Whether it is the many book and magazine covers he has painted, or indeed the very fish on your EA rod licence, wildlife artist David Miller is a name synonymous with stunning underwater images (just take a look at www.davidmillerart.co.uk). Angling Trust blogger Dom Garnett caught up with him recently to talk about current artwork, favourite fishing and much more for an exclusive interview.
First of all, many thanks for taking the time to speak to us, David. How has the current situation been for you as an artist? I guess you must at least have your studio to keep active with?
It’s such a strange situation at the moment. We’re lucky to be in rural Wales, with plenty of space locally, but it was a long lay off from fishing and other activities. It makes you realise that so many people maintain a basic level of mental health by fishing and other outdoor activities, so that was tough.
Having habit and discipline has really helped. I’m usually up and working in the studio by half six each morning- I’m definitely a lark rather than a night owl in that respect! I’m actually working on some stamp designs at the moment.
Being a bit of a stamp geek, David, that sounds exciting! A lot of anglers will have seen your amazing series of sustainable and threatened marine fish designs for the Royal Mail. So what comes next?
I’m doing some marine life paintings to feature on a series of Canadian stamps. There are a few artists involved and we’re doing two designs each- and the artist they like the most will get to do various others. So I have to two designs, a killer whale and a beluga.
And what about the rod licence art? (I’m hoping everyone will have remembered to renew their licence now that fishing has resumed!) It must be great to think that so many anglers are walking around with a little David Miller masterpiece in their pocket?
It’s been wonderful and I’m honoured not only that they asked me in the first place, but keep coming back. I try really hard to merit the trust every year and hopefully do a good job.
I think that’s putting it mildly. Just about every angler loves the illustrations, but which is your favourite so far?
Probably the perch with the worm, just for the boldness of it and the combination of elements. They just go together so perfectly don’t they, perch and worms, like bread and cheese. I really like the new John Wilson roach one too, though. Those two would be my pick.
And are you as mad keen on fishing as ever? I think we’ve spoken before about the need to be careful with the things you love, especially when they become part of your living. The prospect of getting out again must be especially keen after weeks of lockdown?
The fishing can feel like a pressure on occasion, but I still love it and get that excited feeling of being a twelve year old. Even just preparing to fish is exciting- sorting out all the reels and lures and polishing the boat to within an inch of its life! Sometimes I can’t sleep the night before.
There’s a wonderful Dylan Thomas quote to the same effect, about keeping the child within the man alive. I love that and I don’t think you can overestimate the importance of keeping that alive. I think anyone who’s sensitive can carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, especially in the weird current situation. Fishing can instantly connect you with being an excited child again.
Have you always been an artist? What else have you done?
Pretty much ever since leaving college, over thirty years ago now! Back in the early days I was also a caretaker for a while- but even then I was producing art. Luckily for me there were lots of slower periods where you just had to be there to lock up and I could paint.
Thirty years is a long time in any career. What keeps you inspired?
I think it’s that sense of possibility, of what you might do next. Even at 53, I almost feel that I’m still serving my apprenticeship. I think my work is ok, but there’s that wish to constantly improve and do the best work you can.
I think most of us would say your work is a bit better than “ok”! I think you’re the best we have in terms of fish and underwater life, but I certainly get the point that self-criticism is important in any creative activity. It tends to be true of anyone who produces art or music or writing. Perhaps those who are too brash and overconfident lack the sensitivity to develop?
Yes, it’s so important for anyone creative I think. I still get a feeling of nervous excitement, which is healthy. There’s the danger that once you think you’ve arrived, you’ll end up like a Sunday painter. Hubris is something to watch for all of us though; you only have to look at the current crop of politicians!
But yes, with painting or music, or whichever creative endeavour, there has to be that sense of tension and possibility- and part of the battle is finding that “sweet spot” where you have the best of your focus. I know you write and play music so that might sound familiar- you can’t be either too wound up or too relaxed, it has to flow. The best artists are perhaps those that find that that perfect point, on a regular basis.
What fish do you enjoy painting the most?
It does change over the years! It was pike for a long time, but these days it has to be the bass. That’s partly because of where I live- and the last couple of summers have been tremendous, with sights I’ll never forget. When you watch a bass hit the lure, that moment is like an electric shock. You feel more alive than ever!
I’ve really got to know my local reefs and where the bass are likely to be. If the conditions are right, the first thing I’ll do is go on one of my favourite shore dives and sit in the kelp on a favourite reefs. Bass have the curiosity of cats, so they’ll always come and look at me and I can have anything up to fifty of them right over me.
So, the underwater world still really fires you up then? Do you also get out on boats often?
Yes, I also have a little rib that I use to go out and fish the reefs, where there’s incredible drama. You get these big tides screaming over the pinnacles and you’ll bass and pollack galore on the fish finder.
Those scenes are so strong in my mind’s eye, I’ll come back completely wired where I might have dived and snorkelled and fished all in the same trip- and seen the bass hitting prey or huge shoals of mackerel. I’ve even been known to jump into the water to watch while a friend is playing a fish!
You must be desperate to get back to the canvas after that?
Most definitely, and I’m fortunate with the location and how many other artists there are, in that I feel that I’m really pioneering with what I do- certainly with the bass and the mackerel. Nobody has dealt with them with the same point of reference I’ve got here and the amount of effort I’ve put into it. So I feel really lucky in that respect.
I’m a firm believer that you have to take the opportunities you’re given- and for me, it’s almost as if someone should come and slap me with a wet fish every morning just to emphasise this! A voice should be saying: “Miller, are you awake? Are you doing justice to those scenes of great drama and beauty? Are you really seeing all this and doing the best you possibly can?”
Apart from art and artists, what else gives you inspiration in what you do?
I listen to a lot of music when I paint. I also love books and philosophy- and I know we’ve swapped recommendations recently- with Montaigne and the Stoics both coming up! I’ve been particularly inspired by the Stoics lately. It’s incredible when you think they were around 2000 years ago and yet the wisdom there is so strikingly contemporary.
Yes, it’s always fascinating to read thinkers from so many years ago who still sound eerily present in the here and now. It does make you wonder what they would make of life in 2020.
I think if a Seneca or Marcus Aurelias could see what we were doing in the world today, they would weep. We live in the age of information- and yet so many are just sleep walking and not self aware at all. It’s unbelievable what we witness sometimes; whether it’s our leaders or the way we treat the planet.
It does sometimes sadden me what goes on in the angling world, too, especially with social media. We need more anglers who are open minded; and we need more kindness and respect, full stop.
Apart from great writers, who have been your biggest influences?
As far as art goes, there were two huge influences in particular. Probably the biggest was Robert Bateman, a Canadian who’s the father of a whole generation of wildlife artists. My generation grew up with him and his amazingly realistic style.
For underwater art, Stanley Meltzoff is a godlike figure! Just Google him and you’ll see why. For anyone who really knows painting, his work has poetry and flair and he takes it right to the line. When I look at his paintings, my work feels slightly overdone.
Well, as we’ve mentioned, artists tend to be their own harshest critics. The sheer number of very popular artworks and fantastic book covers that you’ve done would tell you otherwise. The image you provided for my own book Tangles With Pike is still perhaps my favourite with perhaps my two favourite fish in one frame (rudd and pike). How many books have you done now? Any plans to do another of your own?
I’ve lost count of the book covers- and there are German books as well as a British. I should keep better records, but things slip! I did have them all in my book case- I should get them all out again and arrange properly.
I’m still thinking about a follow up to my first personal book, Beneath the Surface. Lots of ideas for this but I don’t want to spoil the surprise- and for now, that’s still to come for when I’ve got the time and energy.
And where will your fishing take you next? Where do you love most locally in Pembrokeshire?
We’re really spoiled here, it’s a beautiful region. Obviously we have such amazing coast and so many marks all within twenty minutes or so. There are also lots of commercials- not always my first choice but some are now old and mature enough to have real character. Bosherston is one of the favourite coarse fishing locations; it’s a beautiful, great big lake right next to the ocean. There’s are lovely tench, roach, perch, pike- and just about all my lily paintings are based there. It’s a truly special place.
Many thanks for your time, David and all the very best with your next works! We should also sign off by telling everyone tofollow the artist on Facebook and check out the amazing work at www.davidmillerart.co.uk