Growing up, I spent a lot of time down at the man-made dam behind my house — fishing. The creek here has always been filled with beautiful Speckled Trout. While I no longer care much for the act of fishing (or the act of even eating fish, tbh), some of my best memories are of my dad and I sitting down by the creek, fishing for trout.
My last commission was another in the series of wildlife paintings I’m producing for a client’s book. I had fully intended to blog about each one as I went along, but you may have noticed that the last Gallery Feature I did was the Pacific Tree Frog — exactly one year ago this month.
The lack of posting about my work, however, is not indicative of a lack of work, and 2018 will forever hold a special place in my heart as the year I had more commissions than I knew what to do with.
Happily, this year is also already commission-heavy, and the first piece of 2019 was a Rainbow Trout.
Rainbow Trout are somewhat similar to Speckled Trout, so when my client and I finally nailed down that it was a Rainbow he was after, I was happy to at last be painting a creature that I already knew something about.
The most distinctive feature of Rainbows is also what helps give them their name — that pretty stripe of bright pink that runs down the sides of their body.
In addition to its pink sides, Rainbow Trout are typically some hue of brownish green/black or olive on the back, with a belly that’s silvery fading to pearly white. The exact colouration of the trout, like many animals, varies depending on the time of year and the location. Rainbows are named such because when you combine the greens and the pinks, you get a natural transition of yellow, and what you’re left with is a fish that does, in fact, resemble a sort of rainbow. This lovely colouration also helps them blend into their surroundings.
Rainbow Trout are also covered in small blackish brown spots. Though one thing I learned during my research is that many artists ignore the fact that these spots are not just everywhere. The fish are spotted on their back, fins, and tail, but not on their bellies.
I also wanted to know what these particular trout eat, so I could hopefully add another level of interest to the painting. Different types of flies and larvae were mentioned, as well as algae, but I was pleased when I saw a bug I was familiar with: The May Fly.
Up here we call them Shad Flies, and by the end of June and into July, these rather large flying insects can be found swarming on walls and smooshed by the hundreds on sidewalks and in the entry ways of public places. Thankfully we don’t really have many Shad Flies in my area, but 95 miles south, it gets pretty disgusting.
The client said that he wasn’t particular about the setting elements for this Trout painting, as long as it was consistent and fit with the previous aquatic settings I’d already done for him. My immediate thought was that I wanted the Trout in a really dynamic pose, rather than the standard static side view. But I also had to keep in mind that it’s the side of this fish which is exactly what makes it recognizable as a Rainbow Trout.
I finally decided on this dramatic swooshing motion — it’s not a lackluster, run-of-the-mill side view, yet you can still clearly see enough of the Trout’s body for the pink stripe and the back colour to be visible.
Since this is another piece in a series of illustrations for a book, I’m always conscious of how new pieces should complement the existing ones. My previous commission for this client (which I have yet to blog about, sheesh, Wendy, get with it) was this painting of Black Bullhead Catfish. It was the most elaborate of his paintings to date, with more than one fish, as well as back and foreground elements.
After looking at all the previous pieces together and considering the “busy-ness” of this last one in particular, I decided to keep the Rainbow Trout’s composition simple and uncluttered (more like the Pacific Tree Frog). The fish is very colourful on his own, and I didn’t want anything to take away from that or compete with it.
Immediately I envisioned what I wanted this painting to be: A snapshot that could exist in nature, but one that you would never be in the position to see with human eyes.
A May Fly sitting on top of the water, and the Trout at the exact moment he realizes that lunch has landed above him and he’s going for it.
A simple background of blue water was all this design needed. As I said, if there’s any fish who doesn’t need extra bells and whistles to make him interesting, it’s the Rainbow Trout.
Once the design was approved by the client, I set to work.
I grabbed a piece of already-prepped canvas paper and cut it to the desired dimensions, then I sized my design accordingly and printed a template. I transferred the image using graphite paper.
The same day, I applied masking fluid to the Trout and Fly, so that I could more easily wash the background in blues while keeping the other areas relatively paint-free. (I say “relatively” because even with the masking fluid, there can be a little bleeding around the edges, and minor tearing of the masking can happen when you’re repeatedly brushing over top of it.)
When you want nicely blended, feathery edges, it can take a lot of time and patience. It’s also easy to get discouraged when painting on any type of paper because washing a background requires quite a bit of water, and sometimes you just have to stop and let it dry for a while (and pray that the buckling is minimal and temporary). In this background, I had both water and a sliver of above-water sky, so I blended both up and downward from the horizon line. The gradations are subtle here, but that’s in fitting with how I’d done the water in previous pieces.
I let the paint dry for a few hours (not TOO long or the masking fluid becomes harder to get off, which can tear the top layer of paper, forcing you to start all over), and then it was time to remove the masking fluid.
A few days later, I was ready to tackle the Shad/May Fly. I quickly realized the mistake I had made — when I applied the masking fluid, I covered the entire fly, wings included. What I should have done was mask around the wings since they’re meant to be transparent, and the blue from the sky should have been visible through them. Trying to match and blend the wings with the sky after the fact was just extra work that I shouldn’t have had to do. I’ll know better for next time!
Once I was ready to begin painting the Trout, I realized that I had better do a colour test for the fish. I don’t often do that, but sometimes a quick colour test can save you tons of time and indecisiveness.
When it came to colouring, I really didn’t like any of the reference photos I found for Rainbow Trout. You have to remember that once a fish is out of water (as almost all of the references online are), and especially once he’s dead, his colour begins to fade almost immediately. So I figured that I could paint my Trout more vibrantly than the photos and still stay true to nature. I also had no reference photo for the pose I drew him in, and that meant I wasn’t entirely positive where to put the colours on this twisting fish.
Using my Albrecht Dürer watercolour pencils, I worked out first where the pink stripe should go, and then coloured outward from there. I was also able to map out the spots. Now, I didn’t trace the spots onto my painting, but this was good practice to see where I would want them to go and what size to make them. Much easier to make a change or correction on a test piece in pencils than on your good canvas paper in acrylic.
On this test fish, I also decided where he should be shadowed. I’m just an artist who works better with references, and with no photo to go off of, the colour test allowed me to go into the main painting with a clear sense of direction, which made working on it so much more pleasant.
The first thing to do was get that pink stripe blended out. This is probably the most difficult and time consuming aspect of my particular painting style. If I’m blending from a hard edge outward, I have no trouble at all. I’ve worked very hard for years to perfect my technique, and I think I’ve mastered it pretty well.
Blending out from a hard edge is simple. Having no hard edge at all and needing a smooth blend on all sides is much more difficult for me.
There was a LOT of time and layers to build up the pink and blend it out. I laid down a creamy yellow colour first, and also used that colour to help develop the lines and folds of the fish.
At this point I’ve gone as far as I can go with the pink colour. The edges are all reasonably feathered, and it’s the shade and opacity that I want. I’ve carried it up and towards the spine farther than I know it needs to go because the colour of his back will need to be blended down into that pink and I want a seamless transition.
I move on to adding the green, a small amount at a time, in all the areas that I know I want to have some green visible.
Layers and layers and LAYERS of green later, the base of the fish is finished and shading can begin.
I start with the areas which I know will be darkest and then just work my way through, deepening and darkening as I see fit. There’s a lot of fiddling and adjusting, but it’s always worth it to go the extra mile and really strive for that three-dimensional look.
Before I can finish with all the necessary shading, or even think about highlighting, the spots need to be painted on. It’s so important when you’re painting realism that you pay attention to how you layer things. Fish are not flat, two-dimensional objects. They have volume and mass. You’ll get a much more realistic result if you do a bit of shadowing first, then layer on the spots, and then shadow again and highlight over top of them. The spots are not an afterthought — they are a part of the fish’s skin and you have to keep that in mind while you paint. If you paint them as the top-most layer, your picture will not only look flat, it will also look wrong.
Even though the Rainbow Trout’s spots are technically black, I’ve painted them brown first. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, brown is more subtle than straight black, and I wanted to be able to remove a spot whose placement I didn’t like. There’s no real set pattern to spots on a fish, so you want to place them where they should be, but keeping in mind what will look good. Secondly, when looking at photos of Rainbow Trout, their spots don’t always look pure black. If you can find a high resolution image, you’ll discover that at least to the eye, the black spots appear to have a slight brown ring to them. So to get a realistic look that’s not overdone, I’ve split the difference and tempered my fish’s spots with a brown underlay, and black just in the middle.
If you’re not a hyper-realist, you don’t have to paint like it’s a photograph. You can take liberties. Perception matters. Artists frequently trick the eye into seeing what they want it to see, rather than what is actually there.
Now you can see I’ve begun adding highlights to my Trout. The light is coming from above him, so the strongest concentration of highlight is on the top of his head and down his back. Some of the highlighting, however, has less to do with directional light and more to do with creating the illusion of dimension. When you’re dealing with a two-dimensional surface, you do sometimes need to get that rounded look however you can. Strategically placed high and low lights are perfect for achieving this.
A few final adjustments including a full-body side highlight, and my Rainbow Trout was finished. Lunch time, little buddy!
Three weeks to complete this one, which I don’t think is bad at all. I hope I was able to successfully capture some measure of dynamic motion in an otherwise static picture. To me, that’s the key to good realism if you don’t want to go the full-on hyper-realist route.
In thinking of how to cleverly close out this blog post, I had considered inundating you all with fish puns, but I decided I don’t want to be gill-ty of baiting anyone. I dolphinitely am not someone who would sit here and write out a bunch of a-trout-cious fish puns. I mean, any fin is possible, and maybe I’m floudering a little here…
Carp. Once I started, I was hooked. Okay, geez, Wendy, you’re krilling me now!
It’s fine, I’m done now, you betta believe it.
Cod, that was bad, eely bad…