Capturing the Essence of a Fish Out of Water

Jul 21, 2014

A slightly reduced reproduction of James Prosek's watercolor of a swordfish features in the Ocean Fishes exhibit at Woods Hole Historical Museum through July 31st, 2014.
Credit Jennifer Gaines / Woods Hole Historical Museum

Few will ever see firsthand the true, glorious colors of a giant bluefin tuna as it emerges from the ocean. James Prosek's watercolors come close.

Putting a label on James Prosek is difficult. “Artist, writer, naturalist” are the words he uses to begin his own official biography. Others have called him “an underwater Audubon.”

Prosek is a curatorial affiliate of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale, and a member of the board of the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies. His watercolor paintings have been shown at the National Academy of Sciences and renowned galleries around the country. They're the centerpieces of more than a dozen beautiful - and beautifully written - books, the first of which was published when he was just 19 years old, still an undergraduate at Yale University. He’s also a musician, and a Peabody award-winning documentarian.

The two things that tie together all of this Renaissance man's diverse works are fish and fishing. He became obsessed with trout at the age of nine. Ten years later, he published Trout: An Illustrated History, with watercolors of seventy trout native to North America.

Over the years, he's diversified to Trout of the World and, most recently, Ocean Fishes, which provides readers with rare glimpses of thirty five of the world's most pursued fish at that moment when they are hauled from their watery world and enter our realm of air. To create his life-sized watercolors, Prosek traveled the world, wheedled his way onto commercial fishing boats, and photographed fish in their first moments in air.

Along the way, Prosek discovered a fish he found perhaps even more alluring than the trout - the freshwater eel. Looking like a snake that swims, eels have often been misunderstood, even by great minds in science, and critical portions of their lives remain scientific mysteries. Unlike salmon, who migrate up rivers to spawn and die, eels are born and die in the Sargasso Sea, hundreds of miles out in the northern Atlantic Ocean. Young eels must make their way to the freshwater lakes and ponds where they spend their adulthood, sometimes going over land to do so. 

Prosek says he identifies with the eel's inability to fit neatly into any one category. He was raised in a household where "Darwin was like God" and art wasn't considered a viable way to make a living. His scientific upbringing shows through in Prosek's inquiries and writing, but he's careful to point out that his paintings are not - and are not intended to be - scientific illustrations representative of an entire species. They are works of art based on his own personal experiences, laced with emotion and imagination.

You can catch up with James Prosek in person: