Getting Sketchy with Swainston and Snapper

Today’s question: How much does a 40cm whole pink snapper cost?

I like fish. I occasionally buy fish. But I have no idea.

How does one find out the answer besides actually wandering down to the fish markets to see?

No one I ask seems to know off the cuff.

Even the indefatigable wisdom of google is failing me.

Roger Swainston, fish illustration, image courtesy the artist

Roger Swainston, fish illustration, image courtesy the artist

I’m emailing back and forth with Roger Swainston as we make a list of art materials to buy for his upcoming workshop…

A3 double matte drafting film,

HB and 2B pencils,


4 Pink Snapper on ice in Styrofoam boxes…


Yes, Snapper.

Not for some kind of experimental drawing technique whereby the fish body becomes expressive mark-making medium (although that would be fun too). It’s for scientific illustration of a specimen. Roger is an illustrator extraordinaire and a zoologist as well. His vivid drawings of fish, seahorses and all manner of marine species are featured in our current exhibition Fish in Australian Art. His acclaimed natural history book Fishes of Australia contains more than 1500 of these illustrations and took two years of up to 100 hours work a week to produce. Like many artists (and scientists for that matter), Roger is rigorous and dedicated to his practice, passionate about his subject matter, and furiously hardworking.

swainston lobster

Roger Swainston, illustration, Clipperton Rocklobster -Panulirus penicillatus, image courtesy the artist

He also has a most unique way of working en plein air so to speak, his fieldwork drawing technique involves a scuba tank, a graphite crayon and a kind of plastic film (he won’t say exactly what, it’s a trade secret). Yes he literally draws underwater….. Often for four or five hours a day…. and up to two weeks to capture one scene! Breaking the area into a grid with nylon cords, Roger maps the scene and its life-forms in exquisite detail. The drawings are  2-3m wide, 1-2m high and completely captivating.

Roger Swainston- the artist at work. Photo copyright Xavier Desmier

Roger Swainston, underwater sketch, image courtesy the artist

But back to the Snapper. I wonder why having a live fish is so important. Surely there are other, less involved, (and odour-free) ways to illustrate a specimen.

A photograph perhaps?

No a photo won’t do, Roger insists, we must grapple with the species in all of its three dimensional beauty.

And it’s not nearly as good for the post-art making dinner!

Roger Swainston’s talk and drawing workshop is on Sunday 27 May 1.30pm – 5pm at the museum, bookings are essential .

3 thoughts on “Getting Sketchy with Swainston and Snapper

  1. re. your display of fish artists: are you aware of the book “Fishes of Australian and their Technology” byTC Roughley – published in 1916. The colour plates of the fish in the book were produced from casts – of actual fish trawled by my grandfather, John Forder, captain of the state trawler, ‘Gunundaa. The coloured illustrations “are claimed to be as true to life as it is possible to preserve then from the time the fish are taken from the sea, till they reach the hands of the artist. much time and trouble were spent i9n procuring the fish in the freshest possible condition. In several instances coloured sketches were made of the live fish immediately after capture, and in other cases the fish were frozen in ice before the colour began to fade3, and were sent w, with all despatch to the artist,” – the casts are the work of Mr. Alex Murray and the colouring is from the brush of Mr. Chas Toms, the museum artist. “(preface, ‘Fishes of Australia’, Roughley.). As Roger Swainston insists- ‘the fish must be fresh.’ So it was in 1916. Thought you might be interested.

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