin are grey-hounding in three different directions. Frank grabbed the FinNor and jumped in the chair while Elias’s fish shook the hook. I held my TLD high in the air and watched helplessly as my line disappeared into the horizon with an estimated 300 to 400 pound fish leading the way. We finally landed the small marlin and Frank was as happy as could be. It is encounters like this, coupled with the wide variety of game fish that South Florida and the Bahamas have to offer, that continue to inspire me to paint.
Complimenting our covers for more than a year now, our readers constantly comment on the realism of your artwork. Other than actual hands-on experience, does accurately painting marine art require any additional type of research?
Most people probably think painting fish pictures for a living is really not that difficult. Any marine artist will tell you nothing could be further from the truth. It really isn’t that simple. A marine artist has to be somewhat of a marine biologist, thoroughly studying fishes’ behavioral patterns, habits, and their surroundings. All of this information is vital to painting an accurate depiction of a specific scene. I always try to go the extra step with each of my paintings, doing my very best to match every element of each painting. Fish, bait, background, it’s all equally important.
For one thing, I’m sure you’ve noticed that almost all pelagic game fish have underbellies which are pale and white, while their backs are extremely dark. If you’re down below and looking up toward the surface at fish, their lightly colored bellies make them much more difficult to see. The same holds true when looking down into the depths when you’re on the surface. Dark colored backs make billfish and tuna next to impossible to detect as they perfectly blend in with their surroundings. Even dolphin, which we all associate with being bright neon green and yellow, an easy target for lurking predators, actually swim around in all blue with only small hints of yellow in their tails. This helps them capture prey and elude predators….hence the phrase, “Eat or be eaten.”
Studying the anatomy and growth rate of game fish is equally important to accurate paintings. The shape of a juvenile fish changes dramatically once it reaches maturity. For instance, a billfish in the early stages of its life has a large pronounced dorsal fin which shrinks as the fish matures. A large blue marlin over 600 pounds measuring twelve feet in length, will increase more in girth and less in length as the fish ages. The pectoral, dorsal, and anal fin usually remain the same, but muscle structure and mass distribution separate and change. My objective is to paint marlin so accurately that a veteran captain, experienced angler, or seasoned deckhand can take one quick look at the painting and accurately estimate the weight of the fish.
Just think of pelagic fish like human beings. We get taller as we grow older, but some of us get wider. These creatures live within the vast realm of the ocean, and only after many days at sea, and successfully releasing over 250 blue marlin along with countless other game fish, can I honestly say that I believe I have paid my dues and now have a vast knowledge of the marine world. And for some reason still unknown to me, a higher power has given me the natural ability to vividly capture these images on canvas.
Keep in mind that game fish art is very unique. There are only a handful of qualified marine artists that paint fish accurately. To be qualified as an expert, you have to be both a hardcore fisherman, and an extremely talented artist. There are thousands of wildlife artists who paint lions, tigers, and bears, because these animals live on the land where they are easily studied and photographed. But think about how many people actually get the opportunity to witness feeding billfish corral huge balls of sardines so close to the boat, you could practically touch them. How about a big school of yellowfin tuna charging straight at you without an ounce of fear or hesitation? Few people, and even fewer artists, have seen these images up close. Without experiencing it first hand, accurately reproducing these scenes which inspire even the most seasoned veterans is next to impossible. It requires a thorough knowledge of anatomy, a sharp memory, imagination, and artistic ability. Combined, artists are able to blend individual colors to capture and reproduce even the most vivid yellows, magentas, and purple hues so prevalent in live fish.
Someone once told us that painting inshore species in their natural habitat is very different from painting offshore species out in the deep blue. Is that true?
Inshore fish rely more on color or chameleon like changes to blend in with their environment as they stalk and ambush their prey. Snook, redfish, tarpon, bonefish, trout, and just about every other shallow species all change colors to melt into their surroundings. Experienced guides can tell by the color of an inshore fish alone if it was caught in an open expansive bay or deep in the mangroves. Redfish that live in the Everglades have that red, orange color similar to rotting leaves, while open bay caught reds are very pale in comparison. When commissioned to paint a redfish for a particular event up north, I have to alter the scenery knowing that these fish primarily feed on oyster beds and in grass reeds rather than far up in the mangrove roots. Baitfish also change with location. Menhaden start showing up instead of pilchards. The background scenery in paintings is just as important as the actual fish. The end result is an unmistakable feeling of, “I’ve seen that before.” It may sound like the best marine artists go overboard, but having that type of knowledge lets the consumer know they are getting a painting from someone who can accurately portray that unforgettable scene they’ve once witnessed.
Carey, obviously you’ve made a career out of painting art because of your love for the sport, but can you tell our readers a little bit about how marine art actually helps us all…
My job as a marine artist takes me to exotic locations all over the world with the best captains, mates, and anglers. I have personally experienced the wild blue marlin bite in St Thomas, huge numbers of sailfish off Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Venezuela, and the plentiful tuna in the Carolinas and Northeast. Nevertheless, I still feel no where can compare to South Florida and the Bahamas when it comes to sheer variety. Just look at a nautical chart of Florida. The coastline is complimented with broken islands, canals, bays, and keys. And I don’t think I have to tell you how bountiful the Bahamas are. No where in the United States is the topography and climate like it is right here in our backyard. We’re really all very privileged.
A substantial percentage of funds for conserving these resources have been raised from the sale of marine art. When you attend fund raising banquets held by organizations such as the Coastal Conservation Association, The Billfish Foundation, the International Game Fish Association, and other notable charities, many of the auction items are donated marine art. A prime example of this is the resurgence of the swordfishery in South Florida waters, clearly credited to these very same organizations putting a halt to long-lining off the Florida Straits. I am proud to have been recognized at one time or another as the featured artist for many of these charities, and feel really good knowing that my talents have made a big difference in conservation.
I have also spent lots of time in Biscayne Bay, and because of conservation measures such as no more building along the shoreline, strict mangrove enforcement, and no-take zones, Biscayne Bay is now a fishing and diving paradise like no other in the country, which is clearly vital to tourism. Remember that the state of Florida is also very unique because we have aquifers. If you live inland and accidentally spill motor oil on the ground, it will eventually reach the ocean. Think about that the next time you discard any type of harmful chemical. Leading by example, we should all take pride in preserving this paradise for future generations.