Drawing sheepshead minnows and what that has to do with writing

Sheepshead minnow, drawn by Greg Pak

Originally posted in Greg Pak’s Writing about Writing Comics Patreon.

I’ve been wallowing in nostalgia during the pandemic, which has manifested itself in trying to reproduce the kinds of aquariums I kept as a kid in Dallas. So here I am in New York City at the age of 52 with a tank of sheepshead minnows like the ones I used to catch on family road trips to the salt marshes of South Texas.

I love these little fish. They’re uncommon in the aquarium trade, but very common among scientists (they’re used in water quality/toxicity experiments) and incredibly common in the wild all up and down the East Coast and along the Gulf Coast. They’re called minnows, but they’re technically killifish in the pupfish family (Cyprinodontidae), closely related to the famous, endangered Devils Hole pupfish. They’ve got stocky, sturdy little bodies and they’re little scrappers with tons of personality. They like to chase each other — males in particular get territorial when breeding. But they seldom do any real damage to each other and they’re just fun to watch as they kind of helicopter/hover around, eyeballing me and each other in between bouts of sparring and feeding.

So why am I going on about them on this comics writing Patreon? Because last night I wound down by drawing some sheepshead minnows, and I realized that the act of drawing made me notice things I hadn’t fully figured out before.

Specifically, when it came time to draw the fins, I realized the sheepshead minnow’s pectoral fins (the main fins along the sides of the fish) are much lower on their bodies than those of a molly, for example. And I realized that that’s one of the reasons sheepshead minnows are so adorable to me — because those little pectoral fins look more like feet or paws when they’re situated that way. They woggle them around when they’re hovering in the water, and it’s super cute. 

I also found myself studying the fishes’ eyes and head more. I grew up drawing mollies all the time and feel pretty confident drawing their sleek, sharp, missile-like profiles. But sheepshead minnows have more of a snub-nosed, eye-bulge-y, underbite-y, bulldoggy kind of look. And they have vertical, smudge-like black markings that run over their eyes, with a kind of smeary mascara effect. It’s all incredibly endearing to me.

I often say writing is thinking. I sometimes don’t know quite what I’m thinking until I write it all out.

A corollary of that might be that drawing is seeing. I learned a lot more about what I was seeing in these fish when I sat down to draw them. 

And now I’m better equipped to write about them.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that any method of closely interacting with a subject can improve our writing. Not everyone draws; I’m not saying that’s the only way to go here. But I’d guess that photography or music or gardening or heck, sometimes just going for a walk can generate direct experience and observation that improves our writing immeasurably.