Few wildlife artists go to quite the lengths of sitting in a forest of kelp to capture the perfect image of bass, but for David Miller, art and aquatic life are two sides of the same coin.
It doesn’t take long, when talking to him, to realise that David Miller is a man who has found his calling. His passion for both painting and wildlife, particularly all things aquatic, is evident.
“My earliest memories are of observing wildlife and painting,” he explains. It’s a surprising obsession to have developed considering he was brought up in Oldham, Greater Manchester – hardly the most rural of beginnings. However, his grandparents had a farm on the outskirts of the town, and he remembers watching lapwings, swallows and martins there, but also the sparrows and the kestrels that flew over the townscape. By the age of 10, he was spending hours copying illustrations of wildlife from encyclopaedias, frequently staying inside to paint when his three siblings went out to play.
He wasn’t content with mere copying, however, and around the same time became obsessed with fish, first catching sticklebacks in jam jars until, at the age of 11, he received his first fishing rod. “It started me off coarse fishing, and then a year later I started fly fishing, catching small trout from the River Tame in Oldham.” The painting continued all the while, and, says David, “I was lucky – I had teachers who really encouraged me. I even sold my first painting to my biology teacher when I was 16. It was of a nightingale and I got £10 for it, which was a lot of money in those days.”
Today, David’s passion still runs strong, perhaps thanks to the endless quest for perfection: “It’s not false modesty when I say that I always want to improve and there’s always more to learn. When I’m working on a painting, I feel it is going well, but often when I finish I feel I’ve missed capturing that feeling of the subject. It’s like something being on the tip of your tongue, and not quite being able to remember it.” False or not, David’s modesty is clear when it comes to his art: “I’m a workaday artist. I feel that particularly if I’ve been to the National Gallery or another museum and see what people have achieved there. I always come away inspired to go home and paint something great.”
David studied wildlife illustration at Carmarthenshire College, where he also fell in love with the Welsh countryside – “It’s got a bit more to offer in terms of wildlife than Oldham!” – and now lives in West Wales, close to the Pembrokeshire shoreline. Having already developed an enthusiasm for snorkelling in his late teens, he took up diving in his 30s, giving him amazing subject matter for his art. Unlike most snorkelers and divers, however, he doesn’t just stick to the sea – something made clear from his paintings. “I’ve been diving in the River Cothi, observing sea trout in their natural habitat. There’s something about it that is magical – ancient oak woodland comes right up to the banks of the water, and when you are down there, you feel that you are in a time bubble. It really is the land that time forgot.”
Living so close to the coast, “The best coastline in the UK, in my opinion,” has also clearly become a huge influence on David’s life, “Particularly this year – I’ve been diving every other day! It’s been a bit hard to stay in the studio. The weather this summer means that the visibility is wonderful. Yesterday I was out fishing, catching pollock, wrasse and mackerel.” With a Zodiac rib, it turns out, which means that David can head out into deeper waters for both his diving and fishing. “At the moment I’m head over heels in love with the ocean and have been doing most of my recent field work here. But my obsessions change and no doubt I’ll be back in the local rivers at some stage.” This year may have been the ideal weather for ocean diving, but with low rivers, David says, “They are off limits. I don’t want to stress the fish any more than they already are.” In the past, however, he has spent many hours capturing photographs of sea trout from which to paint. “There’s not much that can beat sitting face to face with a fish in a river.” David sits on the riverbed, inching closer and closer to the fish he wants to capture. “Mostly they vanish, but there are always one or two that will stay stock still – my theory is that they use this as a tactic, that an otter or predator will go for the ones that swim away, rather than those that hide in plain sight.” Looking at David’s images, he is perhaps one of the few people to get so close to river fish in the UK.
Studying these works of art, it’s easy to see that aquatic life and his painting are inextricably linked. “The colours underwater are just extraordinary – the reds, greens and blues, the structure and textures of the seaweeds and kelp forests, the plant life and the fish that you see.” As with his river diving, David is always chasing the perfect picture: “I spend hours hiding in kelp forests to capture bass. They often come within feet of me, and I sit there, giggling into my regulator at them.”
David works exclusively in oils, “as it allows me to produce many-layered paintings, and to work on them for far longer, achieving more depth. The pigments are so incredible, and you can achieve an amazing complexity of colours.” In between his endless diving, he also works on commissions. “I would say that about 50 per cent of what I do is commissioned work – it is an essential part of life, as it helps to make a living when you are an artist!” The commissioned work is endlessly varied, too. “I recently worked on a commission for a Frenchman who wanted a still life of a bass, in the Victorian style. I’m often asked to paint a memorable catch for someone or produce something similar to an image that the client has seen.”
When asked about his style, David says he’s not sure he can describe it. “I suppose if I had to it would be ‘painterly realism’. It isn’t smooth and photographic – you can see the brushstrokes. Of course, you have to have good technique, but it’s more than that. I want to paint so that people have an emotional response. I suppose what I want is to transcend pure illustration to make those looking at my work feel what I feel when I’m below the surface of the water, looking a fish in the eye; to create that illusion is something I strive for. Maybe one day I’ll get there, but in the meantime, I just pray I’m one of those artists who keeps improving.”