This wildlife painter has a feel for the water that’s almost like a sixth sense.
In his studio in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, Mike Stidham is standing before a large canvas on his easel, wearing flip-flops and listening to reggae music on a cold winter day. Though he’s in Utah, he’s simultaneously on a fishing expedition on a vast Bahama flats, the thin water and mangroves brightly washed in afternoon sunlight. The image is so lit up the viewer almost needs sunglasses to look at it.
As much at home on the water as he is in front of an easel, Stidham’s no armchair angler. He guided for several years in Montana and Idaho and, for 10 years or so, held the International Game Fish Association World Record for a hammerhead shark taken on a fly rod. He knows the subjects he paints — in fresh- or saltwater — based on decades of pursuit of game fish in just about every imaginable setting. Art Bond, formerly of Western Wildlife Gallery in San Francisco, may have said it best: “Mike Stidham is, without a doubt, the best fly-fisherman I’ve ever seen. He can look at water running down a gutter and tell you when the next hatch will occur and what it’s going to be. He has a feel for water that’s almost like a sixth sense.”
Stidham came by his love of water growing up in the desert. Born in 1954, he was raised in the Coachella Valley in Southern California and stalked trout in watershed systems throughout the High Sierras. Early on, he was a self-taught wildlife artist and eventually gravitated to painting what he loved most: fishing and fish.
When Stidham paints an “above-water” setting, he draws on decades of firsthand experience and knowledge. He imagines how the scene needs to be rendered and designed in order to convey the mood and feeling he seeks before ever laying a brush to canvas. “The hardest part of creating any painting is coming up with a good idea, visualizing how the image will come together to be interesting and appealing, and then being able to translate that onto a blank canvas,” Stidham says. “Once I have the idea well planned out in my head, the execution of conveying this to canvas is the relatively easy part and should flow effortlessly.”
When he creates a scene of fish in their natural setting beneath the surface, Stidham takes a different approach, imagining that he is underwater, back flat against the floor of a Colorado stream, the cold current passing overhead; or lying in the shallows of a sun-drenched flat in the Florida Keys or Bahamas, the gentle tide slowly carrying fish in and out of the shallows.
“There is magnificence and mystery in the environs where fish dwell, but we’re on the other side of the surface plane,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as painting fish, rocks, and sand. I paint light, movement, and patterns. I don’t try to make paintings of fish; I try to make fish that look like paintings. A good painting is a good painting no matter what the subject matter is.”
Although he works almost exclusively in oil paint these days, Stidham has also worked in watercolor, hand-colored etchings, and original stone lithographs. His artwork has been the feature of T-shirts sold through L.L. Bean, Nordstrom, and Simms, among others. His paintings have been showcased in Fly Fisherman, Rod & Reel, Outdoor Life, Western Art & Architecture, and Trout, and he designed the 1992 Texas Saltwater Gamefish Stamp. His original paintings are included in many prestigious art collections and are coveted by sporting-art fans throughout the world.
Many painters have influenced him, but Stidham holds Western landscape masters Clyde Aspevig and Scott Christensen in particular esteem. “I have studied the works of both landscape painters and learned much about composition and design,” he says. “Though I paint settings where one finds fish, both above and below water, they are landscapes just the same and many (although not all) of the same rules apply ... . A trout stream or flats environment is a great mirror of natural beauty. To me, it is so intriguing to see the effect of light bars in water bouncing off rocks, sand, and fish, absorbing color and reflecting it back. I try to paint the simplicity of things but I have found the more profoundly you understand the architecture of simple things, the more truly you can paint them.”
Mike Stidham is represented by J. Russell Jinishian Gallery in Fairfield, Connecticut.
From the April 2018 issue.