The Marine Art of Vaughn Cochran

Former Jimmy Buffett band member and ex-fishing guide, he now makes waves as a successful artist!

September 2023

By Jimmy Jacobs

Photos courtesy of Vaughn Cochran.

It’s possible that you’ve heard the name Vaughn Cochran in connection with a number of endeavors. After getting a degree from the Art and Printmaking Department at the University of South Florida, he headed down to Key West in 1972. There he became a respected fly-fishing guide, while also finding time to be an original member of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band. Over the years he also has co-hosted or guided for television episodes of Fly Fishing America, Fly Fishing the World, North American Fisherman, Back Roads with Ron Shara and Spanish Fly with Jose Wejebe. Now retired from guiding, Cochran resides in Jacksonville and has become a renowned marine artist.

Vaughn Cochran at work.

“The talent for art chose me, I think,” Cochran mused. “I’ve always made art as long as I can remember. Even in grade school I was fascinated by what colors you can get by mixing primary colors. I majored in art in college, then taught at the college level for a short while. After college I built a studio to get my work done.”

Cochran’s early exposure to the art world proved a valuable lesson. “You can either teach art or do art,” he explained. “I chose ‘doing art’ so that I could do what I wanted to do. I very rarely accept commissions for that reason.”

So how did that early exposure to the art world translate into becoming a top flight fly fishing guide? Growing up in St. Augustine and heading to Key West after college put him in settings with great saltwater fly fishing, and like any profession, art is not one where you start at the top of the pay scale. Thus, you might say he fell back on his musical talent and proficiency with a fly rod for moonlighting careers.

“My hometown of St. Augustine was and always has been a Mecca for artists of all types,” Cochran said. “One of my first jobs was working in a Bohemian coffee shop where all the musicians, poets and artists would meet to talk about life and art. It was a little like the gathering places in Europe, where artists meet to discuss the new art movements and who was painting what.”

Naturally, his love of angling played into the art equation too. “I guess I’d have to say fish have been my favorite subjects, but I’ve moved on to the lifestyle and landscape surrounding fishing,” he described. “Also, I’ve always approached my subjects with more contemporary flair or maybe even elements of the ‘pop’ style of the ‘60s and ‘70s. There was so much experimenting going on at that time in the art world, you didn’t have to paint classical themes. You weren’t tied down to what everybody else had done to be recognized.

“Originally, I think my ‘Bright Series’ was the art that was best received and most associated with me,” he continued. “It was new and colorful, where most marine or ‘fishing art’ was pretty subdued and more in the realistic style. After I started using non-traditional colors, other artists followed suit and a whole new movement was created and continues to be the direction of a lot of the current groups.”

In Cochran’s view, marine art does present some difficulties. “The most challenging for me is developing the concept,” he noted. “That’s not necessarily the subject, but how the overall painting is going to feel and what it is going to say to the viewer. Just because you’re a very good technical painter doesn’t mean it has something to say. It might just say, ‘hey, I’m a really good painter.’ I’ve done some of those just to prove to myself that I was capable of painting in a particular style of painting. Underwater fish paintings are like that – hard to do, but not artistic in the long run – just very technical.” That type of explorations has led Cochran to work in a variety of mediums. “I use whatever it takes to get from point A to point B,” he said. “The brighter paintings that need strong colors with no mixing need to be done in acrylics. The more traditional pieces are usually painted using oil paints. I like them both for the unique qualities that they offer in getting the job done. I also have worked in ceramics, wood carving, water color, pencil and may other mediums.”

That work has translated into an average of around a dozen large painting, plus easily more than a hundred smaller drawings and painting annually. Those have won a number of Best of Show awards. “I don’t keep track of them,” Cochran offered. “The best awards are the clients who buy your work.” That is proven by his work being in many private and corporate collections here in the U.S. and in Europe.

Still, as noted earlier, he doesn’t regularly take on commission work. “Not usually, but ask me,” the artist pointed out. “If it’s interesting and I have time, I would probably consider it. I just did a commission piece for the owner of The Alligator Farm in St. Augustine. He asked if I would paint a crocodile. I asked which one and he said he didn’t care, since he owns one of each of the 23 species that exist. I asked what he wanted it look like, and he said just do what you do! Well, in that case, I accepted the challenge, since I had never painted a crocodile before and it sounded like fun.”

Vaughn Cochran finished out by offering some thoughts and advice for future artists in the making. “Don’t start with the Sistine Chapel,” he cautioned. “I would research the listing of Careers in Art to see if any of those jobs were something I was interested in doing for the rest of my life. If not, start painting and don’t ever stop for anything. Paint or draw every day and think as you go. I think it was Picasso who said, ‘make sure inspiration finds you working.’

“I’m very lucky to have been able to be an artist, but I’ve worked hard at it. Try every angle, be prepared to fail and start over again, and again, and again. Networking is the secret to success and having good work to show when the time comes. Explore all avenues when you have an idea. Accept that being an artist is a full-time job! Everything in your life relates to your art.

“I’ll quote the famous artist, Chuck Close, ‘Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just get up and go to work,’” Cochran concluded.

To see more of Vaughn Cochran’s work, click here.

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