When practising your craft, it’s always a good idea to learn skills that are applicable across several subjects. Jun-Pierre Shiozawa shows us how to paint fish in all their sleek shininess, while also sharing tips on how to use techniques that are applicable for painting other things like water and landscapes.

Step 1: Quick Study in Pencil

The breakdown for this workshop is pretty straightforward: there are 2 studies; one with a mackerel, and one with a sardine. The former will be done in watercolours, while the latter will be done in ink and then in watercolours. 

But first and foremost, you’ll need to gather all your tools and materials! These will be an A5 cold press watercolour sketchbook, a pencil, watercolour paints (Jun uses Etchr’s set of 24 watercolours), black Sumi ink, a palette, a size 10 and a size 6 round brush, two containers of water, paper towels, and a hairdryer (optional). 

Note: Feel free to switch out some supplies for other options you have. For example, instead of an A5 watercolour sketchbook, you can use 2 sheets of watercolour paper instead.

Jun already had his fishes sketched, but does a quick breakdown of how he does one. First, it’s always a good idea to have some references on hand. He also shows a few fish paintings from famous artists like John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer, to show how they’ve interpreted this subject.

After observing these references, you can do a quick sketch of a rainbow trout. Draw a long ellipse for the body, and attach a sort of triangle at the end for its tail. It helps to break down the fish into some basic shapes before adding details.

Next, try to “cut away” or add onto these shapes to match the shape of the rainbow trout. For example, it has a little bit of a belly, so you can add an extra curve at the bottom.

For the head, cut out the shape around its open mouth, then for the tail area where it attaches to the body. You’ll also notice there’s a curved line that separates the head from the rest of the body, so add that as well, making sure that it’s in proportion with the rest of the fish.

This will be the basic shape of most fish, which you can then build on tops of, such as adding the eye and fins.

Lastly, Jun shows how you can quickly add the texture of the scales by doing a criss-cross pattern diagonally so that many diamond shapes are made. Think of each diamond representing one scale! On a fish, your lines should also follow the curvature of the fish, to make it look more 3D. 

Tip: You’ll also notice that many fishes’ patterns (if they have any) follow the curve of their body, especially spotted fish. This will help you figure out how to add more movement to your fish and make it look more natural.

When you’re comfortable with drawing fish, you can follow the same steps and do the sketches of the mackerel and sardine in your watercolour sketchbook. If you feel like your pencil lines are too dark, you can gently erase some of them before painting.

Step 2: Base Layer for a Mackerel

Once you’re happy with your sketches, you’re ready to paint! It’s a good idea to prep your palette before painting by spraying your paints with a little bit of water, then taking some of each colour you’ll be using and placing them onto different wells in your mixing palette.

Note: Since Jun uses Etchr’s set of 24 watercolours, the colours I’ll be mentioning are from that set. But if you don’t have this paint set, no worries – I’ve added possible substitutes you can use. 

For the base layer, you’ll need: black, cobalt blue (alt. ultramarine blue), brick brown (alt. burnt sienna), and a mixture of cobalt blue and brick brown (which should look like a neutral silvery grey).

Starting with the size 6 round brush, use black to paint a thin line along the top of the mackerel, including the spines along its back. Next, add a bit of water to your brush to dilute the paint, mix in a little cobalt blue, and run your brush along the blue area of the fish. Since the black paint is still wet, it should “pull” down a little into the blue area, which will give it a gradated look.

While painting, remember to leave a white strip of highlights for the shiny areas! This is vital to the illusion, and since Jun doesn’t want to use masking fluid, it’s best to paint around this area. 

You can also adjust how much blue there is in certain areas, and it’s fine if some areas are bluer, while others are more of a grey-blue. Colour variation will make your mackerel look more natural!

Paint the head while avoiding the eye, and slowly transition to your grey mixture, starting pretty diluted before gradually adding more brick brown and neutral grey along the bottom of the fish. Use the neutral grey mixture to paint the tail as well. 

Tip: While painting the blue area, you can try using a dry brush technique, which is done by wiping off some of the paint on your brush on a paper towel before using the belly of the brush to lightly swipe over the surface of your paper. This gives a more “glittery” texture, which looks great in the areas around the highlights! It also adds a scaley texture to the fish.

Step 3: Warmer Details

Next, mix some cobalt blue, sky blue (alt. cerulean blue), and Prussian blue on your palette. The result should be a relatively vibrant yet diluted cool blue. 

Use this mixture to paint the stripey pattern along the mackerel’s back, following the pencil lines you had earlier if you can still see them. If not, no worries – just simplify them into some crooked looking I’s, Y’s, and U’s! They should also follow the curvature of the fish’s body.

Tip: Your painting should be pretty dry before painting the stripes, but even if it’s still damp, that’s fine – your lines can have softer edges.

For the highlighted white area, you can paint the pattern over it, but immediately use a paper towel and dab out the paint before it gets too dark. This maintains the shiny effect, while also giving the fish its stripes. 

Then, mix mighty ochre (alt. yellow ochre) with a touch of brick brown, and use this to paint the tail, fin, and eye area. Switch back to the neutral grey to paint the gill and the mouth, and add any more shadows if your fish needs it.

To bring out the fish’s stripes, rewet each line with clean water, then drop a little more black towards the top of each stripe. This lets the black on the fish’s back blend into the stripes it has, bringing the whole painting together. It also gives a little variety to the stripes’ colour, giving it a rippling effect.

Tip: If you find that the edges of your stripes are too hard, or are too dark, just run a clean wet brush over them, and dab out some paint using a paper towel.

Step 4: Refining and Finishing the Mackerel

To complete this mackerel, add a few more details to the head – specifically, darkening the top of the head with more blue and black (a mixed variety of these colours). Paint the pupil using black, and highlight the eye by darkening the socket around it.

Add some lines to the fin and tail, then add a little more colour to the underside of the fish by wetting the whole underside with clean water before dropping a stronger warm grey mixture (do this by adding more brick brown to the neutral grey mixture) to bring out the lighter areas.

If you’re not sure what else needs to be added, check back to the reference photo for a better idea of how to sell the look of this mackerel! Otherwise, you’re pretty much done.

Step 5: An Inky Sardine

For the sardine, you’ll do all the tones in Sumi ink, which is a good way to study tones and form. 

Note: Sumi (a.k.a. Chinese) ink is a warm and waterproof black ink, which means it’s a good ink to use if you plan on adding watercolour paint on top for a bit of colour. If you don’t have Sumi ink, you can use black drawing ink instead, or even black watercolour paint. Watercolour paint isn’t waterproof though, and drawing ink usually contains shellac as a binder, which ruins your brushes faster if you don’t clean them properly. I’ll leave it up to your discretion though!

Squeeze a few drops of ink onto a separate ceramic palette, and dilute it so it’s a very light grey. Using your size 6 round brush again, paint the top of the sardine and its spines, then its tail and body. For the body, leave a white line for a highlight again, and use the dry brush technique for that extra texture.

Paint the eye socket and the head area, using the reference photo to see where the mid-tones and shadows are. 

Step 6: Mid-Tones

Mix in a little more ink for a mid-tone grey and paint the darker areas with this. Leave your highlights white, and some areas of lighter grey, but wherever there’s a mid-tone in the reference photo, add that to your painting.

Add more dry brush textures to the head area, and if you find your edges are too harsh, you can use the same technique as before to soften your lines.

Step 7: Shadows and Dark Details

For the shadows, add even more ink to your grey mixture, and paint in the darkest areas including the eye, the eye socket, the tail lines, the fin lines, the back, and the gill. The black areas should be the pupil, and maybe some line details along the fins and tail.

As for the sardine’s pattern, it has some spots along the top part of its body. To paint this, use a relatively dark (yet watery) grey to dot on those spots, then dab out a little paint using a paper towel. While each spot is still damp, drop in an almost black paint into the centre or edge of each spot, so there’s a little bit of tone variation for each spot.

Note: Again, the spots should follow the curvature of the fish’s body, so make sure you don’t paint them in a straight line!

To complete the details, add the criss-cross pattern as practised before, but this time use a light grey and a paintbrush to paint this on. Don’t cover the whole fish – just add it to the area near the tail, the area under the side fin, and along a portion of the fish’s back. And once again, try not to cover too much of the white highlight, or use an even lighter grey to add the texture here.

Step 8: Tinting with Colour

The last step is optional. If you stop at the previous step, then you’ll have a lovely monochromatic sardine, which is a great way to quickly and simply study the shadows and highlights of a fish. If you want that extra pop of colour, then you can do this step!

This part is the tinting step, where Jun shows how you can add colour while maintaining all the tones you’ve done in ink.

It’s quite easy – just brush on the colours you see on the sardine, using relatively diluted colours so they don’t overpower your tones. For example, the top area is blue, and you can use a mixture of the sky and cobalt blue. The head is a patchwork of red and yellow, which you can use mighty ochre and simply red (alt. cadmium red). The fin and tail are also slightly yellow, so add those in.

You can also enhance your highlights by enhancing your shadows since this increases the contrast of your painting. You want to keep your shadows pretty soft though, to make sure to wet the area with clean water before dropping in a darker neutral grey in these areas.

For your final touch, label your fish in black paint, and you’re done! This workshop probably felt longer than it was, but I hope you learned a lot in terms of painting something shiny. 

In the Q&A section, one interesting point that was mentioned was how you don’t need a super-white paper to get that shiny effect. It’s all about getting enough contrast against the highlighted areas! You can also apply the same principles to almost any other fish, and do studies in ink and watercolour the same way as you did the sardine. The most important thing is to keep learning and have fun!

If you’d like to watch the recording yourself, you can check out the 90-minute workshop on Etchr Studio. Jun is a wonderful painter and instructor, so there’s something for artists of all different skill levels.

If you’ve enjoyed this workshop, feel free to subscribe to our email newsletter. We’ll notify you about our latest workshops and blogs, too!

Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy.

Leave a comment