Not long after I started this blog back in 2015, I reached out to a unique fellow cichlidophile, whom I’d never met, to see if he would be interested in an interview. Thankfully, he said he would be happy to do it. Fast forward nearly five years, and I thought I would reach out to him again. This long-time aquarist is different than most because he’s also an artist who focuses on fish illustrations and aquarium art.
Sam Garcia, Jr. is not only an awesome artist, but he’s a fantastic fish keeper and a super nice guy. Sam Scalz, as he’s known in the art community, is also quite busy these days. In addition to fish keeping and his art business, which includes t-shirts, he also helps out at his friend Ron Soucy’s shop, Aquarium Fish Depot, in San Diego, CA.
I finally met Sam back in November of last year at the 25th Ohio Cichlid Association (OCA) Extravaganza in Cleveland, OH (a fantastic annual event, btw, that all cichlid lovers should try attend). I asked him then if he’d be interested in doing a follow-up interview, since it had been so long since our first one. He said he was happy to, and I finally caught back up with him a few weeks ago.
Without further ado!
For a refresher or for those who don’t know you, tell the readers about your cichlid keeping journey and what species you’re keeping now.
Although I had already kept many aquariums, starting from the age of 6, my first experience keeping cichlids was when I was in the 6th grade and 11 years old. My Dad took me to a local fish store called Carl’s Tropicals, where I purchased a Texas Cichlid (Hericthys cyanoguttatus) and, using a buy one get one coupon that I found in the newspaper, I also got another cichlid. I later found out it was called a Ring-tailed Pike (Crenicichla saxatilis), however, it was labeled as an “Assorted Pike” in the store. I kept them together in a 30-gallon aquarium with a few rocks. I wanted to make it look natural, so I asked my Dad to take me to the library so I could do as much research as I could. That’s when I learned that the two species, while both being considered American cichlids, were actually found several thousand miles from each other in vastly different habitats.
This bothered me, despite my young age, and it probably ignited my fascination for creating biotope habitats, a term that was not even used in the 1980s. To do it right, I had to separate the fish. So, looking through some books that I found, there were photos of the Central American and South American habitats that these two species were naturally found in. I set my mind to reproducing these in my tanks. At the local department store aquarium section, most decorations were plastic or plaster, and gaudy and unnatural looking. Even at the local fish stores, everything was generic and unappealing to me. So, I decided to save my allowance and just use rocks and sticks that I found in the canyon near my house. I made a rocky tank with lighter gravel for the Texas Cichlid and used tan gravel, some branches, and a Swordplant for the Pike Cichlid. Thus was born my foray into biotope aquascaping. Today, I am very involved in the biotope aquarium community, even being an admin on several Facebook groups. Cichlids are still a major focus of my aquascapes.
You mentioned in the first interview that you enjoyed keeping Lake Tanganyikan species, especially sand dwellers. Talk a little about your favorite Tang species and why it’s a favorite.
My interest in Lake Tanganyika is never ending. There are so many specialized adaptations and unique behaviors among the species found in the lake. While most are not as colorful as the species from Lake Malawi, many have subtle iridescence, attractive markings, and a few have beautiful, flowing fins. One particular species that I have grown very fascinated with is Cyathopharynx foai. This rainbow-hued fish has an ever-changing kaleidoscope of color as the light, transforming from violet and blue to pink and green, especially as natural rays hits its flanks. It has bold dark markings on its fins and is constantly active as it hovers, darts and flares its fins over an open sand bottom. This fish is a true challenge to paint, but I have attempted it several times.
Can you share a little about your painting process so the readers can understand what all goes into each piece of art?
Becoming a successful fish Artist was not easy but is one of my proudest achievements. I spent many years studying the way fish look and drawing them in pencil before I really started to paint them in watercolor, gouache, and acrylic. While I paint using several methods and with different styles, from scientific illustrations to graphic images to combined realism with abstraction, many of my favorite artworks are closer to being hyperrealism. I typically use a combination of watercolor and gouache to make these images.
The first and most important part of creating one of these realistic paintings is starting off with a unique and striking concept. I typically consider the natural habitat of the fish and the type of movements that the fish makes. That is why having experience with live specimens and knowing about their natural history gives me an advantage as an artist. I then have to do an accurate drawing with proper proportions and placement of fins and arrangement of scales. Drawing and painting scales can be painstakingly laborious. After I am satisfied with the base drawing, I start with transparent layers to visualize the tone and set the color template, leaving no white background exposed. I then like to finish the habitat and background before working on the main subject. When painting the fish, I apply layers starting from mid-tones to light until I build some depth to the form, then I do the darkest shadows later, giving it a natural appearance. I paint in bold, opaque details last. After I am satisfied with the overall image, I will sometimes add a transparent glaze to tie the whole image together. This gives it an authentic feeling. I spray the image with a semi-gloss fixative before photographing it for making reprints, then framing the original.
Since that first interview, you’ve branched out with your artwork, such as t-shirts, etc. Talk about some of these other products you’re now offering.
Since many people enjoy my work but don’t always have enough wall space to display it, it was only natural that I print it on apparel and other items. I have used several different companies to do print on demand products, but Threadless and Society 6 have provided the best service for my customers. Aside from the usual array of shirts, sweaters, and other clothing, I have also been able to create skateboards, backpacks, mugs, phone cases, notebooks, stickers and pillowcases. This way, hobbyists can celebrate their passion for fish, reptiles, and other nature in more ways than ever! I hope to really create a following for the Scālz brand culture and will branch out into as many markets as I can to fill the demand for quality merchandise that celebrates Earth’s diversity of life. I plan to make the clothing a more dominant part of my product line, perhaps even making my brand available on a more commercial level.
Do you do commissioned paintings, i.e., paintings of people’s own fish or a specific species in a particular setting by request? If so, what’s the process for you and the customer?
I have always enjoyed doing wildlife art commissions. Most people will contact me through my Facebook art page, Scalz Nature Artist, or through Instagram, @samscalz. We discuss the concept and work with sketches before finalizing a piece, but I only accept commissions that allow me to have artistic license and full input on the end result. I complete about 40 to 60 commissions every year. I also do artwork for several of the major aquarium conventions. Overall, I have been painting at least 200 images a year, however, in order to complete my projects in a reasonable timeframe, I need to double that. I am working on numerous illustrated books and am preparing to write a unique series of articles about my nature artwork. To add to my schedule and make it even more challenging to achieve my goals, I have also dedicated a few days a week working at a new shop called Aquarium Fish Depot in San Diego, California, where I have a full immersion of new ideas to paint!
Let’s switch gears here and talk about conservation. Among your many passions is cichlid conservation. Tell the readers why this is important to you and perhaps offer some advice on how they can participate in conservation efforts themselves.
My passion for fishes has led me to have a real interest in conservation. All over the world, natural aquatic habitats are being destroyed before we can even explore their full diversity of species. Aquarium hobbyists have an important role in maintaining fish in their natural form, so that we can preserve their genetic purity in the event that we lose them forever in the wild. Massive Dam projects in Asia, Africa, and South America are altering the mighty rivers. Development and pollution are poisoning pristine waters all over the world. Overfishing and poor fisheries management are allowing populations of fish to become severely pressured. Introduced invasive species are predating on the adults and young of many species and some are outcompeting natives for food sources. We have to be conscious of preserving our natural heritage for future generations.
What are some positive or encouraging changes that you’ve seen in the hobby since our last interview?
There is a lot of great things happening in the aquarium hobby. The aquarists are becoming far more in touch with their importance as conservation and research contributors. This is a very exciting thing to see, for me in particular, as I am heavily involved with conservation efforts. I believe that more aquarium keepers are making an effort to become more aware of the natural history of the fish and other creatures, as well as the plants, which they keep and even attempt to breed. Currently, there is such a nice diversity of animals available in the hobby, from hundreds of varieties of shrimp, dozens of snail species, rare fish from all over the world, including temperate regions, and plants of all shapes, colors, and textures.
Many groups on social media have become specialized to study and share information on specific types of fish, invertebrates, and plants. In particular, I am pleased with the many focused groups for the cichlid families. There are groups dedicated to Heroines, Eartheaters, Malagasy species, Dwarf Cichlids, Pike Cichlids, Discus, Malawi, Tanganyika and Victorian species, West Africans, Cichla, New World species, and even ornamental hybrids and morphs. I am a founding admin of the group Biotope Aquaristics. We created a system for categorizing the various types of natural aquarium set-ups. I also founded the All Fish Species Identification group. We have some incredibly knowledgeable moderators and members who help to identify fish from all over the world. Now, there are also international competitions for aquascaping that have really become mainstream, thanks to publications like Amazonas and Tropical Fish Hobbyist, as well as through Facebook and Instagram. This movement was fueled by the spectacular, artistic designs of the late Takashi Amano, of Nature Aquarium World fame. Overall, the hobby is experiencing a nice resurgence of interest and is moving away from irresponsible practices that had plagued it in the past.
Furthermore, the aquarium hobby has always seemed to go through trends that would fade over time. Nowadays, however, social media seems to be exposing more and more people to the aquarium as an art form rather than a passing fad. We are seeing new aquarists starting to appreciate the fish tank as a piece of nature rather than just a decorative novelty item. This is a necessary positive change for the industry to move forward. Fish are living gems. They should be the focal point of the aquarium and shouldn’t be overpowered by colorful plastic plants and painted gravel. Planted aquaria have reached new heights. More people understand the mechanisms and chemistry behind the growth of aquatic plants and many have become masters of aquascapes, creating spectacular designs that captivate us. People have learned to appreciate the biotope style aquarium, much like I had 35 years ago, attempting to recreate an accurate depiction of a very specific habitat. The hobby is becoming more responsible and more educated, and this makes me feel confident that it will survive, for as long as there are fish to keep.
We covered a lot of ground above. Anything we didn’t discuss about cichlids or your artwork that you would like to close the interview with?
As I have teamed back up with my good friend and mentor, Ron Soucy, at Aquarium Fish Depot in San Diego, I once again have direct access to many species of rare fish. I can better observe these as subjects for my paintings. I have integrated a gallery into the store where I can show and sell original art and prints alongside some other very talented artists. I am also making the shop a home base for my YouTube video series. Going forward, I will be spending a lot of time working on writing and illustrating several books on everything from The Diversity of Cichlids to Geckos to Tarantulas and Aquarium Plants.
Thank you for having me!