Underwater Inspiration: Fish Art and Hawaii

Fish art is a fascinating and diverse genre that has been explored by artists all around the world. From ancient cave paintings to modern-day galleries, fish have been used as subjects in art for thousands of years. However, when it comes to fish art, Hawaii is a particularly unique location due to its abundant and diverse marine life. In this article, we'll take a closer look at the history of fish art, some famous artists who have painted fish, different techniques for creating fish art, and the symbolism of fish in art, with a focus on Hawaii and its iconic fish species.

Fish Art: A brief History

Vintage tropical Hawaii fish art painting
​​'Foolfish' by Steven Haweis

Fish have been a popular subject in art for centuries. In ancient times, fish were depicted in cave paintings and on pottery. In Renaissance Europe, fish paintings became popular subjects for still life art, and artists such as Caravaggio, Rubens, and Van Gogh all produced their own unique works of fish art. In the 20th century, artists began to experiment with more abstract forms of fish art, using bold colors and unusual textures to create striking works.

Fish Art in Hawaii

Menpachi fish art by Shane Hamamoto
'Menpachi' by Shane Hamamoto (Metal Print)​​

Hawaii is home to over 700 species of fish, making it a prime location for fish art. One of the most iconic fish in Hawaii is the humuhumunukunukuapua'a, also known as the reef triggerfish. This distinctive fish is known for its brightly colored scales and its ability to change color to match its surroundings. Another famous fish from Hawaii is the mahi-mahi, a popular game fish known for its bright blue and green colors and its long, pointed dorsal fin.

Hawaii's unique marine life has inspired countless artists over the years to create fish art. Some of the most famous examples of fish art from Hawaii include the works of Wyland, a renowned marine artist who has painted murals of marine life all over the world. Wyland's work often features large, realistic depictions of fish art and other sea creatures, capturing the beauty and majesty of Hawaii's underwater world.

Different Techniques for Creating Fish Art

Fish art etching by french artist felix bracquemond
'Dinner Service' by Felix Bracquemond (Etching)​​

Artists use a variety of techniques to create fish art. Here are a few common approaches:

  • Realism: Some artists strive for scientific accuracy, using precise brushstrokes and attention to detail to create realistic fish art. This approach is particularly popular among scientific illustrators and natural history artists.
  • Abstraction: Other artists choose to focus on the shapes and colors of fish, using bold strokes and vibrant hues to create abstract interpretations of fish art. This approach allows for greater creativity and experimentation, as artists can play with the form and essence of the fish in a unique way.
  • Mixed media: Some artists prefer to work with a combination of materials, such as paint, paper, and other found objects, to create their fish art. This approach allows for experimentation with different textures and creates multi-dimensional works that are visually interesting and thought-provoking.

Another interesting technique for creating fish art is called gyotaku. Gyotaku is a unique form of fish art that originated in Japan. The word "gyotaku" means "fish rubbing" in Japanese, and the technique involves creating a print of a fish by pressing ink onto paper or fabric. The technique was originally used by Japanese fishermen to record their catches, but it has since evolved into an art form that is enjoyed by people all over the world. Gyotaku fish art prints often feature incredibly detailed depictions of fish, capturing the texture and shape of the fish in a way that is both scientific and artistic. 

This technique has become particularly popular in Hawaii, where artists use it to create stunning prints of local fish species. One such artist is Shane Hamamoto, an Oahu based artist who has been creating gyotaku art for many years. 

Fish Art and Symbolism

Hawaiian fish art with snorkel and surfer by Colin Redican
'Behind the Barrel' by Colin Redican (Metal Print)​​

Fish have been used as symbols in art for centuries, representing everything from fertility and abundance to spiritual enlightenment and rebirth. Here are a few common interpretations of symbolism and fish art:

  • Fertility: Fish have long been associated with fertility and abundance, likely due to their ability to reproduce quickly and in large numbers. In ancient Greece and Rome, fish were often used as symbols of the goddess Aphrodite/Venus, who was seen as a patron of fertility and love.
  • Christianity: Fish have a special significance in Christianity, where they are often used as symbols of Jesus Christ and his disciples. According to the Bible, Jesus fed 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish, which is seen as a miracle of abundance and generosity. Fish also symbolize baptism, with early Christians using the Greek word for fish, ichthys, as a secret symbol to identify themselves to one another.
  • Rebirth: Fish are also associated with rebirth and transformation. In many cultures, fish are seen as symbols of the afterlife or the journey of the soul. The ancient Egyptians, for example, believed that the goddess Isis was sometimes represented as a fish, symbolizing her ability to create life out of death and chaos.

In Hawaiian culture, fish hold a special place of significance. Fish are an important food source and a vital part of the ecosystem, and they are seen as sacred beings. Many Hawaiians believe that fish have their own spiritual energy, or mana, which can be transferred to people who eat them. This belief is reflected in traditional Hawaiian fish art, which often features depictions of fish and other sea creatures as powerful and sacred beings.

Fish art is a fascinating and diverse genre that has been explored by artists all around the world for centuries. In Hawaii, fish art is particularly unique due to the abundance and diversity of marine life in the area. From the iconic humuhumunukunukuapua'a to the mahi-mahi, Hawaii's fish species have inspired countless artists over the years, including the famous marine artist Wyland and other popular artists like Shane Hamamoto, Colin Redican, Mae Waite and Tim Nguyen. Whether through realism, abstraction, or mixed media, artists have found many different ways to depict fish in their work, while also exploring the rich symbolism of these fascinating creatures.

If you're looking to expand your Hawaii art collection to include some popular fish art, check out some of our favorite pieces below!