Crazy Fish Caricatures: Eight Transparent Watercolor Paintings

Trash Fish (3.5x5.75 inch Transparent Watercolor)

Trash Fish (3.5×5.75-inch Transparent Watercolor)

Gatorface (3.5x5.75 inch Transparent Watercolor)

Gatorface (3.5×5.75-inch Transparent Watercolor)

Smug (3.5x5.75 inch Transparent Watercolor)

Smug (3.5×5.75-inch Transparent Watercolor)

Shoeface (3.5x5.75 inch Transparent Watercolor)

Shoeface (3.5×5.75-inch Transparent Watercolor)

Picklefish (3.5x5.75 inch Transparent Watercolor)

Picklefish (3.5×5.75 inch-Transparent Watercolor)

Grump (3.5x5.75 inch Transparent Watercolor)

Grump (3.5×5.75-inch Transparent Watercolor)

Glum Chum (3.5x5.75 inch Transparent Watercolor)

Glum Chum (3.5×5.75-inch Transparent Watercolor)

Psycho Goldfish (3.5x5.75 inch Transparent Watercolor)

Psycho Goldfish (3.5×5.75-inch Transparent Watercolor)

Now for something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT! 

I suppose these are going to need some serious explanation. After spending close to a hundred hours on my previous painting, I thought it made sense to do a few quick pieces. Now I’ve never been master of the “loose watercolor.” In fact, I’ve always been a bit envious of those who can keep everything fresh and fun. My friend Don Brown is a master of that style, doing fantastic watercolor and ink paintings for his incredible children’s books. Have a peek at and to see some of his genius. I thought it would be fun to try my hand at something a little less heavily rendered than usual. I managed to paint the backgrounds pretty loose and splashy, but try as I might to prevent it, the fish themselves ended up moderately tight.

Why fish? I’m not really sure. When I was in high school, I spent an embarrassing amount of time drawing a school of cartoon fish and cartoon penguins playing electric guitars. I usually did my drawing at home, but I confess that, yes, I would occasionally doodle during class. I’m sorry.

Once in study hall, I finished what I thought was a particularly hilarious creation involving some low-brow toilet humor. Then I subtly tilted my notebook to share it with my friend Bill Q. Now, Bill was a great artist and had a wicked sense of humor. I still laugh remembering many of his one-liners. He was a true connoisseur of creations like this and the perfect audience for the comic subtleties of this scatological masterpiece. Upon seeing it, Bill audibly chuckled, and I got caught. The teacher ordered me to bring it to the front of the room. I embarked on the march of shame to his desk. With a sour demeanor he inspected it, then burst out laughing. He folded it shut, gave it back to me, and that was the end of it. Thank goodness he appreciated “Fine Art.”

You wouldn’t dream risking a doodle with some teachers at that school. Sr. Marie Catherine, for example, was a history teacher both feared and respected. She really was an amazing and dedicated educator. If you were drawing in her class, it had better be a map of the Aegean Sea, the Dardanelles, Sea of Marmara, Bosphorus Strait or the Black Sea, or you were in for some serious trouble. As part of her class we spent the first ten minutes being quizzed on current events. She expected you to read the newspaper. Well, I dutifully “read” the newspaper every day. Unfortunately, where I fell short was that I always started with—and spent the most time on—the comics. Those were always completely fresh in my mind the next day in her class. The front page stories, unfortunately, were pretty fuzzy in the ole memory banks. I knew better than to tell Sr. Marie Catherine about what Hagar the Horrible and B.C. were up to. Garfield didn’t really discuss Solidarność or Anwar Sadat with Jon and Odie. I seldom could remember what happened at the front of the newspaper. I looked at the headlines last and honestly spent a lot less time there. I’m a fairly visual learner, and back in the early 80’s there were few photos in the paper, and they definitely weren’t in color! A well-prepared student like my friend Carm would quickly recall a headline about Idi Amin or the Hostage Crisis in Iran, and only then would I remember any details. Too late. Maybe they should have some cartoons with those stories as well to draw in knuckleheads like me?

How I settled on fish and penguins as subject matter I can’t precisely recall, but I remember trying to think of a cartoon that hadn’t already been done, and I hated drawing people. They weren’t particularly good drawings, but they did get better with time. I still find myself doodling mentally unstable animals and miswired humans when I’m confronted with a few spare minutes, a scrap of paper and any sort of drawing instrument. 

Over the past few years I’ve had clients asking for cartoons and caricatures rather than 3D and Photoshop art. I think people may be tired of the more highly rendered art. I’ll try to post some samples of those creations in the near future.

If you’re interested, these fish will be available on Etsy soon. If you’d like to buy a print or original, let me know. Keep in mind that the images above show the fish at larger than actual size.


Early Goldfish Watercolor Painting

Three Fancy Goldfish Transparent Watecolor Airbrush(21 x 29.5 inches)

Three Fancy Goldfish (Transparent Watercolor Airbrush 21 x 29.5 inches)

While cleaning up my archives, I came across this old painting that I did in 1989. I’d honestly forgotten that I’d done it. This was my first airbrushed painting, created in preparation for a grad school class that was coming up.

At the time my brother Ted and I had a bit of an obsession with fancy goldfish. Each of us had tanks with some real beauties over the years, including orandas, lionheads, moors, calico ryukins and a myriad of hybrid varieties. As often happens with siblings, we got competitive, but in a healthy way. Our main challenge was to see who could get his fish to be more massive. While Ted was in the game, he always managed to get the best of me. I’d come home from grad school and be blown away when his fish had doubled in size. Being a generous sort, he’d share his most recent secret. It was usually some sort of Japanese fish food in a brightly colored package covered with Kanji, probably promising explosive growth. He had one enormous lionhead named Cy that would eat food from your hand. You could stick your finger in the water, and he’d come up and rub his jelly-like head against your finger. Eventually Ted left the game. I continued on until a few years ago.

The problem I ran into with goldfish was that along with that exciting potential for growth came a huge drawback: goldfish are terrible polluters. They explosively grew until the point that they overcrowded the tank. Even with massive amounts of filtration, their bodily processes contaminated the tank, requiring that at least 75% of the water be changed each week in order to keep them somewhat healthy.

Goldfish are carp. They excrete goldfish growth hormone into the water surrounding them. In nature this diffuses out into the surrounding water. Once the concentration gets high enough, it has an inhibitory effect on their growth, preventing overcrowding. A small fish isn’t going to put a lot of hormone into a large tank, so it grows rapidly in that environment. Put a few large fish in the same tank, and the growth hormone concentration can raise enough to inhibit growth. Basically, the fish grow until the point that they are continually polluting the tank.

I had always started with fairly small fish in a big tank. I’d have a maximum of one fish per 15 gallons of water. Eventually I’d have massive, stressed fish that were always getting sick. When well fed, fish can grow about an inch a year. I had an old oranda that reached ten inches in length, including its tail. Its body was bigger than a baseball!

In the end I spent more time checking ammonia, nitrate and nitrite levels as well as changing and treating water than enjoying the fish. I felt more like a chemist and septic tank cleaner than an aquarist. Being busy with two kids and work, I gave up the aquarium. Old habits die hard though. I always take a long pass by the goldfish when I’m at the pet store. 

Whites and Blues C5 Transparent Watercolor & Time-Lapse Video

Whites and Blues (18x24 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Whites and Blues (18×24-inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Whites and Blues (detail from 18x24 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Whites and Blues (detail from 18×24-inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Whites and Blues (detail from 18x24 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Whites and Blues (detail from 18×24-inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Whites and Blues (detail from 18x24 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Whites and Blues (detail from 18×24-inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Whites and Blues (detail from 18x24 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Whites and Blues (detail from 18×24-inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Whites and Blues (detail from 18x24 inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

Whites and Blues (detail from 18×24-inch Transparent Watercolor on Arches 140lb HP paper)

After taking a break from doing these incredibly complex paintings for about 20 years, I did two back-to-back. Maybe that wasn’t the best idea, as this one took just shy of 100 hours! I could’ve completed about seven of my typical paintings in that same amount of time. Like my recent Flying Colors painting, this was 18×24 inches of solid, exhaustive detail. I have a lot of other ideas for similar paintings bubbling around, but I should probably invest some time in smaller, more sellable items for a while.

As much fun as I had coming up with the idea and executing it, I was relieved to have it finished. Nearing completion of a painting with a colossal time commitment like this, I’m always afraid something will happen to it. Watercolor is a fussy medium and has a delicate surface. We had an unusual threat pop up when I was finishing this painting.

Fall here in central Michigan equates to a continual home invasion by Box Elder Bugs, Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs and Lady Bugs looking for a warm place to spend the winter. The Stink Bugs in particular have a way of sneaking into every crack and crevasse around the house. I’ve found them squeezed into my violin and mandolin cases, crammed into a latch of a bike rack and even sandwiched between the glass and LED clock of our oven. Having seen a number in my office/studio space, I was sure they would wedge their way under the protective covering and onto my painting, managing to leave a hideous stain before or after getting accidentally squished. 

Our lovable but neurotic dog is afraid of these insect trespassers and alerts us to their presence whenever one has the audacity to come within his visual range. He seems certain that they are going to cause the downfall of the civilized world… or at least what passes for civilized in our house. Unfortunately, this is only one of many canine phobias that he suffers from. In addition to being afraid of the dark, the things that strike terror in his doggie heart include hummingbirds, inflatable lawn ornaments, nativity scenes, manhole covers, sidewalk grates, deer, any object left on the back porch, an octogenarian neighbor with a walker and all dogs over 70 pounds. This might lead you to believe that he is a 15-pound, ankle-biter, “foo-foo” dog, but alas, he is a strapping 70-pound German Shepherd/ Norwegian Elkhound mix. I’d say that should be more than a match for even the most muscular and sociopathic ladybug. 

Now for the artsy talk that I typically avoid so as not to sound like some of the folks who drove me nuts in art school. Generally there was an inverse relationship between the amount of explanation about a piece and the quality of the artwork itself. Anyhow, here it is.

I’m a real fan of the mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo. I first saw his artwork gracing the cover of the album Masque by Kansas. It features a painting from 1566 called Water. The image is of an almost hypnotizing human portrait that emerges from a still life painted entirely using crabs, fish, shrimp, mollusks and other sea life. I was fascinated by how he used still life objects to create abstracted, sometimes grotesque portraits. They were realistically painted, but transformed into something else entirely when you stood back a bit. In a way that was what I was hoping to accomplish with this: to create an abstraction with color, shapes and movement of textures by using realistic representations of birds.

There were a variety of things I wanted to “play with” in this work. I find it interesting to investigate the movement in repeated patterns and shapes. I thought it would be fun to play with the colors of birds that we think of as having the same basic colors. I did this by stripping back the palette a bit through my choice of birds for the painting. Birds were picked on a few criteria: first, they had to be the right colors. I wanted birds with similar but slightly different colors and textures to juxtapose. Second, I needed to have good photos of my own to work from so I wouldn’t be relying on any outside references. Third, I wanted to compose the painting in a way that would show off the varieties of colors and textures that are very similar on the surface while rendering them so you could also detect just how different the tones actually are, so I chose birds suitable for this scheme. 

Looking at the painting, you can see how the whites of the egrets are very pure white, smooth and streaky, while the ibis’ plumage is more ruffled, the Blue Jays have more purple-pink overtones and the Tufted Titmice have warm hues. Similarly, the overall blue tones have great variety. To offset the predominance of blues and whites, I included repeating warm accent colors, with the reds beaks and faces of the ibis, oranges of the bluebirds, lores of the egrets and red eyes of the herons popping up sparingly throughout the piece.

For those counting, there are 45 birds in the painting:

  • White Ibis (4)
  • Snowy Egret (4)
  • Tricolor Heron (6)
  • Blue Jay (10)
  • Tufted Titmouse (11)
  • Eastern Bluebird (10)

Fall Sale!

Fall Sale! 10% Off Select Originals

This is the first time I’ve offered a discount on my originals, and when they’re gone, they’re gone! Visit our Etsy shop before your favorite is shipped to someone else. 

Nature Chemistry Cover Art

Over the last couple of years I’ve collaborated with Michigan State University faculty members to create cover art for a variety of different scientific journals. Most recently, I worked with Aaron L. Odom, Ph.D., to design the cover art for the September 2017 issue of Nature Chemistry.

I used Lightwave 3D to model all of the objects and render the final image for both of the covers shown here.

One of my favorites—because of my love for maps—is the cover I made for the Royal Society of Chemistry’s November 2016 issue of Chem Soc Rev, pictured below.