The One That Didn’t Get Away

James Prosek paints the final moments of his saltwater subjects.

Swordfish (“Xiphias gladius”).

While studying the subjects of his newest book, artist James Prosek essentially asked the same question dozens of times: What does a fish look like as it’s pulled from the water for the last time? The answers appear in Prosek’s collection of 35 life-sized paintings of Atlantic fishes, reproduced on a smaller scale in Ocean Fishes: Paintings of Saltwater Fish.

To capture the final moments of those fish—including a 750-pound bluefin tuna and a 13.5-foot-long blue marlin—Prosek angled his way onto boats fishing the waters from George’s Bank to the Cape Verde Islands. Over the course of several years, he sketched, measured, and took notes and photos as fishermen (including himself) hauled in the catch. Back in his Connecticut studio, Prosek pulled his materials and memory together to recreate the way each fish appeared as it emerged from the sea, an ephemeral moment that he says cannot be captured in a photograph.

Black sea bass (“Centropristis striata”), by James Prosek.

“Painting the fish at that moment when it first leaves its element, the water, and enters ours, the air, is different than painting the fish when it’s underwater, like you would see when scuba diving,” says Prosek. “When a fish comes out of the water, it’s not only lit internally with all its beautiful colors, but it gets hit by the rays of the sun. It’s just a really beautiful moment—probably the most important moment for fishermen in our legacy as predators.”

Barracuda (“Sphyraena barracuda”), by James Prosek.

That legacy has led to a significant decline in several types of fish that Prosek paints, including some populations of bluefin tuna and blue marlin. While the book doesn’t explicitly address the problem of overfishing, Prosek, himself a fisherman, does write that these paintings are his “conservation statement.”

“If I, someone who loves fish, had no idea what these fish look like, then most of the public probably doesn’t know what the fish they eat look like. In exhibiting these works, I wanted to show people how monumental some of these ocean fish are that we are losing,” he says.

Prosek added powdered mica and different mineral powders to his paintings to try to give the painted fish the “shimmery quality” of live ones. “Everything in nature sparkles,” he says. (The shimmer is imperceptible in the reproductions in his book.)

Bluefin tuna (“Thunnus thynnus”), by James Prosek. “The glint of turquoise from my jacket, reflected in the fish, represented me in its world,” Prosek says.

Prosek says his goal was not to paint “field guide” style representations of fish, but rather to capture each individual and his experience with it. “The pictures are my personal interpretation of these fish,” he says. “If I saw myself reflected in the eyeball of the fish or the body of the fish, I would put that in also. I didn’t want my presence to be absent from the picture. Each of these paintings is almost like a self-portrait of my experience of being on the boat. I wanted to convey that experience to the people who see these paintings.”

A selection of the life-sized paintings is on display at The Gallery at The Nature Conservancy in East Hampton, New York, until August 20, 2013 and will move to other locations through 2014. You can see more of Prosek’s work and find a schedule of upcoming exhibitions here.

Meet the Writer

About Annette Heist

Annette Heist is a former senior producer for Science Friday.