An interview with artist Nate Karnes.

Nate Karnes

Whether its photography, illustration, or creative fly tying, I always find time to conjure up a little art through the year. I enjoy beautifully rendered wildlife especially fish namely trout, but nothing sparks me more than all out creativity; more than rendering. Recently I spoke with kindred soul Nate Karnes about his creative efforts. To witness something from a perspective I haven’t imagined feels the same as traveling to an unexplored location to fish. It’s new, it’s invigorating, it’s real. This is what I sensed when I saw Nate’s Pig series. Wow exactly, why didn’t I think of that. The following is a transcript from recent conversation with artist Nate Karnes.

“I just loved this and I think in some ways it reignited the [love I have for both] fishing and art and they kind of collided as I was doing that piece.”

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Leo:                 This isn’t about me but I have a little background and I’m an artist as well and I’ll just say that. So as soon as I saw what you were doing I thought…well first of all, I saw the pig decals and I though damn good idea! I wish I had thought of that. Then I saw a photograph of you at your drawing board and just there I saw some other works of art and thought this is really cool. Nate’s the real deal and so I thought I’d give you a shout out and have a little conversation.

So just tell me a little bit about yourself.

Nate:               Well I’m recently from East Tennessee and I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee in South Knoxville. That is where I started fly fishing was there in the Smoky Mountains. I would head up to the national park about as often as I could once…I always fished growing up. I had ponds, creeks and rivers around my house where I lived and I’d do that. And I found fly fishing one day or it found me I’m not sure but after that I was like, oh my goodness this is amazing.

So I went up there so much so there was a guide up there who worked in town up there and one day he was like Nate you’re the only guy I know that fishes more than I do. I cannot get enough of it, it’s amazing.

Yes, kind of there was where I was and I always drew. I’ve always been drawing since I can remember and so it’s just been something that’s kind of been in me. If I was sitting in class I was drawing and even now if I’m in meetings or whatever I’m drawing usually. It helps me pay attention some but sometimes it helps me when the meeting is crazy boring.

L:                 What is your favorite medium for illustration?

N:               For illustration man I really love either pen and ink or actually I’ve been getting into doing art markers. The prism color markers I really enjoy working with those, but then just pen and ink and pencil and paper I just love it. That’s probably because it’s so handy. You can always have a pad and I have a pad that I just keep with me. If I come up with an idea or something strikes me or you see something neat you just want to sketch it to get it kind of locked into your brain and you can come back to it later. I’ll do that constantly just flip back through my sketchbooks for ideas that I have.

I really enjoy the markers and that’s been something that’s been really fun for me here recently.

L:                 Yeah years ago and I haven’t really done any markers in a long time, but years ago I remember discovering that you could use what was, it was a clear just alcohol based marker and you could get some blending techniques. That was like wow this is good stuff!

N:               Yeah it’s like painting but with markers I just think that’s so cool. And I have several of the prism colors and some of those blending markers it’s just fun to mess around and toy with. I’m not the greatest at it but I enjoy just playing and messing around with it.

L:                 Yeah I’ve done some oils and things on my own and it’s beautiful, but I’m more of an immediate guy and so if I can sit down, focus and get something done and when it’s finished it’s finished opposed to a lot of the more traditional mediums such as oil which is kind of a more lengthy process. Do you know what I mean?

N:               Yeah right.

L:                 As far as how long we’ve been fishing I think we kind of covered that.

N:               Yeah and then making the fishing art for me has been a relatively recent thing. I live here in Joplin, Missouri now and, of course, we had the tornado back in May of 2011. Actually that picture you saw of me at my drawing board is in my house. I live in a 106 year old home.

L:                 Oh cool.

N:               We moved into this house the week before the tornado hit here. So our house is I don’t know 12 to 15 blocks maybe north of the path of the storm. That’s a shorter version of how I got into doing the fishing art is after the tornado…I mean I’ve never seen anything like it. It was…the only thing I can compare it to is when you see pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when you’re studying at school and you just see the devastation. That’s the only thing I have to compare it to.

Anyway, the recovery from that has been a long time coming but tonight is the first home basketball game in Joplin in the new gym since they rebuilt it. So it’s something we still think about every day here.

But as an outcome of that is it was a year later after the tornado and we’d been just helping and dealing with that here in our city and I finally just took the week off and there has been a piece I wanted to do for my home of a brook trout. I had the idea like years before and I finally said I’m just going to do it. So I took a week off work and did that piece and I don’t know it lit me up as I was working on it. I just loved this and I think in some ways it reignited the [love I have for both] fishing and art and they kind of collided as I was doing that piece. And like so many other ideas it just came to my brain as I was working it.

So it was really therapeutic in so many ways and I thought, man I love this. This is so much fun. So it’s been something since then that I’ve been doing full time. I’ve dabbled in stuff before that and I’ve always done art but where fly fishing and all that collided in my life was when I did that piece for my house. I still have that piece hanging up in my house.

L:                 Yeah. Before I forget and sorry I’m interrupting but if you have a picture of that piece send it my way.

N:               Okay yeah I have some images that are in a Drop Box file that I’ll share that folder with you and you can see what I have there. Some are pieces I draw and some pieces are woodworking and painting coming together…

L:                 Good deal

N:               So this one was kind of…I took some oak and cut out the ventriculations of the trout and then the spots and all that I cut those all out and I sanded those all down. Then I put them on the panel to resemble the markings of the fish and so that’s kind of where that kind of all got started.

L:                 Yeah it looks really good.

N:               I’ll send you that picture and make a note of it.

L:                 It’s funny that you mentioned Joplin and a tornado. I was in the National’s down in Cherokee in the Smoky Mountains for that Fly Fishing USA stuff and there was a guy that was from Joplin and I wish I could remember his name; he was a really good dude. We hit it off immediately and I remember after the ceremony on Sunday he was like I just got word my town got hit.

N:               Oh wow!

L:                 Yeah I wish I could remember his name.

N:               Yes it would be interesting to know who he is if I ran into him here.

L:                 Yeah I will try to get you his name.

N:               Okay.

L:                 Okay so moving along and the story behind the pig illustrations.

N:               The pigs.

L:                 Yeah.

Nate Krans Pig Series


I like to think I’m funny but I don’t know that I actually am.

But I love to laugh and so honestly on Instagram is kind of where it got started for me. Guys are constantly posting pictures of fish that they catch and it just makes me mad because I’m like why can’t I catch stuff like that?

L:                 Yeah right!

N:               They’re always like look at this pig I caught or this total hog or whatever they would post underneath it. So literally one day I got up and I’m getting ready to go to work and I’m in the shower just thinking about how guys call big fish they catch pigs. I can remember like washing my hair [and how it would be] so funny to have an actual pig with trout spots on it.

So the brown trout pig is the one I did first and then from there it was like, man you can do any species. So the first one was super simple and then now I’ve added oh like a deal plate to them and it’s been fun. I’m going to work on one today I hope, doing a cutthroat.

L:                 Oh it’s a great idea and I’m going to help promote [it]. I really like it. In fact, I have a few of the decals coming my way and I can’t wait to display them. Really I do, it’s just perfect, perfect.

N:               Yeah it’s just one of those things that fishermen immediately get it and then people who don’t fish; they’re like I don’t understand what that is. I think that’s some of the draw to it is that it’s an inside joke for those of us who fish.

L:                 Right yeah.

N:               If you spend any time on the water you’d look at it and know.

L:                 Oh yeah I got it immediately. But on that note, I think it’s a great door opener. I’m involved in the community pretty heavily and we’re always trying to find ways to encourage folks to get into this sport. So it’s a great [opener]…

N:               Yes I’ve had multiple conversations…you know people will see it and they’ll ask me about it. And then when I explain it to them they’re like oh I get it that’s pretty funny okay.

L:                 Yeah cool. Favorite species?

N:               Oh man that’s a tough one. I guess for me, honestly I think it’s the brook trout. I mean anytime I can catch anything in the water but the brook trout, to me, since it’s native to where I grew up I have a special place in my heart for it. I love…maybe it’s one of the questions you asked later but anyway I love little streams and I just love how technical they can be but also I love the fact that you don’t really have to fight anyone for the water.

L:                 Oh there you go.

N:               You jump in and you’re by yourself. You’re not having to elbow in next to somebody. We have trout parks here in Missouri and I’ve been a couple of times and I’m like ah you know it’s great, I think it’s great that they get people into fishing, but for me it’s just the solitude time and being out in the woods or in the water. I just love it. I spend a lot of time…before I lived here I lived in Amarillo, Texas and I’d go up to New Mexico whenever I could and would just find a little stream up in the Pecos wilderness there and just have a great day fishing by myself.

And like if you catch a 12” fish that’s probably like a trophy for that water but…

L:                 Yeah I can appreciate it…yeah; no I’m with you on that and everything you just said actually. There is a lot of mountain water around here in Southwestern PA and you know those brook trout they are just so darned beautiful.

I wrote a piece and if you didn’t know better when you look at a brook trout you would almost think it was a salt water species, it’s just so colorful.

N:               Yeah absolutely it’s just amazing. My wife and I one time we were traveling for work and we had a day off and everybody was wanting to go to DC, we were right there close to Washington DC. My wife and I were…like I had been to DC before and it’s cool but there is this place called and I don’t know if I’m saying this right but the Rapidan River…

L:                 Yeah.

N:               Then there is the Truman Camp there where President Truman used to go. So we had our co-workers drop us off at the trail and we hiked down to the Truman Camp and fished all day. And just the little brookies we caught there it was just…it was phenomenal. It was wonderful.

L:                 Yeah it sounds like a great experience. Yes good stuff.

N:               Very good.

L:                 I could go on forever with the species. I’m on a species quest. I’m not getting any younger and it’s like man how many species can I catch in a year?

N:               Yup absolutely.  I wanted to try to catch a fish a day for a whole year.

L:                 Yeah there you go that’s cool.

N:               It would be tough to do during some of these times but…

L:                 I always thought about catching each State’s species. But yeah we could go on about that one. Yeah best fishing story?

N:               Man, I think…which one do I want to tell? For me, probably the most memorable time was I introduced a buddy of mine to fishing. This was when I was in Amarillo. We went up to New Mexico to fish and it was maybe March and so there was still snow on the banks, at least up in the mountains.

He had never really been before but he kind of figured a few things out. I showed him the ropes and went onto another piece of water to where we were kind of within site of one another. Man, I hooked into and caught the biggest mountain trout of my life. It was a 20 plus fish, a rainbow and I don’t know the stream is maybe 20 feet across.

L:                 Oh wow!

N:               I like to think I made this amazing cast but it was literally about 8 feet. I just flipped it up and there was this little pocket where I’m anticipating…I’m like that’s a good looking spot and so I’m anticipating a fish but then I see up off the bottom of the water like it…I’m like it was like a log just broke loose.

L:                 A submarine.

N:               Yeah and I was like holy smokes. The next thing I know I had a dry and a dropper on because I’m fishing this little stream and the next thing I know my dry just goes under and so I set the hook and this fish just rolls up off the bottom and out of the water. I couldn’t believe it. I’m standing there and by that time when it came up to take the fly it kind of drifted back a little bit…you know the deal when they come up to take the fly.

L:                 Oh that’s so cool when they do that.

N:               I set the hook and when I saw it I started yelling at my friend like you’ve got to get up here! I got a monster fish on…I’m running down alongside the stream nearly falling down. I’m in the water but running downstream.

So we landed it and I took a picture and let her go. But man talk about a memory for me, I was so psyched. And he couldn’t believe it he was like gosh…

L:                 Yeah that’s crazy and you were with a buddy too.

N:               Yeah and he got to see it. I wasn’t just telling lies.

L:                 Yeah right.

N:               He was like holy cow that was amazing. That’s probably my best…

L:                 That’s a good one.

N:               Yeah.

L:                 That’s a good one yeah. Well it’s funny too because that totally unexpected and I swear every big fish I’ve ever caught it was pretty much unexpected. That’s one of those things that gets you into fishing. Fishermen are total optimists and it’s like there’s a big one right around the corner.

N:               The next cast that will be it.

L:                 Yeah. So the next question is so there you are, you’re an artist…

N:               Man I’d just say constantly be doing something. I was telling you earlier about trying to catch a fish a day. I try to draw at least once a day.

L:                 That’s great.


Just constantly doing it. You get so much better and familiar with species… drawing is amazing. So you have to stay at it and do it because you love it.

If it’s not something that’s kind of in you then find whatever it is and do that. But if someone’s wanting to be an illustrator and wanting to aspire to do that stuff, I mean you can do it no matter what. So grab a pad and paper and always throw it in your backpack and always have it with you and whenever something strikes you…even just sketch it out and get the idea.

I’m amazed, I’ll just have a half thought out concept or idea or just something I want to do and I’ll sketch it down and I move on and weeks later come back to it. It’s amazing what that sparks in your brain. You remember it, but if you don’t even just sketch it out real quick it may be gone.

L:                 Yeah wise words and part of that, like you said, just working at it and it doesn’t matter what you’re talking about but specific illustrations obviously and practicing but yeah…yeah I can add to that a thousand drawings, you don’t really know your work until you do a thousand of something. They talk about that and if you’re passionate about it, it makes it so much easier. Right, it doesn’t work if you’re not interested in the subject?

N:               Yes and you can’t be afraid of critique too.  I think a lot of times artists tend to be pretty sensitive and get their feelings hurt easily. But you have to be able to get your skin thickened up a little bit and let people speak to what you’re doing and give you feedback on it.

L:                 Yeah people you respect.

N:               Yeah people who have been doing it a while, people you respect what they’ve done and they might do stuff completely differently than you…there’s an artist in Arkansas that’s been a huge blessing to me really I’d say. His name is Dwayne Heyda and you may have heard of him he’s pretty well known in Arkansas. The man is well respected in the artist community.

But when I kind of got into it I called him up…we had some mutual connections with his in-laws and my parents they kind of know one another and so I just called him and asked if I could take him to lunch. I drove 4 hours down there to meet with him and I was expecting maybe 30 minutes of his time, but I showed him…we spend like 4 hours together.

L:                 That’s great.

N:               He kind of spoke into the stuff I was doing and just said hey here’s where I think you could use some work and he gave me some critiques on that. It could have bothered me or I could have said whatever but I listened to him and it’s made me a better artist I think as a result. He and I stay in contact and share ideas and it’s great.

L:                 Yeah and it’s great to share with people who have the same passion.

N:               Yes!

L:                 Very cool. So I just want to make sure that I let the audience know where they can get your stuff. I know that I purchased decals through oh geez I want to call it Arkansas Anglers but I know I’m probably wrong with that but it was a shop.

N:               Local Fly Shop is probably where you got that I would guess., just my name .com has my stuff and links to where you can get it.

L:                 Okay. Also this is just for my purposes you said you have some photos in the Drop Box. That photo of you at your studio I’d love to have that. Is that in…

N:               Okay yeah I can get that.

L:                 Don’t go through any work. It just tells the story to me to see you down there in your studio or whatever.

N:               No that’s great. That’s actually so you know, it’s the basement of my home and it’s the old cold storage. They didn’t have electricity when they built the house and so it’s where…so in the winter it’s brutal but in the summer it’s pretty nice.

L:                 Yeah there you go. That’s cool man. I live in an older home, not that old and it’s got a lot of character. I always explain that it’s like a nice pair of old blue jeans it’s very comfortable.

N:               Yeah absolutely.

L:                 Well cool and that pretty much wraps it up. I’ll follow up with some stuff via email and Nate I really appreciate your time.

N:               Sure man not a problem.

L:                 So I’m good and it’s a pleasure to talk with you and if I ever get down that way I’d love to…in fact, I have some…I like to fish down there on some of those southern waters. I don’t get a chance to get down there but if I’m ever that way maybe we can hook up and wet a line together.

N:               That would be awesome man. Please let me know and Arkansas a lot of times is where I’ll go it has better fly fishing. So if you come down this way anywhere close let me know.

L:                 Right. Well it’s on my list and one of these days…and if you’re ever up in Pennsylvania we have some really quality water here. We have the Appalachians which is kind of my corner of the State and that’s brook trout heaven.

N:               Oh man it’d be wonderful.

L:                 Yeah and then Central PA we have the limestoners which have top streams and that’s a ball of fun too. We have some pretty famous hatches and so the door is open man.

N:               Sounds absolutely amazing.

L:                 All right Nate have a good Christmas and we’ll talk through email shortly.

N:               That sounds great Leo thank you so much.

L:                 All right Nate take care, bye.

Take a look at Nate’s awesome work here.

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