We got the chance to speak with Travis Sylvester, a talented artist located in the Salt Lake City area. Travis’s portfolio boasts impressive portrait and abstract work, as well as vivd digital prints. Since discovering a love for colored pencils as a teenager, he has also created stunningly realistic drawings of trout in that medium. His pieces create the illusion of glossy, sticky trout swimming off the page—if you didn’t know better, you might just try to reach out and grab one (with wet hands of course!). Check out Travis’s thoughts and artwork below!
What role has fishing played in your life? How does it fit into your life now?
Fishing has played a huge role in my life, probably more than I realize. I have been fishing as long as I can remember. I have very fond memories of staying up late catching worms with my dad the night before we would go out. I recall being so excited to go that I couldn’t sleep, and honestly that still happens on occasion. I couldn’t wait for the next chance to go out—I would often spend hours organizing my tackle box, hand painting my spoon lures with my mom’s or sister’s nail polish, and doing odd jobs to earn some money so that I could ride my bike to a local fishing store and blow it all on the latest Mepps spinners. As a kid, and in my mind, there was no body of water, big or small, that didn’t have big fish in it. To this day, I still find myself looking at every creek, ditch or pond and wondering what lives in it. I can probably attribute that to my mom reading me the Dr. Seuss book, “McElligot’s Pool.” Back then, our family would eat trout more regularly than we do now, I recall going to the freezer and unwrapping the fish from the aluminum foil just to look at them again, or to show them off to friends or family that dropped by. That is kind of weird now that I think about it!
Over the last few years, my time spent on the water has been somewhat limited due to my career and other choices. However, I have recently changed things up in my life to allow for me to spend more time fishing. I look forward to getting back at it, as well as making good on some missed opportunities and offers to explore new places and meet new people. Fishing has definitely made me appreciate the outdoors and the peace of mind that comes along with walking along a stream, hiking to an alpine lake, or even just stopping by the local fishing pond.
Could you tell us a little more about discovering that you loved colored-pencil as a medium?
I had been drawing as long as I could remember, but it wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I discovered colored pencils. I struggled a bit in high school with some personal issues, but I still enjoyed my art classes. My art teacher, Peggy Anderson, who was, and still is, an exceptional and well-recognized watercolor painter, saw that I had an interest in art, but not so much the curriculum associated with the class. I recall her having one-on-one conversations with me about sunflowers, and that they were not just yellow, brown, and green. She stated that if you look closely enough, you can see all sorts of colors reflected in the leaves, petals, and stems. I could actually see what she was talking about, and I bought into it. She could tell that working with bright vibrant colors was more appealing to me than working with charcoal, graphite, or other mediums. Shortly after a sunflower oil pastel project, she gave me a small box of brand-new Prismacolor pencils—I believe she personally bought them for me—and told me to take them home and “have fun with them.”
I recall having to spend some “hard time” in after school suspension, and I would spend my time drawing and getting familiar with the amazing colors and tones you could get with the pencils. I ended up working on a piece that pretty much consisted of doodles and typical high school content, but the difference was the color and the way that I found I could blend colors across the spectrum. Peggy talked me into entering my little colored pencil drawing into the Springville High School Art Competition. She personally framed and matted it for me prior to entering it. The Springville art show is a pretty big deal here locally. My piece, which I later named, “In The Beginning” ended up winning first place in its category.
Two years ago I had heard that Peggy was being honored locally for her accomplishments as an artist, found the location and time, and ended up meeting her at her ceremony. It was amazing and somewhat emotional to see her and talk with her after almost 30 years. She is an amazing woman, she helped countless students pursue their interests in art, and, quite frankly, played a huge role in helping not only develop my art skills, but also helped me get through some tough times in school. Ever since then, colored pencil is about the only medium I have worked with. I have dabbled with acrylics and watercolors, but I feel that I have more confidence and control with the pencils. The only drawback of working with pencils as opposed to paint is the amount of time it takes to cover a sheet of paper. It is a very time consuming process, but is fortunately one area that I do happen to have a high amount of patience with.
What do you think drew you back to drawing after prioritizing other aspects of life for several years?
I recall exactly what caused me to dig out my pencils and start drawing again. My buddy had started a local fishing website and forum where guys would post where they went, what they caught, etc. The site had a pretty good following and it was starting to take off. The forum actually got me back into fishing after taking some time away from it. One of the members had an AD Maddox piece as his avatar—I don’t recall which piece it was as it was over a decade ago—but it definitely caught my attention. I looked up her website and was amazed to see the work she had done. I instantly loved her work, and it is what inspired me to find my pencils, build a drawing desk, and start drawing again. Since I had been drawing and fishing my whole life, it only seemed fitting that I merged two of my biggest interests.
What was the most challenging thing about starting up again? Did you struggle with techniques or to come up with ideas?
I would say the most challenging thing about starting up again was basically the time and space to do it. I started up using the kitchen table as my desk, which didn’t work out very well for obvious reasons. I later built a nice drawing desk and repurposed a spare bedroom in our home as my “studio,” which I am still using today. It now serves as my studio, fly tying room and home office. I didn’t really struggle with techniques because I was able to use the techniques that I taught myself when I was producing some rather abstract and surreal drawings in my mid-twenties. To this day I am still learning and figuring out how some of the different pencils interact with each other as well as the papers that I select.
I also dabbled with producing some digital pieces. What started out as an accident turned into some kind of cool and unique images. When I was first getting started, I attempted to create my own prints, which turned out to be a mistake. During the process of trying to get the images that I took of my work to look more like the originals, I accidentally and completely screwed one of them up; however, what I had done to it actually looked pretty cool, at least to me. I kept on tweaking the image and adding some basic effects until I thought it looked finished. A couple of these pieces ended up making their way onto some fishing products and have been popular prints. It is funny how what started out as a mistake turned out to be one of the things that I was recognized for.
What is it about fish and outdoor spaces that fuels your creativity? Why do you choose these things as subjects?
To me, there is nothing more interesting and captivating to work on than trout, particularly shiny, wet trout. I generally work from photos and usually photos others have taken. I went out and purchased a decent DSLR camera thinking I would be able to snap my own photos. I found that capturing a great trout photo was far more difficult than I anticipated, and that I was not very good at it. I have gotten lucky on a few of my own, but I generally browse the internet and social media to find the “perfect shot” to work from—there is not a shortage of fantastic photos out there.
I have learned that the more I really stare at and focus on a great trout photo, the more I truly see. Sometimes you can see the entire reflection of the surrounding mountains and horizon in the gloss that goes down the back of the trout and sometimes you can see the reflection of the angler or photographer in the eye of the trout. The interaction of water, gill plates, reflections, tones, netting, and lighting in a good photo are what totally fuel my creativity. When I come across a photo that has those things going on in it, it is as if I have to drop everything and start working on it. Often, once I start on a piece that I am “all in” with, I get obsessed and have to work on it until it is completed.
What keeps drawing fresh for you? What makes you wake up with new ideas and excited to create?
Since I started focusing on drawing trout, I try to make each piece better in one way or another than the previous piece. I have learned that patience is everything when it comes to my work, and although it is highly gratifying to finish out a piece, it is more gratifying to know that I took the time necessary for me to feel good about it. I can look back at some of my earlier drawings and see where I could have, or should have, taken more time in certain areas. This is one of the areas that I feel I have improved in over the last several years.
I would say what makes me wake up excited to create a new piece, or finish working on a project that I had started, is very simply the reaction that I get from the people who follow me and support what I do. What is better than having people like and appreciate what you love to do? The fact that people are willing to take the time to compliment me and my work on social media, at a local show, or spend some of their hard earned money on something that I created is extremely gratifying. I truly love the fact that something I took months in some cases to create is hanging on the wall in a total stranger’s home or office.
Since I take such a long time to complete a piece, there are usually several different factors going on in my personal life throughout the progress of each piece. I can look back at some of them and recall exactly what was going on in my life during different parts of the piece. That is something I enjoy, and most people will never have a clue about. Most of my work is done over the course of a month or several months, depending on the piece. Until recently, I worked on my drawings around a fairly demanding professional career. This included time before going to work, sometimes on my lunch hour, and then nights and weekends (where the bulk of the progress took place). I would also say that viewing other artists’ work is what fuels my desire to keep improving. It is not so much in a competitive way, but rather when I see amazing work, whether it is fish art, people, or landscapes, it inspires me to do better.
What do you hope that those who view your artwork experience when they see it? What are you trying to express with your work?
I suppose I hope that when people view my work it brings back a good feeling or memory that they had while out fishing. Whether it is a particular species, or maybe just the way the fish looked prior to releasing it, most people who like my work can relate to one piece or another in their own ways. I have learned through talking with people at shows or on social media that people are often very surprised that the work that I do is with pencils. To me, working with pencils is nothing out of the ordinary, but the reaction people have when they realize what medium I use is always fun to witness.
What I am trying to express with my work is basically my own appreciation and admiration of trout, and how amazing they really are. There is actually a bit of a stigma when it comes to colored pencil work. In some cases it is not considered “fine art.” In a way, I like trying to curve that opinion, but at the same time I find that people will like what they like, so who cares how it is made or what it is made of.
Why do you think art is important?
Great question—although I do admire all kinds of artwork, and I do have an admiration for anything people create with their own hands or minds, I don’t consider myself as very “artsy.” Having said that, I would say that art is important on several levels. It gives people who create it a useful outlet. Oftentimes I find myself working on a piece for what feels like twenty minutes, when in reality, hours have gone by. For me, it is great to just get lost in a piece and unwind from daily stress. On the flip side, having a piece of artwork hanging on your wall that you love can be very uplifting and positive. I also believe that art inspires others to do something creative or improve their own skill sets.
Do you think everyone should have a creative hobby?
Absolutely. Honestly, I could not imagine not having some type of creative outlet/hobby or two, three, four, etc. I personally would go nuts. I try to be creative in everything that I can. Of course there are things that need to be done a certain way, but if you can put a creative spin on whatever you do, there is a certain feeling of gratification that comes along with it. I love creative people and I am in constant awe of people’s creativity, whether it is artwork, music, videos, software, architecture, landscaping, etc. If it weren’t for people being creative, it would be a pretty sad [world].
Why do you think so many people lose touch with their creative tendencies and talents as they go through life?
I believe people (myself included) tend to get tunnel vision with regards to their careers, their families, and just “getting by.” Being creative or having a creative idea is fairly easy; however, turning a creative idea or talent into something tangible requires a significant amount of dedication, devotion, and time. It is very easy to get caught up in day-to-day life and let talents or creativity take a back seat to things that you feel “need” to get done.
Could you tell us about a favorite piece you’ve created?
I think my favorite piece that I have created has to be “Tranquility.” I came across a photo that a friend of mine, Joey Guzman, posted of a Kern River rainbow. It had a lot going on with regard to lighting, ripples, and color, and it may have had some filtering done on it as well. I thought it would be a fun and challenging piece to work from. For some reason, there have been certain pieces that I work on that I love and hate multiple times throughout the project, and this was one of them. At times, I wanted to scrap it because it didn’t feel like it was working. It felt too busy, and the color scheme didn’t seem to be working out the way that I wanted. I was happy with the rainbow, which I completed first, but when I started working on the background, I started questioning it.
It wasn’t until it was about 90% complete when it really started to come together, and then I started to love it again. I spent a ton of time on this piece—approximately three months—and really emphasized and dramatized some of the water details. I ended up finishing the piece days before I attended a local fly fishing show where I had rented a booth to display my work. I didn’t have a chance frame or mat it, or even protect it, but I brought it to the show anyway and displayed it on an easel. Ian, the guy in the booth next to me, purchased it on the spot. It has been one of my most popular pieces to date, and has made its way onto shirts, hoodies, the side of an old teardrop trailer. Soon it will be on a large 20-foot mural that will be re-created by grade school students in Montana.
What is your greatest fishing story?
I have a lot of great fishing memories, and I guess my greatest fishing story would be based on one of my best memories. In November of 2015, my brother in law, lifelong friend, and I were camping at a small reservoir in a remote part of Utah. The little reservoir was a favorite destination of ours. It was off the grid and fairly unknown, but it was known for having large and angry rainbows in it. We had spent two days having the place virtually to ourselves, catching lots of fantastic fish, cooking great meals, eating, drinking, and playing cards in the evenings, and just having the perfect trip. Hell, I think my brother in law actually baked brownies one night, which we gave him crap for, but, admittedly, we ate every last one.
The last day of our trip started out as a gorgeous fall morning with pleasant temps, at least as far as November in the Utah mountains goes. As we were putting on our waders and cold weather gear, an old timer rode up in a side-by-side and said, “If you boys want to get off the mountain today, you’d better get your asses out of here. There’s a big storm rolling in.” Being off the grid for several days, we had no access to any weather reports through our cell phones or radio. We kind of downplayed it and made our way to the opposite side of the reservoir where we had been killing it the previous two days. Without another fisherman in sight, we got to our spot, all in a line about waist deep in the cold water, and proceeded to get into the fish again. They were hitting the chironomids as soon as they would hit the water—I had never seen anything like it. There were multiple times when all three of us had fish on, and the average fish was in the four pound range with some topping six.
Having spent a significant amount of time at this particular place, I knew how quickly the weather changed; however, due to the phenomenal fishing, I hadn’t really noticed that clouds were rapidly brewing from all sides. I probably did notice, but I didn’t care, the fishing and atmosphere was just too good to stop. We proceeded to fish until it started snowing, and kept fishing because the fishing only got better. I recall barely being able to see my buddies through the falling snow, but I could hear that familiar and awesome sound of floating fly line being zipped off the water as a hook was being set, followed by hearing the occasional, “Holy sh*t!”
At this point, it was apparent that the old timer may have been right, and that if we didn’t make our way back to camp, get the trailer hooked up, and get our stuff packed away in a hurry, we may not be getting out that night—or the next night. We made our way back to camp, made record time getting our stuff cleaned up and the trailer hooked up to the truck, and headed up the road. Knowing where we had to go to reach the main highway, I was a little nervous, especially with the accumulated snow and the state of the tires on my brother-in-law’s truck (no offense Brandon if you are reading this). Regardless, we ended up making it to the summit on a snow packed dirt road, down the super steep switchback side, and to the main highway while pulling a 27-foot camp trailer in the snow and in the dark. It was a bit sketchy, but a great adventure.
What else would you like our readers to know?
I want to thank people who have supported my work and encouraged me to keep doing it. When I first started posting my artwork on my Facebook page in 2010, the response blew me away, and it went beyond just my wife, mom, and family (they are always good for some likes and compliments). I thought my work was okay, but people really seemed to like it. As I kept producing more pieces, the number of followers and compliments kept increasing.
This led to a couple of huge breaks for me. I received an email from Montana Fly Company, and they were interested in using some of my work on their River Camo product line. That was truly an awesome experience and with that came a few other opportunities. I had Patagonia contact me with a request to use one of my prints on their fishing shirts, as well as Fincognito to use some of my work on their product line. I have also worked out a deal with Sportsman’s Warehouse where they are offering a few of my prints in their stores across the country. My work has also been published in several books and magazines, including American Angler, Fly Rod & Reel, H20, De Nederlandse Vliegvisser (The Dutch Fly Fisherman), and the amazing book America’s Favorite Flies.
I have had the opportunity to meet some of the best people in the fly fishing industry, as well as some amazing artists. One artist in particular is AD Maddox. When I was just getting started I had all kinds of questions with regards to prints, procedures, advice, etc. I figured, “You can’t be told no if you don’t ask,” so I sent her a message, told her who I was, that I had some questions, and asked her to call me if she had time. She actually called me that night and spent as much time as needed to answer all of my questions, and she gave me some invaluable advice. She couldn’t have been any more accommodating or encouraging with regard to my own artwork and things I should do and things I should avoid. I honestly wasn’t expecting a call, nor was I expecting the willingness to give me advice—I suppose I expected the opposite. I thought her willingness to help out a new artist was fantastic, and it made an impression on me. Since then, I have tried to do the same thing when I have had people contact me with questions or advice about their own artwork. I have made several friends who are great artists, as well as many people who are just getting started and had very basic questions. Had AD not been so cordial, I may not have been the same way when people approached me, so I thank her for that. I also had the opportunity to meet Bern Sundell, he is the coolest guy ever, and an amazing artist.
There are so many amazing and talented artists out there, all with different techniques, independent styles, skill levels, mediums, etc. I would like to suggest that your readers and followers take some time to find some artwork that catches their eye and support some of them through purchasing a print or original piece of work from them.