Words and Photographs by Gero Lilleike, unless stated otherwise.
The story of Gavin Erwin, a professional fish artist based in Johannesburg, is both fascinating and inspiring. Specialising in painting fish, water and marine life, Gavin’s fish art is rapidly gaining popularity in South Africa. At first glance, you might think that he’s just an ordinary guy, and he is, but there’s more to Gavin Erwin than meets the eye.
Take a good look at his fish art and you will soon realise that Gavin is bursting with artistic talent and flair that deserves recognition. Look a little deeper and you will discover a man true to his heart, a man living out his dream, no matter what. There’s a lesson in that for all of us. Driven by his passion for fishing and nature in general, Gavin has harnessed and honed his artistic skills to become one of South Africa’s top fish artists, alongside renowned artists Craig Bertram Smith and Tom Sutcliffe.
A Fish Artist is born
For Gavin, life as an artist started at a very young age and time played an integral role in forging the artist he is today. “I started drawing as soon as I was old enough to hold a pencil and talk, I was probably about 5 or 6 years old when I started, maybe younger. My Dad always had a pile of scrap paper lying around, and he always said, ‘you must draw’. As kids, with my brother Steven, we used to sit and draw. We drew dinosaurs, cars, fish and pretty much anything, but the passion for drawing and painting started there”, explains Gavin.
With the support of his family, Gavin kept putting pen to paper, slowly developing his own style throughout his childhood, but it was fishing that lit a fire within him and so, a fish artist was born. “My father, Ken Erwin, was a big influence in my life. He started fishing in his twenties and he basically passed his passion for fishing and the great outdoors onto us. It has inspired me ever since to actually paint fish and obviously the angling side of it inspires me too,” says Gavin.
Fishing became an important part of Gavin’s life and provided him with much joy, but fishing also gave Gavin a unique perspective on life and brought him closer to nature and the subject matter of his art. For Gavin, fishing is a way of life.
Gavin explains it best, ” Fishing, to me, is a lifestyle. I love fishing. To me, fishing means getting your mates together, planning a trip, going and getting out into nature for days at a time, just enjoying yourself and appreciating the great outdoors. The thing I love about fishing is the mystery. You’re on open water, whether it be brown or blue, you don’t know what’s lurking beneath you, you don’t know what’s there, it’s about the mystery of ‘are you going to catch?’ and ‘what are you going to catch?’ and when you do catch something, you’re satisfied, you’re over moon. It’s all about the mystery. Fishing is in my blood, I can’t help it.”
Life as a Professional Fish Artist
It was only when Gavin finished school that he had to decide what he was going to do with his life, and he was in no rush. While most of his school friends went off to pursue ‘traditional’ careers, Gavin went fishing…and decided to become a professional fish artist and he hasn’t looked back since.
“I’ve been painting professionally for about 10 years now and each year has been getting better and better. People are starting to recognise me as the ‘fish artist’ explains Gavin. ” I always had the dream of becoming an artist. When I discovered that there was a demand for art in general, I decided to pursue it as a career”.
Humbly plying his trade from his art studio in Kensington, Johannesburg, Gavin has learnt to cope with the hardships associated with being an artist living and working in South Africa. Hard work and commitment towards his fish art has put Gavin on the road to success. “I have learnt that you have to work hard and work smart. Just like anything in life, the more energy you put into something, the more reward you get out. It’s not easy being an artist in South Africa, especially a ‘fish artist’, but I have found that niche market that everyone talks about and I’m just riding the wave to success from here” explains Gavin.
The art industry is flooded with artists trying to make a name for themselves and Gavin is no different. Painting is one thing, but differentiating yourself from the crowd is something that every artist has to grapple with. How an artist deals with that dichotomy is often the difference between success and failure. Gavin shares further insight into the rigors of being a successful fish artist, “To find your fish-loving client you definitely have to market yourself hard, find something that you love painting and then get yourself out there. The only way someone is going to see your talent is by showing people the real thing, in the flesh. The current state of art in South Africa is not as good as it has been in the past, so it just means that you have to work and paint harder to make it. My art is affordable and that’s what I want, I would rather paint constantly for the rest of my life than sit on a painting for months at a time waiting for the right client with the credit” says Gavin.
Although there’s no doubt that hard work, commitment, perseverance and a sound marketing strategy contributes towards success as an artist, there is one crucial and powerful ingredient that determines the degree of any artist’s success, and that’s passion, something Gavin has in bucket loads. “Art is just an expression of the person doing it and the more passion you have within yourself, the better your art will be and the more satisfied you will be with your art. If you not fully into it and you haven’t got any passion, you not going to like what you painting and you not going to like yourself for it. Passion is key. I am basically doing what I love and painting what I love, I’m painting my passion.” says Gavin, with a smile on his face.
The Art of Fish Art
For Gavin, there’s no shortage of inspiration and his vast experience as a fisherman informs what he portrays on canvass and when it comes to painting fish, it’s all about the fish. “I love the flow of fish, the movement. If you can portray the movement of a fish and people can see what you trying to get across, that’s awesome. I love painting movement under water, the colors are amazing. There is not a boring fish out there, every fish has its own character and personality, whether it be a Tigerfish or brown Trout in a stream, each one has its beauty” explains Gavin.
Realism is something Gavin’s fish art has in common with well-known South African fish artist, Craig Bertram Smith, but perhaps so to a lesser degree. Although Gavin strives for realism in the fish he portrays, he also places value on textures to develop the character of the fish he is painting. Gavin explains his technique further, ” I usually use the fish as the main focus point, the main character, and actually try portray the character of the fish before anything else. The way that I differ in some of my paintings is that I put in a lot of textures, so it’s not only visual, but you can feel it, you can see the texture. The texture adds another dimension which I think is great. I don’t like to get too real, I work it until I get a nice character of the fish. Lines, sparkles, movement and light is what defines my fish art.”
Capturing the essence of a fish and it’s aquatic world is no easy feat but by embracing his medium, Gavin is able to bring his fish art to life. Drama is something Gavin incorporates into his fish art which adds to the overall effect of the scenes he portrays. “With paint, there’s no limits. You can put extra shadows, a bit more contrast in places where there usually wouldn’t be, but it makes it more dramatic, it’s all about making things more dramatic, making things stick out, making things pop. That means you are altering what you have in your mind, it adds drama to the painting” explains Gavin.
Through years of trial and error, Gavin has developed his own unique approach to painting fish but he also recognises the influence that other fish artists had in his development as an artist. “From my perspective, guys like Craig Bertram Smith and Tom Sutcliffe are the best of the best. Craig Bertram Smith is brilliant, he’s an inspiration to me and has inspired me since I was a kid and his work is top-notch. Tom Sutcliffe is also very good, he’s got his own style and his focus is mainly on streams and wild trout. His art is very well done and there is a market for that” says Gavin.
Apart from painting fish, Gavin also dabbles in fly tying, an art in its own right. As an avid fly fisherman, Gavin experiments with various materials to make his flies and uses his artistic experience to create beautiful fly art. The delicate art of fly tying has inspired Gavin to paint a wide variety of fly patterns, in various sizes, which supplements his larger body of work.
The Future of Gavin Erwin Fish Art
Although Gavin revels in the joy of fishing and painting fish, he also takes great pleasure in sharing his fish art with the public and displays his art in numerous galleries and art shops in South Africa (see list below) while also steadily breaking into international markets. “I want to get my art onto different continents. I have a few works in Miami, Florida at the moment. More of my fish art must go there because that area is very fishing orientated. There’s a big market there and I want to get my work into more galleries, I want my work to be seen. Everyone must see my work”.
Being a friendly, social person, Gavin enjoys the reaction his fish art generates and he holds his audience in the highest regard, “I love it, I love the reaction. Some of my artworks are in your face, as fish art goes, but it’s the reaction I get from people that makes my life worthwhile.”
At age 28, Gavin Erwin has come a long way as an artist and each and every stroke of his brush is painting his future as one of South Africa’s finest fish artists.
Buy Gavin Erwin Fish Art
Gavin displays his fish art at numerous venues in South Africa and if you would like to buy fish art then don’t hesitate to contact him directly or feel free to visit any of the venues listed below. Gavin also does commissioned fish art, so if you have an interesting idea, tied your own fly or want to portray a special fishing moment as art, Gavin will be more than happy to meet you.
Fish Art Venues
MBW Art Gallery Nicolway Shopping Centre, Bryanston
Lonehill Art Gallery and Framers, Lonehill Village Shopping Centre, Fourways
Art Space, Bedford Centre, Bedfordview
Zoo Lake Artists Under the Sun, Zoo Lake, Saxonwold
Cafe 141, Queens St, Kensington
Boardwalk Art Market, Faerie Glen, Pretoria East
Dimitrov Art Gallery, Dullstroom.
Voila Restaurant and Gift Shop, Kenton on Sea