Painting the Wild Koi

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I started painting koi in March 2002. In August of 2001, my wife and I ‘inherited’ this lovely apartment in downtown Hoboken, New Jersey across the Hudson from downtown New York; it had a small backyard with a magnificent garden with a koi pond. We had the best backyard in town. The pond was a narrow kidney-shaped one with a plastic liner; rimmed with cobblestone it was 15 ft. long and 5 ft. wide and 5 ft. deep. Hoboken was a great place to have a pond too; you never had to worry about any predators coming to harm the fish in this urban environment. I had always just loved koi, and one of my goals in life was to have a koi pond, so I was checking that one off my list In the back of my mind. I had always thought about painting koi even before this, but my past attempts at painting other subjects were not very good, so I was thinking maybe I would give painting another shot when I was feeling daring enough.

Then the events of September 11th soon followed. It was too close; everybody here saw the explosion and from then on things were not the same in ‘the mile square city.’ The months that followed were spent with insomnia for the both of us, with that crater across the water still smoldering. The pond became our refuge from the new reality. This delicate and nurturing little universe was the direct opposite of what was going on in the city. Everything here was colorful, quiet, pleasing to the eye and non-threatening, as opposed to that twisted grey heap of doom over there that occupied our every thought. I used to marvel that the two places coexisted so close together.

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Our nights were spent sitting on the bench by the pond, drinking wine, and watching these noble creatures go about their uncomplicated lives. This stained glass party candle I used to bring out there illuminated this scene. The light gave the fish a certain ethereal quality that I wanted to emulate in my artwork. I would study their forms as they swam up to greet us and then disappear into the depths of the night. We had a colorful variety of fish; the large white one was the best to paint. The light would reflect more off of him, and he also had a delicate sculptural quality that I found very interesting. The orange butterfly koi (named ‘Solomon’ one night by my wife) was our favorite and he was definitely the leader of the bunch. His long fins and tail gave him a kind of regal stature, like the long flowing robes of royalty as he made his way around his kingdom. We had a small redheaded fellow that used to put on quite a show. He would swim around the pond very fast, doing these crazy figure eights and when he passed by us he would flick his tail, giving us a little spritz. One creature that never liked to reveal himself was this huge frog that I named Goliath. I have only seen him about five times. Every time I went out to the pond at night I would hear this loud splash when he jumped in like someone threw a brick in the water. The only time I could see him was when I had been out there for a while and my eyes adjusted to the dark. He would be hiding among the rocks motionless, staring.

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Trying to recreate this scene in a painting was going to be quite a challenge. I mean first off, my subjects were in constant motion, and second off, trying to recreate these night scenes were just too much for my brain to fathom; so after much thought, I realized that the best way to approach this was to take digital pictures of the koi during the daytime. I used to take hundreds of pictures of the fish in every type of light, cloudy and sunny, morning and evening. Out of every hundred pictures I would shoot, maybe five of them would be good ones. The fish were very shy and I would literally be hiding in the bushes or laying flat on the ground behind a shrub in order to get a good shot at one of my favorites. The neighbors must have thought I was a nut. I didn’t care; I was having fun and I had a new sense of purpose.

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I would manipulate these digital pictures in Adobe Photoshop. I would then use these enhanced images as my only reference for a painting. This process made painting for me much easier; I didn’t have to make up stuff, it was all just right there. The luminescent feel of the paintings can be attributed to the fact that I was lousy at fixing the pond filter (sorry pondkeepers!). Nobody left me an instruction book on how to clean it, and I never could get the water looking crystal clear. The 'earthy' particles in the water would partially block the light reflected off the koi, softening any hard edges and giving the images that 'spectral' quality. The absence of hard lines was also very appealing to me. My day job was in digital design, so these paintings were a real departure from creating loud, attention-grabbing graphics all day. As a rule, I don’t paint anything man made in these pictures; that would be too intrusive and it would knock off the gentle balance of nature, just like in real life.

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The main intention of this artwork was to give the viewer a place to escape from the mind-numbing hassle fest that everyday life has become, really. These paintings are meant to be a place of refuge from the multitude of distractions we are faced with on a daily basis, a respite for our charred attention spans. They are supposed to promote long uninterrupted thoughts, positive ones, I hope.

About the Author

Robert J. Conway was born and raised in Rye, New York. He has a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from the State University of New York at New Paltz. He is currently working as an Art Director working at Bliss in New York's Soho. He resides with his wife Connie and son Griffin in Glen Rock, New Jersey.

For more information visit www.rjcfinearts.com/koi.html

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