The Art Within Fly Fishing

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By Spencer Durrant | TMTB Managing Editor | Featured Image Courtesy Bob White
July 31, 2017 

Cold water lapped at my feet while I waited for my buddy Ryan to walk back to the boat.

The frenzy of other boats launching, guides asking clients to watch rod tips, and the general chatter of a boat ramp on a Saturday morning filled the air.

I tuned most of it out, though, instead staring at the canyon walls I’ve seen at least a hundred times before.

green river canyon fly fishing art

No matter how many times I float the Green River below Flaming Gorge, the beauty of that canyon catches me off guard. There’s always a new detail I see, some facet of the environment that I never quite noticed before.

It’s those tiny details that highlight the art within fly fishing. Often, you’ll hear fly fishing referred to as an art, but that’s not quite accurate. The act of fly fishing is artistic only in its role as a silent, contemplative way to appreciate the natural beauty of God’s creations. It’s like touring the Louvre – you’re constantly surrounded by art, enamored with it, uplifted in some cases. But you’ll never hold a brush to canvas and create something worthy of hanging in that gallery.

fly fishing art gierachImage courtesy Bob White.

Noticing – and perhaps just as importantly, communicating – the art that surrounds fly fishermen is largely responsible for the fly fishing writing, photography, and painting seen today. Every writer, photographer, and artist conveys, in their own way, how the natural art within fly fishing affects their life.

Few people do that job as well as Bob White.

An Artist’s Take On Art

About a week ago, I had the chance to talk with Bob for the better part of an hour. Like a lot of folks, I became acquainted with his art from the illustrations accompanying John Gierach’s columns in Fly Rod and Reel Magazine. (For those who haven’t heard, John and Bob’s columns/illustrations are being revived thanks to the effort of the good folks at TROUT Magazine.) Since then, I’ve come to appreciate Bob’s art not just for its beauty, but also for the constant reminder it is of the lifestyle.

“People keep things around that remind them of what they love,” Bob said when I asked why he thinks art is still relevant today.

leaping trout fly fishing artImage courtesy Bob White

Even in this era where fly fishing’s popularity has exploded and its highbrow image yanked down to earth (or as close as it’s likely to ever get), anglers still want paintings when they could just as easily print and frame a photo at Wal-Mart. The fact that fly fishing art’s quality has increased exponentially with the growth of the sport speaks to the impressive nature of modern angling artists.

“I could name 50 different fly fishing artists right now,” Bob said. “Back when I started, I could list maybe five. The quality is up, and you have people really pushing the boundaries and exploring what we can do in this sphere. That wasn’t typically done back when I started.”

Pushing the boundaries wasn’t typically done 30 years ago because all the fly fishing magazines were illustrated by painters and artists just like Bob.

fly fishing art rainbow troutImage courtesy Bob White

“We didn’t run with photos (in magazines) back then,” Bob said. “They were too grainy.”

These days I can and do take magazine-quality photos with my phone.

Photography has made leaps ahead, but painting isn’t that far behind. I’d argue, in fact, that paintings are more impactful because so few people create them at a high level. Painting is a much more direct integration with our pursuit to understand the natural world in which we live. Much in the same way that the best guides are also the best fishermen, the best artists are the ones who know how to accurately communicate their view of the world through the subtle strokes of a brush.

“Every artist has something they want to communicate, and I try and do that with my paintings,” Bob said. “Specifically, I love reflected light. I don’t think you can find a piece I’ve done in the last ten years and not see reflected light in it.”

Bob’s favorite painting that shows his love for reflected light. He calls it “Evening Soft.” Image courtesy Bob White

Is there a deeper meaning to the reflected light Bob loves so much? Probably. But it’ll be different for everyone who sees it.

In the end, the reason we love fly fishing art boils back down to the same simple reason Bob first mentioned.

“At shows, banquets, things of that nature,” Bob said, “I get asked to donate paintings more than anything else.”

When I asked why that is, Bob replied without thinking, “Because it’s a constant reminder of what we love and why we love it.”

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Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, novelist, outdoors columnist, and sports writer from Utah. Find him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.