Florida Trend Business Profile
Guy Harvey and the Art of the Deal
Guy Harvey's fish paintings have made his T-shirts and name synonymous with fishing and Florida's casual lifestyle. Can he push the brand nationally?
An 11th-generation Jamaican, Harvey, 57, didn’t set out to become an entrepreneur, or even a painter. After getting a degree in marine biology from Aberdeen University in Scotland and a Ph.D. in fisheries management from the University of the West Indies, he took a job teaching marine biology at the latter school in the early 1980s.
Interested in drawing as a child, Harvey began painting fish in his spare time. A friend convinced Harvey his work had commercial potential, and Harvey started selling his paintings at art shows. His first big break came at the 1986 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. He sold everything he brought, including watercolors, pen and ink drawings and a set of 12 drawings depicting Ernest Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” story that brought him $1,200. (Today, those paintings are worth $24,000.)
By 1988, he had quit his job as a professor and was painting full time. He began licensing his work, partnering with a company called T-Shirts of Florida that put his designs on cotton T-shirts. Harvey says he was “a little bit skeptical, to be honest,” but liked that the art reproduced properly on the shirts. “It makes it look exactly like a real painting.”
Initially, Harvey’s art caught on with anglers, who appreciated his efforts to render fish in vivid detail. Apparel sales took off when Harvey’s designs became popular with others, including teenagers and young adults, a notoriously fickle demographic.
“When we first started, if you went to a Guy Harvey signing it was a couple of older guys who fish together who wanted to buy a T-shirt,” says Shedd, who acknowledges he is a little baffled by Harvey’s enduring popularity with young adults.
Harvey paints in a variety of media, including oils, acrylics, watercolors and pen and ink. He paints all the artwork himself, with an assistant helping him adapt the images for use on T-shirts or rugs.
The accuracy of his images is a source of pride: He says he spends time diving and fishing, especially in areas he is unfamiliar with, such as the Pacific Northwest, “to stay on top of the anatomy and the physiology of these animals. I learned scientifically about how to get it right,” Harvey says. “I didn’t work from photos.”