When Angling meets Art: A Conversation with Chris Turnbull

With beautiful fish and fishing illustrations spanning decades, most anglers will already be familiar with the evocative work of Chris Turnbull (www.christurnbull-artist.co.uk). We caught up with him to talk about his passion for angling, art and wild waters.

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So, Chris, you’re obviously a lifelong angler who enjoys painting fish as much as catching them. How did it all start for you?
I was born in rural Sussex in 1950 and started fishing at 11 years old during my school summer holidays. My friend and I were bored of doing chores on his father’s smallholding, so he suggested we go fishing at Brown’s Stream instead. I wasn’t particularly keen on the idea but got dragged along anyway. When my float started moving the wrong way, going upstream, he shouted “STRIKE” and the most beautiful gold and red fish was struck straight out of the water, over my head and into the trees above. Brian said it was a rudd. That day I became an angling addict.

Chris Turnbull Pike art fishing
Most of us will have seen the work of Chris, from classic angling books to the weekly magazines.

How did things progress from catching fish to drawing them?
Well, once I got the fishing bug, my school books quickly ended up covered in doodles of fish. Both my teachers and my father warned me that fishing would get me nowhere in life but I was hooked. They simply didn’t understand that I was a budding angling artist learning my trade. Nor did I at the time!

Some years later at art school, one of our more eccentric tutors, Mr Spike, asked me what I wanted to paint. “A fish”, I replied, after which he left the studio and returned five minutes later with a rainbow trout. After I had painted it’s portrait, he took it home for tea! Some time later another student said he wanted to paint a boat and, would you believe it, old Spike had a rowing boat in his van.

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In reflective mood: a study of surface browsing carp, plus angler.

What is it like to be an angling artist in the digital age? Is it tricky when so many consumers seem to want everything for free?
The world of the angling artist is one that has recently become increasingly precarious as the digital revolution has permeated every corner of our lives. Today, digital illustrators are pretty much the only artists earning good money in angling. Luckily, I have managed to keep my paintbrushes wet and the ink flowing in my pens. However, as a pensioner I no longer need to earn a living from my art.

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Chris just loves the colour and drama of Britian’s predatory fish species.

What is your favourite fish to paint and why? 
That’s a hard call. I can’t choose between pike or perch. This is partly because they are both good looking, colourful fish, but also because painting them allows for some drama and action in the painting that most other freshwater species lack. Painting a pike or perch chasing baitfish or a lure is a timeless dramatic image that no angling artist could ever tire of depicting.

Do you paint other subjects than fish?
Funnily enough, when I left art school I never intended to become an angling artist at all. I envisaged my future being in illustrating children’s books and record album covers. I did a few of both, but drawing and painting fish helped fill in the time in between jobs. It sat comfortably alongside my love of angling, wildlife and the water, then somewhere along the way, almost by accident, I found myself having become a wildlife artist specializing in fish! Eventually my agent nicknamed me Chris-the-Fish, the name stuck and today even a number of my rods are labelled with it.

How did you start with fishing media? Tell us more about your book and magazine work.
I had moved to Norfolk in 1980, drawn by the excellent river fishing of that time. I had already started doing some pen-and-ink drawings for the fishing magazines of the day, including ‘Fishing’, ‘Coarse Angler’ and ‘Coarse Fisherman’. In Norfolk I teamed up with John Bailey to do the cover artwork and inside illustrations for his very first book ‘In Visible Waters’. Following that I did several other covers for John. Meanwhile a procession of other angling authors also commissioned me to do artwork for their books. These included Dave Plummer, Richie MacDonald, John Wilson, Eddie Turner and Neville Fickling, to name just a few. I even did the odd illustration for the Anglers Mail and published a few angling books of my own, two of which are heavily illustrated with my artwork. Today my work mostly consists of private commissions and selling some limited-edition Giclee prints through my website at www.christurnbull-artist.co.uk

Tell us a bit more about the creative process?
Originally, most of my angling work was done in gouache, an opaque watercolour medium that is very popular with illustration artists because of it’s quick drying time. However, I eventually found myself feeling limited by this medium and moved over to using acrylic paints and inks. These allowed me to build up layers of paint without pulling the underneath layers of colour through, something that cannot be done effectively with watercolours. Using acrylics allowed me to create detailed vibrant images which dried quickly so that as soon as the painting was off the drawing board, it could be scanned ready for publication a few days later. Traditional mediums like oil paints simply take too long to dry for an illustrator to get involved with.

If you could pick just one way to fish, what would it be?
That’s another hard call for an all-rounder like me. I love float fishing for tench and crucians. The excitement of watching them bubbling and rolling around the float is difficult to beat. Then again, ledgering for big barbel in clear water where you can watch them approach your hook bait, then having the rod wrench round as they feel the hook and bolt for cover, is also heart-stopping stuff.

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In his element: Chris just loves float fishing for crucians.

Long-trotting for winter grayling, I could never tire of that either, though nowadays both grayling and barbel require travelling long distances for me, as both species have become extremely rare in Norfolk. Being adaptable has been my key to a lifelong fascination with fishing. Today, perch fishing from my dinghy on the Broads fills the gap left by the decline of these other species. Throughout most of my life, ever since the perch disease of the 60’s, big perch were hard to find. But now they are back, and I have become totally addicted to light lure fishing for them.
Where is your favourite UK fishing venue? Why is it special to you?
Throughout the last 30 years, my biggest passion in angling has been in searching out new fishing opportunities rather than following the crowds. Its not that I’m anti-social, but I love the mystery of not knowing exactly what is in the water and following a hunch. For this reason I rarely spend more that a few years on a water before moving on to pastures new. However, nowadays it has become far more difficult to find waters that still hold some mystery.

Although I no longer fish there, its true to say that I have a special affinity with Bawburgh Lakes near Norwich. I caught Norfolk’s first ever double figure tench there, on the float. It weighed 11lb 2oz. Then, over a period of around ten years, I caught numerous doubles from all three of Bawburgh’s main lakes at a time when few other anglers were fishing for them. Today they are a mecca for tench anglers and have lost that element of mystery I find so attractive.

How important do you think art has been for fishing? What were your inspirations growing up?
The role of the artist in angling cannot be underestimated. For myself, I grew up inspired by Bernard Venables comic strip images in his book ‘Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing’. This stuff inspired my generation to go fishing. Reg Cooke’s illustrations in Richard Walker’s ‘No Need To Lie’ added to that inspiration and set me dreaming about catching fish so big that I also would have no need to lie. And today, I’ve done exactly that, having landed fish of most species to a size that was then beyond my wildest imagination.

What do you like to fish for most? What style of fishing appeals most? 
Nowadays I fish for all species except carp, although I caught some big carp to 35lb in my time. I’ve always been an unashamed specimen hunter, my personal bests include barbel to 18.06 and bream to 17.01. I’ve caught numerous double-figure tench to 11.09 and roach to 3.13. My big regret is that I missed out by a mere 4 ounces in catching a 30lb Broads pike back in the day when I lived for pike fishing, although I did catch a gravel pit 30 later on. Right now my favorite species are rudd, crucians, perch and grayling. I can’t say I am still inspired to fish solely to beat personal bests, although I am desperately keen to catch a 4lb Broads perch having missed that target by a single ounce and more recently foul hooked a whopper in the pelvic fin that easily topped that weight. My most impossible dream is to top my 3.13 PB crucian with a fish from an unknown water.

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Having angled through the terrible perch disease of previous decades, Chris is loving the current abundance of these handsome fish.

How is the world of illustrated fishing books these days? Are they still selling and what advice would you give a budding artist?
Unfortunately very few new books are now being brought out apart from increasingly small print runs, therefore the opportunities for an angling illustrator are becoming rather lean. No one in the UK is getting rich from painting fish and some of angling’s best loved artists are holding down full-time jobs doing something else in order to pay their bills. That isn’t to say there isn’t pleasure to be had from painting on an amateur basis and I am often asked how to go about starting such a thing.

Take small steps would be my answer. One may have some natural talent but becoming good involves mastering at least the basic skills. Undoubtedly the most important thing is to learn how to draw accurately. If the drawing your painting is constructed on is not right, you are unlikely to succeed in amending that as it progresses.

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Many anglers will also know that you’re vehemently against rubbish and single use plastics in angling. What made you determined to speak out and what do you feel we can do about this as a sport?
Thats simple. I’m a country boy and a conservationist at heart. I’ve always been involved one way or another in conservation, whether it be through fishery management, river restoration projects, crucian conservation or simply clearing up other people’s rubbish.

I hate the way we are treating this planet and living with no regard for the future. Being basically an old hippie, I have always believed in doing things communally, bringing about change by co-operating together. I know nothing about plastic, other than everything, even our bodies, is becoming polluted and contaminated by it. It is choking the oceans and smothering the land and every year our lives become more dependant on it.

There’s not much I can personally do about this, except share my concerns with others who feel the same way, and hope that together our voice carries some weight. That’s why I formed the Facebook group ‘Anglers Against Single-Use Plastic’ as angling is one area that I have a little influence in, and as the angling trade has shamefully ignored its over the top use of plastic packaging, that has to change.

Many thanks, Chris. It only remains for us to say keep up the great work and to remind everyone to take a look at the website www.christurnbull-artist.co.uk where you can find more fantastic artwork, exclusive prints and more!

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