Of Rivers, and Fish and Fishing.

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“I fished just about every day as a child, in that pond by Inverness Road in Southern Pines, the one with the sign that said “No Fishing”. That was the best pond in town, full of fish and no one but us kids fishing there. It was all worms and bobbers back then, or I’d use corn or bread. It wasn’t until we moved out to the country that I started buying lures — rubber worms and such — all the gas stations sold them. I’d fish with friends on neighbouring farms, using a cheap and dependable Zebco rod and reel or just a cane pole.

For a kid fishing for bass, bream and catfish in irrigation ponds, fly fishing was exotic. I had seen it in the mountains when I went to summer camp. It did look pretty magical. The first time I tried fly fishing was more than a decade later, when I had moved to England. I was with my friend Ed, at some big stately home not far out of London that had a river with no trees around it so it was perfect to practise. And I caught a fish. I went back on the train with it wrapped in newspaper. It was a good size. Now, years on, my rod is part of my landscaping rig. I’ll wet a line between paintings, or when the light changes.

My paintings begin with the story. Fishing is a rich source of narrative for me. It’s a sport I love and I return to it often in still life and landscape. Many times I have been commissioned to paint anglers’ favourite rods, reels and kit. For this painting I wanted to combine stories that I have represented before in one grand event: favourite tackle both antique and modern, fly tying, repair, study, labour, discipline and finally a successful end to the day.

To set up a picture like this, I work out most of it in advance. When I have everything in place I’ll do the first sketching to lay out the composition. This first sketch is almost like a doodle, playing with the space. I’ll draw lines from corner to corner, making an X through it to find my centre, then I’ll find the big hemispheres and further divide each into subsections and play around with squares and angles within them. There’s no real rhyme to it. I just start connecting different angles and blocking o different areas. That’s how I get my proportions to be geometrically harmonious and to provide movement for the eye.

I’ll hold up the geometric sketch so I can see it in scale next to my set-up, see how things are fitting in. Then I’ll make a little oil sketch of the set-up. With this one I did move some stuff around, you can see the differences. It’s remarkable how things fall into place; maybe it’s because when I set them up I can see the geometry, so few things have to move much.

There were small adjustments. I added the maps, and other little things as I went along, like the books, those I hadn’t planned. I wanted the viewer to see through the netting all the way, but in fact it was too empty back there for what I wanted to show as a continuum of clutter, so the books were a useful detail to put in.

My wife found a box of feathers from back home and I didn’t have them in my initial set-up — I was just planning on having the wires. But the blue jay feathers really show o the copper and break up the shadow. I’m always trying to think of overlapping — light over dark and colours that clash. Things like that make the eye roam around the painting.

The eye can’t focus on everything at once. You help it by leaving big resting spaces and softening some of the things in the background and around the edges. The boots and stuff under the table, they have to be softer otherwise they start fighting with the things at the top. That’s why they’re not as highly detailed as, say, the Barbour, or the field bag, because they are under the table in the shadow, way out of the picture view.

This painting took months to make. Of that time I painted the trout in three, maybe four, days. I wouldn’t have it out for more than half an hour or so while I was painting it. The dogs were trying to steal it the whole time, staring at it, barking and jumping up, fur flying. There’s spaniel DNA in all my paintings.

I’d put the fish away during breaks to keep it safe — it went right back into a Yeti bag full of ice that kept it fine. I didn’t want it to go bad, particularly since I wanted to eat it, so as soon as I’d finished painting it I ran it home and smoked it with oak wood on the grill that evening. It’s a great big American grill so I threw some duck breasts on too as there was plenty of room.

Like a lot of my work, this painting is a still moment in a sequence of action. It’s the entryway, the place where the fishing stuff goes, where you throw down your things and pull your boots off.

Of Rivers, and Fish and Fishing is about tying flies one day, something I think a lot of us fishers would like to do. It’s about all the gear we possess, old and new, that always seems to grow, because we love it. It’s about hoping my four year old son will use it all one day, with or without my permission, and catch his own fish and love the time spent doing it and love the land and rivers that provide it. It’s about the feelings that are involved with catching a fish: the silent, modest and completely held-in ecstatic pleasure with oneself in being lucky enough to catch such a beautiful beast in its own environment with all its advantages over you.”

 

 

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