A Thing About Fish.. how it began

The first ‘real’ fish meal I can recall was Conga pie. By real, I mean it wasn’t preformed to look inoffensive and un-fishlike. (Saying that, I will always love a fish finger sandwich!)

Growing up, our little kitchen was (as is for many) the hub of familial life. Everything that was anything happened there. Various dogs carpeted the under table area, waiting to hoover the inevitable fallout from above. There was usually a chair resting, legs prone, on top of this table, enduring a ‘French Polish’. A sewing box took up a weekly slot, at the other end, disembowelled during a spate of darning and hemming. The sink draining area doubled up as storage for cleaned pans as well a resting place for a half plucked goose or freshly gutted fish (ultimate hygiene always top of the agenda!). The true heart of the kitchen though was the Raeburn. Mottled cream with a black top it sat quietly, always ready to cook or simply give comfort to a cold rear (unless the morning ‘coal swing’ had been forgotten).

I must’ve been about 8 years old. Coming in from a prowl and play around the field I was welcomed by a distinctly different smell hitting my nostrils and throat.  I walked over to the Raeburn and on tip toe peered over the edge of mum’s gargantuan pot that always seemed to be bubbling on the single hob.

The bizarre sight of 4 inch thick slabs of twitching muscle floating in a simmering sea of milk seemed entirely wrong to me.

“Mum! Stop cooking this thing! It’s still alive!”

“Don’t worry darling, it’s really not.”

“What is ‘it’?” I asked, with not just a little misgiving.

“It’s Conga eel (bright, cheery voice), and (firm voice to discourage any possible revolt) it’s going to be a wonderful fish pie”

Not in the least reassured, I vowed that this was one dish that I wouldn’t be eating, no matter how it was ‘disguised’.

Of course I did, and I absolutely loved it. Everything that got put in front of me got eaten, not simply because I had to, but because it usually tasted great.  My dear mother was (and still is) is an extraordinarily inventive cook. One of those who can literally pull something out of the proverbial hat, even when the cupboard or fridge looks decidedly devoid of inspiration.

Living near the coast meant that our diet was rich in fish. It was cheap too. really cheap. There wasn’t a huge cheffy/media push on fish at the time, so not many English cookery books featured them, let alone dedicated a whole book to these odd ‘foreign’ foods. Consequently, mum used to make it up as she went along. We ate a lot of sole, plaice and skate.

One that appeared with great regularity was mackerel, and it was at this point that I started to get ‘hooked’ on the sheer beauty of fish, any fish, even the so called ‘ugly’ ones.

If you click here you can see a few of my favourite fish I’ve illustrated.

The most enduring one for me though remains the mackerel..

I met it properly for the first time at the age of 9, as I hauled it up, flapping and flexing, out of the sea and into a sandcastle bucket. The eye popping colours of a living mackerel are quite the most vivid and hypnotically intoxicating that I’ve ever seen. Sadly though within hours of being caught, like all fish, the colours start to fade.  As an illustrator I work mostly from life and so it is when I draw/paint fish: the real thing perched in front of me.

My current mackerel painting started with a visit to my lovely local fishmongers (click and have a listen).

The chosen ones, with bright fluid eyes, got to pose for some colour ref shots before they faded..

Progress..

And then finally…

And of course to round it off, I should really give you my most favourite mackerel recipe..

1. Go fishing and catch your own, then

2. BBQ it on the beach on which you land.

It will never taste better than at this moment.


All arms...

Earlier this year, I decided to do something out of my comfort zone.  It’s not unusual for me to do silly stuff, but it usually involves either climbing boots/running shoes or my beloved Sidis.

I decided to create a competition for those who follow me on Twitter. I asked for people to throw me ideas of what they’d like to see on a canvas.  One of these suggestions would be picked out of my hat and I would paint it!

The suggestions made were so varied, ranging from the aesthetically stunning (monkfish, wild garlic, oyster on samphire) to the unusual but visually gripping (a heart in the literal sense), with some suggestions so far out there they may still be orbiting  (egg and bacon in a white bap.. tabasco on the side).

All of these ideas (yes really) went into the hat and I duly picked one out:

 

Having never illustrated an octopus before, this was new territory for me. I’m very lucky to have a great fishmonger near by.  Great, because whenever I need to come and photograph, examine and marvel at fish they’re incredibly accommodating. Handling this beautiful creature was a genuine revelation; the exquisitely detailed suckers that gather along the length of each outstretched tentacle; the huge sapient eyes, sheathed behind the pretence of a ‘lid’. With every pose I arranged, it lay with such grace and liquid agility.

In between “proper” work, I sketched, painted and became metaphorically entangled with this charming octopus that began to appear on my canvas.  It’s been a challenge to portray it’s fluid form. One that I’ve relished.

Here’s how the work progressed…

During this project it’s been great to get feedback from people. It seems that the octopus resonates with many.. it being quite an enigma about whom folklore and horror stories have fuelled a history of misunderstanding laced with a little dread.  The truth is it’s a beautiful, elegant and shockingly bright creature that deserves many more canvases…

Apparently it tastes good too! *

Now the varnish is drying, and on Monday 26th November I’ll be placing the names of all those who entered into my hat.  The one I pull out wins the canvas..and if they live near enough, I might even deliver it in person!

*I’ve not had the pleasure of anything beyond the rubbery “boing” of sadly overcooked polpo as yet!

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