Artist Dan Sharley is a pas­sion­ate fly fish­er­man whose work is punc­tu­ated by ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, a cal­cu­lated lack of con­trol and an open­ness to mak­ing mis­takes.


DDan Sharley’s man cave has no flat-screen tele­vi­sion, leather sofa or beer. On one side of the room, a well-worn easel holds a par­tially fin­ished wa­ter­color paint­ing. Next to it is a draft­ing ta­ble lit­tered with sketches, and a quick glance at the draw­ings might clue you in to what’s across the room: a fly-ty­ing ta­ble.

Sharley, an in­sur­ance com­pany man­ager, has been draw­ing since he was a kid. He dis­cov­ered wa­ter­color as a teenager, and the medium has en­tranced him ever since. He calls it “highly in­ter­ac­tive” be­cause, he says, “You can un­der­stand how the color’s go­ing to work with the wa­ter, but there’s al­ways a vari­able that you don’t fully con­trol. For some rea­son that re­ally ap­peals to me.”

Some might say the same about fish­ing. While Sharley en­joys spin and bait cast­ing, fly-fish­ing be­came his pas­sion after a day on a Ten­nessee tail­wa­ter with his fa­ther. “I thought for the long­est time fly-fish­ing wasn’t very pro­duc­tive be­cause it

never seemed like I caught any­thing,” he says. To­day, he chases his fa­vorite species, small­mouth bass, in his back­yard stream in Murfrees­boro, Ten­nessee.

He hasn’t al­ways painted fish, ei­ther. On a rainy day about 10 years ago, Sharley de­cided to paint a fish in­stead of go­ing fish­ing. When he started paint­ing fish, peo­ple be­gan notic­ing his work (dan­ Since then, he has started sell­ing his art to other fish­ing en­thu­si­asts, of­ten­times as a gift for their own man cave or in lieu of a replica mount.

Sharley is drawn to the chal­lenge of stay­ing flex­i­ble in both fish­ing and paint­ing, and he is ad­dicted to the con­stant learn­ing that comes with ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. “You can’t take the same ap­proach ev­ery day when you go fly-fish­ing,” he says. “You’re go­ing to find that the fish change their mind and you have to come up with some­thing else.”

The frus­tra­tion of a day with­out catch­ing, he says, is akin to the frus­tra­tion of star­ing at a paint­ing with no idea what to do next. “That’s when I start to ex­per­i­ment a lot and do some things that aren’t in the wheel­house of what I nor­mally paint,” he says. “Some­times you just have to paint through it.”

This spirit of won­der and open­ness is what Sharley tries to cap­ture in his paint­ings, many of which in­ter­pret the mo­ment a fish is pulled from the wa­ter. “Un­der­wa­ter, fish of­ten don’t have a lot of color,” he says. “You have a fleet­ing mo­ment when you first pull a fish out of the wa­ter and get a glimpse of all the color and iri­des­cence be­fore it starts to change.”

Rev­er­ence for that mo­ment is clear in a num­ber of Sharley’s paint­ings, which cap­ture not only the col­ors but also the tex­tures and pat­terns of his sub­jects. Whether he’s chas­ing pom­pano in the surf of the Florida Pan­han­dle or stand­ing an­kle-deep in his back­yard stream dur­ing the spring mi­gra­tion of white and striped bass, most of Sharley’s in­spi­ra­tion comes from the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing on the wa­ter. “I like to fish for any­thing that swims,” he says.

He laughs about a phase a few years ago when he painted a lot of fish eat­ing other fish. And one of his fa­vorite works, Four­teen, is filled from cor­ner to cor­ner with the col­ors and pat­terns of 14 brook trout. He says

he spent a con­sid­er­able amount of time sketch­ing the im­age be­fore paint­ing be­gan, a tech­nique that is em­blem­atic of most of his projects. “I’ll make sure I’ve got [ev­ery­thing] where I want it be­fore I add paint to it,” he says. “The paint­ing process doesn’t take nearly as long as the draw­ing process.” Many draw­ings never make it out of the sketch­book, but he says that’s just how it goes.

Sharley re­searches a fish on­line un­til he un­der­stands what it looks like from all an­gles. He aims to cap­ture as much of the fish’s char­ac­ter as pos­si­ble with­out be­ing hyper-re­al­is­tic. “There’s a struc­tured process that I may fol­low up­front,” he says, “but once the paint­ing process be­gins, it’s much more freeflow­ing and dy­namic.”

The dy­namism of the brush means that Sharley some­times stum­bles into tech­niques he hasn’t used, such as “lift­ing” paint, or re­mov­ing it by scrub­bing it off with a stiff brush. “There are a gazil­lion tech­niques that you can ap­ply to get dif­fer­ent re­sults,” he says. “That’s where [I] get the most ful­fill­ment with it. I don’t ever want to just be stag­nant.”

When he’s un­sure whether his cre­ation is bril­liant or a flop, he asks his wife, Betsy, to take a look. She’ll see things Sharley didn’t, prompt­ing tweaks here and there. But the most dif­fi­cult part is know­ing when the paint­ing is fin­ished, he says, be­cause ex­ces­sive fine-tun­ing can change the tone of the work. “It’s a care­ful bal­ance,” he says.

“It may still be a per­fectly fine paint­ing, but it was ac­tu­ally bet­ter be­fore you added all that stuff to it.”

Betsy also drags him along to craft shows. It’s in­spir­ing to see the dif­fer­ent ways peo­ple ap­proach art, he says, and he of­ten finds the re­flec­tion of his own cre­ative process. It’s marked by ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, a cal­cu­lated lack of con­trol and open­ness to mak­ing mis­takes.

It’s in these in-be­tween spa­ces that he feels most alive, like a trout break­ing the sur­face film to sip a fly.

Tied Dyed

The Eyes Have It

Cut­throat Trout Study



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