Mike Emerson makes prints, but doesn’t consider himself a printmaker.
[by Ryan Sparks]
EMERSON IS THE FOUNDER AND ONE-MAN MACHINE BEHIND FISH PRINT SHOP, a small Peoria, Illinois–based printing press specializing in life-size prints of fish. Those wanting to commemorate a “fish of a lifetime” or a special moment can get a print to the exact length of the fish. By doing so, an angler commemorates his or her catch at a fraction of the price taxidermy might cost, and the fish swims free.
“I got the idea to make a print to the actual length of the fish because I felt like photos never do the fish justice,” Emerson said. “And even a great photo tends to live on your phone and never gets displayed. I’ve always enjoyed fishing with my three sons, and when they would tell people what they caught they always held their hands up to show how big it was. It made sense.”
Emerson started making prints for his friends and family, as gifts. On a whim, he reached out to renowned fish artist Joseph R. Tomelleri and inquired about using his works for prints. Tomelleri, a scientific illustrator specializing in freshwater species, agreed and suggested Emerson contact Florida artist Diane Peebles about her extensive catalog of saltwater species.
“When they signed on, I knew we had something because we could provide any species in North America,” Emerson said. “Joe has done everything, including every subspecies of trout. Just to give you an example of how precise his illustrations are, he counts the number of scales on the lateral line to keep his work accurate down to the scale.”
While you might not have heard of Tomelleri or Peebles, you’ve probably seen their work. Both artists work with state agencies and conservation organizations to create fish identification guides, and their illustrations have appeared in thousands of publications. Their artwork combined with Emerson’s printmaking produces a timeless result that captures the grandeur of a fish.
“I have a background in biology, and I want the prints to have a biological field guide look to them,” Emerson said. “With Joe and Diane on board, we are doing something refined, but it’s new, and sometimes there is confusion with people thinking we create their exact fish. [Instead] we use a grayscale reproduction of an illustration and print it to size.”
Fish Print Shop can depict different morphologies and color phases as well as account for girth. With Tomelleri’s and Peebles’ catalog of work, several versions of every species can be matched. For those who want their exact fish, Emerson advocates for local artists and has a list of those who do commissioned work.
Besides printmaking and highlighting artists’ work, Emerson also finds exposing kids to nature and fishing fulfilling. He does most of his fishing from a canoe for smallmouth and largemouth bass in flooded abandoned strip mines.
“In the summer I’m on the water at least once a week,” he said. “I feel a connection with nature while I’m fishing. That connection is hard to find in Central Illinois, and that’s why I like to get new people in the front of the canoe and show them how to fish. An old strip mine might not sound like much, but I’ve got some picturesque spots. My favorite thing is getting kids their first fish. I have a memory of fishing with a friend and his young son. It was quiet, the sun was setting, and he caught his first fish. It was beautiful and I’m proud of moments like that. It’s the reason we have a stamp specifically for someone’s first fish.”
Emerson uses archival-quality paper and ink for his prints and says they last more than a lifetime. Each print is marked with a customizable stamp that typically notes the date of the catch, length of the fish, angler’s name, and location, but it can be personalized in any way.
“We’ve found that with our lower cost, people are more likely to commemorate a ten- or twelve-inch fish their kid caught,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a monster to make it worth preserving. Just this morning I did a kid’s first brown trout. It’s really rewarding when you hear back about how much they enjoy it.”
While Emerson primarily collaborates with Peebles and Tomelleri, he has a network of artists to draw from when he gets unusual requests, such as a six-foot arapaima or a 17-foot-long black marlin.
“Our guiding principles are to promote fisheries conservation by supporting catch-and-release practices and to fairly compensate artists for their work,” he said. “American fish illustration is a niche space. I’m an outsider working with an all-star cast. I see Fish Print Shop as an open platform for fish illustrators. Scientific illustration is sometimes viewed as a means to identify species for various state agencies or academia. I wanted to bring this magnificent artwork to the fishing community and personalize it to an experience.”
Emerson prides himself on paying the highest royalties in the business, which allows him to partner with top artists around the world.
“I suppose I have such a high regard for artists because there is a frustrated artist inside me,” he said. “I know firsthand how difficult and rare the talent is. When we print a new species, I always get a sense of awe as I look at the details. The grayscale really exaggerates the structure and lines of the illustration. It creates something timeless that you might find in a natural history museum, old aquarium, or biology classroom—places where I’ve found solace when I wasn’t fishing. I guess merging my two passions of art and fishing was just a natural fit for me.
Learn more at https://prints.fish/