Derek DeYoung grew up on Millhouse Bayou, along the Grand River in Grand Haven, Michigan. The bayou was a year-round playground for DeYoung and his two brothers, who fished for bass, pike and bluegill in the summer, and ice-fished and skated in winter. Encouraged early in his artistic pursuits, DeYoung combined his passion for art and fishing in earnest after taking second in a statewide wildlife art contest in fourth grade with a painting of a largemouth bass devouring a frog. After graduating from Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he and his wife, Janell, moved to Livingston, Montana, where DeYoung, who is 35, refined his fly-fishing technique and his oil paintings of trout. The DeYoungs have returned to Michigan and spend winters in the Florida Keys.
A Conversation with the Artist
Janell and I moved to a little cabin in the woods on Grand Traverse Bay, Michigan. I’m a go-out-by-yourself-and-get-lost kind of guy. I spent the autumn fishing for bass on the bay near my house, and in three months saw no other fishermen. I fish the bay and nearby rivers for trout, salmon, steelhead, bass — and find inspiration for my painting. It’s great when you can find a special place where there’s no one around. I love the Yellowstone River, but when I used to launch my drift boat there I’d see 15 trucks and trailers in the parking lot. That kind of kills the joy for me.
The Keys are also one of my favorite places. I know people lament that the Keys aren’t the way they once were, but that being said, they’re still amazing. My favorite fish is tarpon. Finding tarpon can take hours of hunting, so the dozen or so casts I make in a day better be good ones. When I do hook one, I can’t help but laugh my ass off. I’m painting more saltwater fish, and as I learn more about them, my love for them grows. I take pictures or videos of them, read up on them, fish for them, and as I do that I’m able to paint them better and better.
Connecting with nature inspires my painting. It can be a kind of spiritual experience that makes me more open to what’s around me. I slow down, and things happen. One of my favorite paintings is The Old Owl’s Favorite Steelhead Run, a night scene of a steelhead on its belly and an owl perched on its back under a full moon. I want that painting to connect you to the incredible world that I fish.
Will I keep painting fish? Absolutely. Why the heck do we still have an enthusiasm for going fishing? It changes our lives. It balances us. That’s why I still paint fish. I want to paint new species, explore new waters. Repetition — sticking with something for 30 years — has allowed me to get better at it. Getting it wrong now can help me get it right later. If I ever did paint the perfect fish, that might be the end of it.
Anatomically perfect drawings are not what I shoot for. I aim for larger-than-life recollections of the emotions evoked by the fishing experience. I’m going for colors and patterns and representations that go beyond the natural. I think that’s what draws people to my painting.
Exploring the Flats
We lived in Livingston, Montana, for nine years. We loved the people. We loved the lifestyle. I loved fly-fishing for trout, but we were ready to get back to Michigan, where we grew up. We wanted to get back to family. The fishing in northern Michigan is darned good, too.
We’ve been going down to Big Pine Key for four months in winter since 2012. It’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid to fish the ocean and the flats. I used to read the fishing magazines and see all the crazy stuff that happens on the flats. I wanted to experience that, too. It’s hard to master anything in a weeklong trip. Once Janell quit her 9-to-5 job and partnered with me at DeYoung Studio, we could winter in Florida since we both can work wherever we are. She runs the business and does the accounting, designs products, works on our website. I paint, run quality control, marketing and sales. I keep an old, salty Redfisher at my neighbor’s house to use for the winter while I’m in Florida. The biggest thing for me is exploring. I just sit and look at a chart and look for a flat that I’ve never fished. Then I go out and fish it.
When I release a fish, I reset and can’t wait to catch the next one. It’s the same with painting. Often an idea forms while I’m out fishing. I see all these beautiful things. When I get home, I sketch them out. When the sketch is finished I have this fantastic energy. I keep sketching, sometimes sketching it 15 times, and keep refining it so it gets better and better. A lot of what I paint is from memory and knowledge, some from photographs. My paintings are done in my head before I physically execute them. Each painting is a significant experience for me, a powerful experience. My personal experience of a painting comes from hundreds of hours spent standing knee-deep in the water, which makes it much more memorable, more sincere.
Follow Your Bliss
As a young boy, my artwork set me apart, and I received so much encouragement from my family — my two brothers, my mom, my dad, my grandparents. It seemed that my connection to everybody around me was through my art. My dad, especially, encouraged my art. One talk I had with him while I was in art school was a real game-changer. I was discouraged. Professional artists, who came to talk to us students, would tell us, “Good luck. There’s no work out there.” I had just about decided to go into industrial design to improve my chances of getting a job. I thought my dad would applaud the decision. He’s down-to-earth, not a dreamer, but when I told him, he cleared his throat and said, “For you not to pursue your art would be a crime. If you fail, that’s OK. At least you tried.” So I followed my passion.
In college, every time I had an art school project my subject somehow tied to fish. Assigned to do a study of a human’s skin, skeletal system and muscles, I drew a life-size portrait of myself calf-deep in water, salmon swimming past me, rod fully loaded above my head, ready to cast. I work in oil. I like oil because when I come up with an idea I can work quickly and preserve my enthusiasm for that idea. This is not a 9-to-5 job. I paint while the passion is there. I want my paintings to have a freshness to them. I don’t want them to appear labored, as if I took hundreds of hours to paint them, but alive and exciting.