The way Christopher White describes his latest contest-winning painting, the rockfish mating ritual sounds a lot like teen-agers cruisinga shopping mall on Saturday night.

"The female goes to the spawning area and waits for the right water temperature and lunar conditions," he says, sitting in the office where he does illustrations for Aberdeen Proving Ground. "When the males arrive, at first it's really like a frolic in the water. There's all this leaping and breaking and bumping in the water.

"Then the female sinks to the bottom and maybe 100 males follow. She releases her eggs at the same time that they release their milt."

Here, a co-worker interrupts with, "Chris, isn't it getting hot in here?"

Taking off his glasses to pretend to wipe away the steam,White says, "When you're talking about a title for spawning fish, you try to find something that implies what's going on without being too suggestive or obvious."

The result is "Chesapeake Suitors," which took the top prize last month over six other finalists in the Chesapeake Bay Sport Fishing Stamp Competition.

The painting -- done inthe same blue-green shades seen on Maryland's "Treasure the Chesapeake" license plates -- depicts a large female striped bass surrounded by three of her smaller ardent admirers.

White's work will be reproduced next year and stamped on Maryland fishing licenses issued by the Department of Natural Resources.

The award completes an artistic hat trick for the 33-year-old Aberdeen resident, who has worked at the proving ground since 1980. He also designed the winning Duck Stamp for 1988-89 and the Trout Stamp in 1988.

There is no cash prize for the Maryland contests, but White says that he's rewarded by playing a part in helping the bay.

While growing up in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., White didn't have much interest in fishing, despite the state's fertile trout streams. But he has been inspired to study the region's fish and wildlife to capture them in nature.

For the Chesapeake stamp contest, White wanted to capture a scene other than the cliche of a fish soaring into the air as it pulls on a sportsman's line.

"I wanted to show where the money from the Chesapeake Bay Stamp was going," White says. "One of the goals is to have fish spawning naturally in the bay and going up the tributaries."

Field trips to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, videotapes of the bay and "The Complete Book on Striped Bass," provided White a "fish-eye" view.

His paintings have been chosen as finalists in other state contests and have also been featured in shows from the Easton Waterfowl Festival to the Wildlife West Art Festival in San Bernadino, Calif.

White's daily work is bound by military routine and specifications. His assignments at APG range from an illustration of a device that tests the strength of tank turrets to a full-color rendition of what a proposed explosion pond on the Bush River would look like.

Hanging behind White's drafting table is an APG certificate awarded June 9 for his "audio-visual support for countless ceremonies, conferences and high-level briefings, as well as day-to-day illustration requirements."

The job leaves plenty of time for free-lance illustrations, ranging from Mad magazine to board game manufacturers. White's latest commission is a professional hockey scene for a board game produced by Avalon Hill.

With a bachelor's degree in fine arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, White says going free-lance is a tempting option.

But he likes the safety of his government job, illustrating how APG goes about blowing up hardware and developing weapons.

"It's always played in the back of my mind," White says, "but I have to consider the economy."

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