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.
Dan 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 (dansharley.com). 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 free-flowing 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.