Jen Richards

marine life artist

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Art Gone Wild

I’m so happy to announce that I’ve been selected as one of the participating artists in Zoo Atlanta’s Art Gone Wild event! I’m beyond thrilled at this unique opportunity and can’t wait to get started. In the first week of June (2 – 6) my fellow artists and I will be creating works “en plein air” on the zoo grounds, with no shortage of inspiration from the animals that call Zoo Atlanta home. Following the Paint Out Week, on June 14th an art show and silent auction featuring our works will be held to raise funds for the zoo, whose conservation efforts include gorilla field conservation and ecological restoration in the Galapagos.

I’ve mentioned my interest in non-marine species before (it’s shocking, I know!), and am very excited to be able to expand my horizons with Art Gone Wild in such a stimulating environment. I’ll keep you posted as I prepare for this adventure!

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The Western Australia shark cull

In January of this year, the government of Western Australia began to roll out the world’s largest shark cull. Baited drumlines have been set about 1 km (0.62 miles) from several beaches with the intention of catching great white, tiger, and bull sharks – the suspected “maneaters” – greater than 3 metres (9.8 feet) in length, which are then shot and killed. The policy is a response to an increase in fatal incidents involving sharks in the region over the last ten years, but it’s proven to be an extremely controversial one: before it even went into effect, more than 100 shark scientists vocally opposed it. Previous efforts to control shark populations have been largely unsuccessful. Though large sharks of three species are the targets, the drumlines are catching smaller sharks and putting other marine animals at risk (not to mention the possibility of drawing large sharks closer to beaches because of the bait). There is great concern that the killing of long lived, slow maturing great white sharks, a federally protected species in Australia, will affect the breeding stock. A large great white was spotted this week and is now on the government’s hit list, a particularly uncomfortable notion.

What’s even more disturbing is that this week the WA government applied to extend the cull for an additional three years. This means that the drumlines would continue to be set, and sharks caught and killed, from January to April until 2017. It’s a decision that has further outraged the thousands of scientists, conservationists, and citizens that oppose the policy. Shark expert and lecturer at the University of Sydney Christopher Neff recently conducted a poll that found 87% of those surveyed said that sharks should not be killed, and that 69% believe education is key in avoiding shark-related incidents. Protests against the cull have drawn thousands of concerned people to Australia’s beaches.

I find the numbers in this whole debacle to be unsettling, and wanted to create something to help visualise some of these. One of the most significant figures I found is that 104 sharks have been caught since the cull began in January and that 40 had been found dead or destroyed. 101 sharks out of those 104 caught were tiger sharks (the drumlines have yet to hook a single great white). I wanted to represent that number of confirmed animals that have been affected by this policy and wanted a tiger shark to represent them, and drew this on my iPad using Procreate and my stylus. It’s nothing special but I was moved to draw after learning of the WA government’s intention to extend the policy. I hate thinking about the dozens more sharks that will be affected by this misguided, unscientific effort.

If you’d like to join the voices against the cull and stay up to date on the latest news, here are some highly recommended links:
@NoWASharkCull on Twitter
• Christopher Neff on Twitter @christopherneff
• David Shiffman on @WhySharksMatter
• Australian Marine Conservation Society


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Saddle patch heart

Have you ever noticed that an orca’s saddlepatch is heart-shaped when viewed from above? I’ve wanted to explore that idea for a while and finally got it out of my head with this quick little iPad painting done during breaks at work over the last couple of days. Hooray for being productive! I used my Bamboo stylus with Procreate as my app of choice.

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Sepia bandensis: A Love Story

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t think cephalopods are fascinating creatures. Who doesn’t enjoy watching an octopus change colour, figure out a puzzle, or even just crawl across its habitat with its eight sinuous arms? I’d always been interested in this unusual group of animals, but something changed a couple of months ago when I was introduced to a species I hadn’t met before. At first I was excited to see them, and eagerly watched them feed and adjust to their new surroundings. Days later, I found myself wandering back to them and watching them a bit more. I took a few photos. And then I found myself making a point of going to see them. I started to film them going about their little lives. And then before I knew it, I was going to see them every chance I could, and waxing poetic about them to anyone who was interested.

And then I realised… I love dwarf cuttlefish.

I am truly enchanted by them. They aren’t the first cuttlefish species I’ve seen, but getting to spend time with these little guys and observing them interact with each other and grow has me absolutely smitten. Their mantle tends to measure only about 2.8 inches (7 cm) in length, but there’s a lot packed into this tiny package. They’ve got eight arms, two tentacles, three hearts, a beak, and absolutely fascinating eyes. And, like other cephalopods, they can rapidly change the colour and texture of their skin using chromatophores. So. Awesome.

Please excuse the bumpy start, but enjoy 46 seconds of cuteness.

charcoalcuttle02_wmI knew I had to paint one, but that presented a challenge. They’d shown me so many different behaviours and appearances I couldn’t settle on just one, so… I did three! I’ve had quite the busy year so far so I didn’t have much time to dedicate to painting, but I did begin to explore cuttlefish by doing some pencil sketches. I even ventured into using charcoal for the first time since secondary school! The variety of textures they can present on their bodies is amazing, so I wanted to have some fun with different mediums. When I finally found some time to start painting them, I kept the same mindset: I wanted to retain the joy I feel when I watch them in person, so I let loose with a bunch of different things. I used sponges, laid paint on thickly, and even flicked watered-down paint on them. It was a lot of fun! Each canvas measures only 5 x 7 inches. Here’s a closer look at each one:


If cephalopods are your thing, I hope you enjoyed this lengthy post! If this is your first time hearing about dwarf cuttlefish, I hope you’ve fallen for them too.

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Adventures with iPad speed paintings

Swellsharks are quite good at staying still for me.

Swellsharks are quite good at staying still for me.

I’m lucky in that I get to be around animals a lot. I try to never take this for granted - being in the presence of so many creatures can be exciting, fascinating, and humbling all at once. I’m constantly inspired by them, and wish there were enough hours in the day to draw and paint as many as I can. One thing I’ve been able to do recently is spend a little bit of time throughout the week doing some digital speed paintings from some of these real life subjects. I’ve sat with these animals and used my Bamboo stylus and my iPad to do a quick rendering of them using my favourite digital art app Procreate (I also recommend SketchbookPro). It’s proving to be a good exercise in working more quickly, and an added bonus is that I get to represent more species in my work. Here are a few I’ve done recently, each taking between about 5 and 15 minutes. Looking forward to doing lots more of these!

Swellshark - About 5 minutes


African penguin - About 10 minutes

African penguin

Beluga whale - About 15 minutes

Beluga whale



It happens to every creative person: sometimes you just get stuck. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life staring at a blank canvas or sketchbook page, pencil in hand, utterly stumped. Sometimes I start a thing and the thing looks nothing like how I wanted and now I hate it and I abandon the thing. Sometimes I get the urge to paint a specific subject, then get distracted by something else, and then never even begin. I’ve had a block like this for a couple of months now. But sometimes I feel like painting something that isn’t usually “my thing.” The ocean and its inhabitants are a huge part of my life, but sometimes? Sometimes I just want to paint a bird. So I did.

Admittedly, I didn’t really develop a real interest in birds until I started working with seabirds (I’ve gushed about  gannets previously). Before I knew it I was spending a lot of time at our partner zoo, and found myself inexplicably drawn to the hornbills. I’m not sure what it was. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been somewhat crazy about dinosaurs, and hornbills just look especially prehistoric – you can tell they’re the ones that survived. Their colourful bills are striking, but it’s not the only thing I love about them: the ones I encountered were so interactive and naturally curious I was smitten. They are just fascinating creatures.

When I first visited Zoo Atlanta a couple of years ago I was thrilled to discover that they had hornbills too (especially the wreathed! I love them!). I took some photos of a beautiful little species that I believe was a Von der Decken’s, and knew I had to paint it… eventually. I’ve made a point to spend more time at the zoo with my sketchbook this year – observing animals of all kinds is so inspiring.

I had a LOT of fun with this piece because I tried to just go with the flow. I was doing something different. I was painting a new environment – I’ve never done leaves before! I’ve never done feathers like this, and nor have I tried to paint a bill in such detail. It was a different colour palette for me, and the unusual textures left me feeling quite refreshed. I need to do this more. Maybe I’ll need a new section on my site: “Suddenly, Hornbills!”

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Februaray: Cownose ray

If you’ve ever been to an aquarium that has a ray touch pool, you’ve probably encountered these guys up close already. Cownose ray faces seem to be particularly appealing to a lot of people – they’ve definitely got a distinctive look! Named after their unique head shape, which is a lot like the nose of a cow, cownose rays are actually a Near Threatened species that ranges from the western Atlantic all the way down to the far end of Brazil. There are two unusual subrostral lobes on its underside that help it forage in the substrate for tasty invertebrates.

See more of my Februaray sketches using this handy tag!

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Februaray: Ocellate river stingray

I’ve never seen an ocellate river stingray in person, but their colouration fascinates me. So does their lifestyle – it’s a freshwater species! Though these guys in particular are currently classified as Data Deficient on the IUCN Red List, the threats to freshwater elasmobranchs become all the more apparent when you consider just how much we impact our rivers and streams. Not being able to know how well or poorly a species is doing can make managing their conservation quite difficult.

I added a bit of digital colour to this sketch to show their awesome markings. I saved up for an iPad in December and have been having a blast getting back into digital art using a stylus; it’s a great feeling to be able to create artwork – even “paint” – on the go.


Februaray: Black blotched fantail ray

When most people think of stingrays they’re probably envisioning something about the size of the lid of your average trash can. The black blotched fantail ray is a big stingray though, and quite a sight to behold as it sweeps along the bottom like a forgotten 330 lb blanket.

I’m looking forward to having some time this weekend to produce some more Februaray contributions that are a lot more finished than the sketchbook pages I’ve shared so far!

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FebruaRAY: Spotted eagle rays

Getting ready to feed a tasty clam to this eager fellow.

Getting ready to feed a tasty clam to this eager fellow. I’m trying hard not to grin like an utter moron.

For tonight’s FebruaRAY post I’m sharing another page from my sketchbook. Spotted eagle rays are the champions of being completely bizarre-looking but ridiculously endearing at the same time. They have one of the strangest faces of all elasmobranchs – the fleshy snout forms a “bill” that they use to dig around in the sediment for delicious mollusks, but it also gives them an oddly human face. I was recently feeding a group of these guys, and yes, it was awesome. It’s actually a bit startling to remember just how big they can get: an adult can measure almost 11 feet across and more than 16 feet long including the tail.

What’s FebruaRAY? I’m dedicating all of my art time this month to the vastly underappreciated Batoidea! Keep checking back for lots more as I work my way through just a few of the ~560 species of rays and skates.


It’s FebruaRAY!

You may have heard some big elasmobranch news a couple of weeks ago: the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Shark Specialist Group published the first-ever global analysis of sharks, rays and chimeras, and the results were not good. It found that a quarter of shark and ray species are threatened with extinction, putting them at a substantially higher risk than other groups of animals. That’s pretty huge. Especially disturbing is the fact that rays are actually more at risk than sharks are.

Rays are essentially flat sharks, but they don’t garner nearly the attention that their more well-known relatives do. Of course, you get the rockstar manta rays and aquarium touch pool favourites, but on the whole, rays are really underloved. I’d like to help change that.

So, for the entire month, I’m celebrating FebruaRAY. (I’m not sorry for the name.) As often as I can over the coming weeks, I’m going to draw and share art I’ve created that showcases some of my favourite ray species. I love rays dearly, but even I’m guilty of picking more traditionally “paintable” marine wildlife over them. Here’s to changing that!

My first Februaray offering is a double – two messy pages from my sketchbook. I was thrilled to hear that Sweet Pea, a bowmouth guitarfish (or shark ray – just to be confusing) at the Newport Aquarium gave birth very recently, which is particularly fantastic because this marks the first time this species has reproduced in human care. Guitarfishes are actually one of the most threatened families of rays. Go Sweet Pea! (Please do click on that link and to see photos of her pups. There’s little on the planet cuter than elasmobranch babies!)

Last Monday I had the undeniably awesome experience of being in the water with a small school of lesser devil rays (Mobula hypostoma) during feeding time. I was already kind of in love with these guys, who you’d not be too wrong to think of as tiny, hyperactive manta rays, but experiencing them so close and feeling the water move as they zig-zagged so effortlessly around me has me head over heels for them.

Please do feel free to suggest more ray species for me to draw! What is YOUR favourite?

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Ten years on: A tribute to Keiko

Keiko wasn’t the whale that sparked my interest in orcas – that happened before Free Willy came out – but he was the one whose story I followed very closely for almost a decade. I had half a dozen VHS tapes on which I’d record anything concerning orcas that would come up on TV, whether it was a documentary, a news clip, or a film snippet; folders were packed with newspaper clippings and magazine articles. At the time, most of that news coverage was of Keiko’s extensive rehabilitation and release. It was easy to fall in love with this huge, endearing animal whose life became far more fascinating than a wistful movie plot. Like so many others around the world, I felt like I was with Keiko for every challenge and success along his journey: every transfer, every “ocean walk,” every opportunity to interact with his own species, every return to humans. Though I can’t begin to imagine the heartbreak those that worked with him felt when he died, I was devastated. That was the 12th December 2003. I painted a picture of him a few days later. (I’ve unfortunately lost the scan.)

I wanted to do a little tribute to commemorate him ten years on, but wasn’t able to finish in time for the exact date due to being so busy (it’s the time of year!). I did manage to complete this 10 x 8 painting on canvas today though, so I wanted to share it and remember a remarkable whale.

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Meeting Wyland

Sometimes the opportunity arises to get involved with something utterly brilliant that really motivates you as an artist, and that happened to me today: I got to meet Wyland!

The art lesson begins!

The art lesson begins!

Wyland at work, showing the kids some cool tips and tricks.

Wyland at work, showing the kids some cool tips and tricks.

When you’re into marine life, Wyland’s art is difficult to miss. His influence is remarkable and the scale at which he often works is astounding – I got to see one of his Whaling Walls (#33) in Long Beach, California in 2007. His dedication to conservation and outreach through the Wyland Foundation is truly remarkable and extremely inspiring; I felt honoured to be able to witness it in action today. He was in Atlanta to unveil a massive canvas – his largest to date at 8 x 24 feet! – at Georgia Aquarium and kick off the National “Water Is Life” Mural and Art Challenge. Local schoolkids and art teachers were there to help emphasise the importance of art in schools and Wyland even held an art lesson for the students. It was a joy to watch him share his passion for his marine subjects with the kids and encourage them to express themselves through painting. I particularly enjoyed hearing him suggest they draw their ocean, their image of how the ocean should be – “Hopefully clean!”

Wyland and I!

Wyland and I!

As an Ocean Artists Society member I was especially eager to meet and thank one of our founders, and no sooner were the words “Ocean Artists Society” out of my mouth when he exclaimed “You’re one of us!” There was a lot of high fiving. I was blown away by his friendliness and encouragement. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing when he asked me if I’d come and paint with him and the kids on a large collaborative mural; it’s kind of something you can’t refuse. And so I did! I added a little blacktip reef shark that was soon joined by lots of fish, jellies, dolphins and many other animals, which were topped off by Wyland’s signature tail flukes. These collaborative murals are such a wonderful concept for community events like this and I loved how many little AND big kids had a go! It was a real treat to see, throughout the whole day, how easily art, conservation and fun could be brought together and inspire so many to get involved. Myself included!

A little shout out goes to Fredrix Artist Canvas, who co-sponsored the event and were amazingly lovely.

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Sea Otter Awareness Week 2013

It’s that time of year again! Sea Otter Awareness Week 2013 is almost over, but it’s never too late to celebrate the hairiest of all mammals. Last year I shared the colouring sheet I created for Georgia Aquarium’s SOAW, but this year’s event saw me collaborating with a good friend who just happens to be crazy about sea otters. She created a very cute little narrative for me to illustrate that would cover some of the milestones in the first year of sea otter’s life – a “Watch Me Grow” pup journal to be given out for free. It was a lot of fun to work on! The journals double as colouring books and allow kids to name “their” sea otter and learn what it’s like to grow up in the chilly waters of the west coast. These were handed out on the first day of SOAW on Sunday 22nd and will also be available tomorrow (Saturday 28th), so if you’re in the area and want to pick one up – as well as have a LOT of sea otter-related fun with activities and storytelling – you should stop by! If you’re nowhere near Atlanta, check out the list of participating organisations and see if you can pop in to your local aquarium or zoo. You won’t find my artwork, but you WILL find a lot of enthusiastic, dedicated people who would love to talk to you about sea otters and other wonderful animals!

I believe that after this week, the journal will be available to download from Georgia Aquarium’s SOAW page. I’ll let you know!


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