In the Shoal

The thrill of being at the beach is not only experiencing the ocean, it’s also about never knowing what you might find. While treasure hunting last weekend on the south coast of Massachusetts, I was hoping for perfect shells or shorebirds, but instead found beautiful purple and silver colored fish recently washed up on shore. The fish were small and not long dead, one here, two there, all told, about ten as we made our way along the beach. Later, while swimming nearby, huge shoals of these same fish moved all about us, jumping above the surface, tumbling in the surf, slicing through the warm, shallow water. Gulls were having a field day. Beachgoers were both delighted and unnerved. We had never experienced anything like it.

Back at home, I did some research to identify the species and confirmed my hunch with a Massachusetts’ fisheries biologist. These were juvenile Atlantic menhaden, a common forage fish that is a valuable part of the ocean food chain. Menhaden dine on plankton and provide a hearty meal for larger fish, mammals, and seabirds. This second page is not of menhaden, but rather hundreds of much smaller fish that we saw in a small tidal stream. I painted them on the spot, trying to capture their movement, as they swirled and circled together like a single organism.

Tips and Techniques– Fish are a perfect subject to paint with watercolor. Each time you look at them, there are more and more layers of overlapping color. I started by using masking fluid to save some whites and then I painted the lightest colors wet-in-wet. Once dry, I added successive layers of additional colors, adjusting values and using loose brush strokes to keep the layers lively. I don’t have the opportunity to paint fish often, but if you do, I recommend giving it a try.

18 Comments on “In the Shoal

  1. Amazing! I love the layout of the “schooling” page and hope to take some of your online classes this fall. Your work is so inspiring.

    • Thanks. I’m so glad I did the schooling page. I was standing on a path watching the fish and decided I had to just go for it. The initial painting took only about 10 minutes, but it gave me enough inspiration and information to add to it later when I had more time. Now I’m glad these fish will live in my sketchbook.

  2. Jean, I just love these pages and your description of your process. The spread with the school of fish is so beautifully illustrated, the colors create the layers of fish, and all the movement. In a way, the menhaden pages are simple in that you didn’t include other visual items, which keeps the focus on the fish themselves. I love that too! I tend to want to include too much about the habitat or details. Thank you for sharing! I love seeing your pages.

    Sarah Reid

    • Thanks Sarah– That’s right. When you strip out the background the focus stays right on the subject. I like that approach, but you sometimes lose context. It’s a choice you have to make when journaling. I always ask myself “What’s most important?” “What am I trying to convey or learn about?” and that’s what I focus on.

  3. Jean, these two pages are delightful! I especially love the one featuring fish “Schooling.” You captured their movement perfectly! I enjoyed reading others’ comments too. Don’t want to be repetitive, but these simple pages are powerfully visual!!! I learn so much from you and am hoping to take some of your Fall classes too. I don’t always get to finish my homework because of being a caregiver for my Dad, but have a lot of fun sketching and learning!!!

    • HI Elaine– Nice to hear from you! Glad you enjoyed these pages! It’s hard to believe September is already here– it’s going to be a full fall with work, teaching, travel, and family occasions. Hope to see you in a class. Best wishes for caring for your dad. — Jean

  4. Awesome, Jean! I agree …. fish are great watercolor and sketching subjects. We don’t have many fish swimming about the NM desert, but I’ve tried my hand at fish portraits in a few watercolor classes. Your menhaden page is simply gorgeous (are they truly such a pretty blue?). What realistic movement you’ve captured on your shoaling page.! Thanks so much for sharing your work and techniques.

    • Hi Barb- Yes, these fish were amazing shades of pale purple on the sides with darker purple/blue/green on top. I took several photos so that I could remember them and have a variety of references, and I’m glad I did. I wouldn’t have remembered all the variety. In the photos of them I’ve seen online they look much paler and less purple — I’m not sure whether that’s a factor of lighting, maturity, or perhaps reflected sky in the ones I saw lying on the beach.

      • How interesting! I’m still curious about why they were lying on the beach. And Rabbit trailing from your thoughts about color raises all sorts of questions in my mind. How long had they been lying there ….. are there different varieties …. Is it something they eat that results in color changes …. Maybe it’s a stress issue. Isn’t life fascinating! Thanks again! I love your work.

      • I think there were so many shoals passing close to the shore that some fish just got caught in the waves, washed up on the sand, and didn’t make it back out. I don’t think they had been there for very long. My understanding is that fish colors can fade quickly once they are caught and out of water, but I don’t have enough experience to know much about it.

      • Thanks for the reply Jean. Obviously you were there at the perfect moment to capture the brilliant coloring of these little fish.

  5. I love all your ocean sketches! Just wonderful. I’m drawn to the water which is why I love our Great Lakes! We just don’t have the variety of marine life. But that’s ok. I’ll delight in your sketches to see them.

    • I can’t imagine being so far from the ocean. As it is, I’m about 4 hours or more, so I only get there a few times a year. I’m happy to share my discoveries with you.

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