Washington Department of Licensing has embraced a stylistic work of art in its new steelhead license plate, which became available for purchase last week.
The new license plate, which focuses on the eye and head of a steelhead trout, is an obvious departure from previous wildlife license plates that feature realistic images of animals. Derek DeYoung, the artist who created the new plate, specializes in what he calls abstract paintings of fish faces and flanks, as well as whole fish. The original steelhead painting is called “Abstract Steelhead — Horizon Eye.”
Derek, based in Livingston, Mont., is a rare combination of expressive artist and skilled angler.
“When hiking up a small mountain stream, I’m not just chasing trout, I’m searching for a magical experience or vision that will inspire me and raise my paintings to that next level,” Derek says on his website, DeYoung Studio.
“For me, the most inspiration comes once I’ve landed a particularly beautiful fish. I hold it up, tilting the fish back and forth in the sunlight, allowing all the subtle colors and patterns to come alive. After setting the fish back into the water and releasing it into the depths, the only thing left to do is get back to my studio to bring that fish to life on my canvas.”
The importance of a fish’s eye, as Derek sees it, is depicted in the first video shown on this page. The second video shows his work on an entire canvas. Check out his gallery for some amazing renditions of all varieties of game fish.
The new license plate is being sold to raise funds to benefit Washington’s iconic steelhead, listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Money will be used for fisheries management, hatchery operations, monitoring and habitat restoration.
More than 4,000 people expressed interest in buying a steelhead license plate before the Legislature approved the concept last year, said Kelly Cunningham of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We can’t wait to see steelhead license plates on vehicles across this state,” Kelly said in a news release. “This is a great way to help fund efforts to conserve steelhead in Washington.”
Derek DeYoung and one other artist were selected as finalists and both offered their work at no cost. Derek’s was chosen after “camera testing,” Kelly told me.
“Internally, we did not have any specific criteria,” she said. “We wanted something unique. Our goal was to have the ‘best’ fish plate in the country.”
The price of wildlife-themed license plates, including orcas and eagles, range from $54 to $72 (depending on the vehicle) plus the regular license plate fees. For purchase information, go to the webpage for the Washington Department of Licensing.
It seems fitting that Washington’s official state fish finally gets its own license plate, along with a design that makes it stand out from the others. Maybe something a little more artistic could also be done for the orca, the state’s official marine mammal. All the wildlife license plates can be seen on the WDFW website.
I guess I should point out that such high-level acclaim has yet to reach the state’s official bird, the willow goldfinch; the state’s official endemic mammal, the Olympic marmot; the state’s official amphibian, the Pacific chorus frog; the state’s official insect, the green darner dragonfly; or the state’s official oyster, the Olympia oyster.
As for me, I’d like to see one or our native oysters emblazoned upon my license plate.
One thing I learned about license plates is that the first ones issued in Washington state were as customized as you will ever see. In 1905, the Legislature created the Division of Motor Vehicles, which issued license plate numbers for $2 each. Vehicle owners were required to make their own plates out of wood, metal or leather. If they preferred, they could just stencil the number on the front and rear of their vehicle.
The first personalized license plates were approved by voters in 1973, followed by a variety of specialized plates through the years — including those providing special access for people who can’t get along well on foot.
The first illustration used to promote the steelhead license plate was a realistic-looking fish shown in silvery colors from head to tail. That rendition was more easily identified as a steelhead than Derek’s fish-head-focused piece. I thought a straightforward steelhead would be more acceptable to people, but I have heard no complaints so far. People seem to appreciate Derek’s deeper expression, which is something that has grown on me over time.
As Derek explains on his website:
“My work has veered off from the traditional fish illustration style. I place more importance on using a unique style and palette rather than painting a fish to look photo realistic.
“The reason I’ve chosen fish as the subject of my life’s work is I find fish to be intriguing, not just as a fisherman, but as an artist. When painting a fish, I try to capture all the intricacies they possess: their scales, patterns, dimension and texture.
“When chest deep in a river, I’m not just chasing a fish, I’m searching for the magical experience or vision that will inspire me and raise my paintings to a higher level.”
Steelhead fishermen seem to experience a passion unmatched by most other anglers, so it’s nice to know that someone who embraces that passion will have his artwork traveling on vehicles throughout Washington state and beyond.