Jen Richards

marine life artist

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Into the Light

'Into the Light' - Acrylic on canvas, 14 x 11

‘Into the Light’ – Acrylic on canvas, 14 x 11

Rhinos are brilliant. I discovered my love of painting them last year while taking part in Zoo Atlanta’s first Art Gone Wild event, which saw me paint not one but three of them. Seeing my completed works in the silent auction and knowing that the funds raised from them helped to support the zoo gave me warm fuzzies. I knew I’d want to continue using my art to actively help animals as best I could.

Last year, while chatting with the lovely Corinna Bechko, I became interested in Bowling for Rhinos. It’s a fundraiser that takes form as multiple events held across the US by the American Association of Zoo Keepers. From what I’ve seen online it looks like everyone has a lot of fun – and even better, 100% of the profits raised go directly to helping rhinos! So far BFR events have raised almost $5.5 million for rhino conservation projects. Corinna put me in touch with the right people, and now I’m very proud to be sending this original 14 x 11 acrylic painting to the LA Bowling for Rhinos silent auction.

My idea was to produce a closeup portrait of a black rhino and bring in lots of colour (similar to my 2014 painting of Zoo Atlanta’s Utenzi). I wanted to really focus on the face and have it appear as if he’s stepping out of the darkness and into the light. For me this symbolises the hope I have for the future of this Critically Endangered species through dedicated conservation efforts.

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Changing up the canvas

When I was picking up some art supplies last night I found some small wooden blocks for sale alongside the smaller canvases.They looked so fun to paint on that I had to get a couple! I experimented a bit tonight with acrylics on an 8 x 5 inch block and was pleased with the results. It was interesting to see how the paint reacted – I’ve never painted on wood like this before so it was a fun challenge. Definitely planning on doing many more like this!

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Day Octopus

Acrylic on canvas, 10 x 8


It’s only March but it’s been quite the busy year so far, and I’ve felt guilt that I haven’t been painting much and have found it a bit difficult to put brush to canvas these past few weeks. Yesterday, however, I decided I was going to Start and Finish a Thing in a day. I chose to paint a portrait of a day octopus (Octopus cyanea), a stunning cephalopod that is more active in the daytime than a good chunk of its relatives. This is my third go at an octopus but the last two have been the giant Pacific kind, so I wanted to go with an entirely different and more adventurous colour palette this time. And I did manage to get it done within a day! Huzzah.

Things will be a bit quiet again for the next few weeks as I venture out to the west coast and visit several places I’ve been dying to go for years, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Can’t wait to check out the Tentacles exhibition! No doubt there’ll be plenty of inspiration to keep me drawing and painting non-stop when I get back.

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A Doodle Gets Special Treatment

Orcinus orca: Sketch coloured on my iPad using Procreate.

Sketch coloured on my iPad using Procreate.

The original doodle in biro with my pencil for size reference. So tiny!

The original doodle in biro with my pencil for size reference. So tiny!

Tools of the trade: iPad, stylus, beer, Stephen Fry.

Tools of the trade: iPad, stylus, beer, Stephen Fry.

While my work computer was taking its sweet time opening a program earlier this week I found my pen inching dangerously close to a tiny notepad, so a quick doodle happened. Shocking no one, it was orcas. I thought about using it as the basis for a watercolour experiment, as I got a set a few months ago and haven’t had the time to really play with it. I used my iPad to create a rough colour reference before redrawing it onto watercolour paper, getting my paints out, getting to work… and making a jolly good mess of it. Watercolours and I still have a long way to go, but I found that I really liked my digital colour reference so I continued working on it. I don’t do digital work very often, but it is fun now and then (especially as I could sit and watch Qi on Hulu while I coloured), especially for creating things that are a bit more stylised than my usual work.

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Devon Wildlife: Basking Shark

Acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14

On the 11th July 2009 I was out on a boat in Tor Bay, the waters of my hometown in lovely Devon, England. I was one of two environmental educators running the trip for the monthly kids’ club at the marine facility where I worked, and it was a gorgeous day to be out there. A pod of common dolphins had been spotted nearby, but we unfortunately missed them by minutes. We did see a pair of peregrine falcons, though, and lots of seabirds (especially gannets, my favourite!). But the thing that left this day firmly embedded in my memory? When we were slowly passing through a particularly beautiful area known as Elberry Cove, I finally – after years of wishing and hoping and wishing some more – caught sight of an unmistakable dark brown shape gliding alongside us, dorsal fin slicing through the surface. It was definitely, absolutely, awesomely, a basking shark!

Basking sharks are the second largest species of fish (after whale sharks) and one of the three plankton-eating species (along with whale sharks and megamouth sharks). They can be found in temperate seas around the world, but the southwest of England becomes a hotspot for them during the summer. 2014 was a particularly good year for sightings, and excellent news for this Vulnerable species. (I’d also like to add that their scientific name is one of my all-time favourites: Cetorhinus maximus. Just awesome.)

I was so excited to see this juvenile basking shark that when I turned to go to the other side of the boat to take photos I slammed into a metal step, stumbling badly and causing an impressive pain (and later a bruise) in my shin, but barely noticed – I was too busy hurdling over the row of seats for a better view. The reward for my stunt were these mostly blurry photos. It’s OK to be jealous.

Basking sharks have long been a subject I’ve wanted to paint, and when I set myself the task of doing a series of Devon wildlife paintings I knew I’d be doing one. I definitely want to paint one again, and hopefully I’ll get to see another in person sometime.

If YOU are ever lucky enough to see a basking shark anywhere in the world, please do report it! These sightings help to provide data that is critical in protecting them. If you spot one around the UK you can submit it to the Shark Trust; if you’re in the US, you can report it to NOAA or the New England Basking Shark Project.


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Giant Pacific Octopus – Commission

Acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24

Acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of cephalopods, so when a good friend of mine asked if I’d be interested in doing a commission for his octopus-loving fiancée I jumped at the opportunity and spent a good chunk of my December working on this 18 x 24 acrylic painting. I really wanted to focus on the beauty of this species and add in some of my favourite details, like their simply gorgeous eyes and the fascinating double row of suckers on the arms. Did you know they can have up to 250 of those suckers per arm and can control them all independently because each arm has its own control system? Yeah, they’re awesome.

One of my favourite things about being an artist is seeing my work in people’s hands. Knowing that this octopus is now in its happy home with an owner who loves it is immensely rewarding for me, and Cat was certainly happy with her surprise!

Work in progress gallery:

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In progress!

In progress!

A sandbar shark was the first real shark I ever saw in person. I’ve always been drawn to their simple elegance: no distinctive markings or coloration, just an impressively large first dorsal fin to really make them stand out. But to me sandbar sharks are a classic among elasmobranchs for that perfect silhouette. If you ask someone to draw the outline of a shark, there’s a good chance it’ll look a lot like a sandbar. It’s a species classified as Vulnerable due to overfishing (both in target fisheries and as bycatch) and its numbers continue to decline. Sandbar sharks aren’t quite as well-represented in shark art as other species, so I did this 16 x 20 acrylic tribute and had some fun with it.

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Sawfish sketches

Sawfishes are amazing creatures, but did you know that the five species comprise the most threatened family of fishes on the planet? All five are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, a sad result of many decades of bycatch and targeted fishing for their distinctive rostrums combined with their low reproductive rate. Thankfully, there’s recent good news for these guys. Earlier in November, every species of sawfish was selected for inclusion on the Convention on Migratory Species (also known as the Bonn Convention). This means that under correct enforcement, sawfishes will be protected throughout their ranges. They already see some international protection through CITES, so hopefully we’ll be able to see their populations increasing. In the meantime, I felt like doing a few rough celebratory sketches. Gotta love those giant spiracles!

Highly recommended sawfish links:

• IUCN Shark Specialist Group
• Shark Advocates
• Global Sawfish Conservation Strategy


Girls Love Sharks Too!

I have always had a fascination with large, toothy animals. Dinosaurs were my first love, like so many other kids, and I never thought there was anything weird about it. I have a very clear memory of six-year-old-me exchanging toy dinosaurs with my best friend Glen on the playground. I had dinosaur figures, dinosaur books, drew dinosaurs on everything… I’m sure you can relate. But it wasn’t until I got older that I realised that my dinosaurs seemed to all be in a blue aisle in the toy section, flanked by Action Man and monster trucks. Dinosaurs, obviously, were For Boys. It didn’t stop me from loving them (and still hasn’t – for other dino-obsessed grown ups, I highly recommend My Beloved Brontosaurus). I’ve always preferred “boys’ stuff”, and it had never bothered me until recently. Growing up I’ve shrugged off the notion that girls’ stuff is pink, boys’ stuff is blue, girls like princesses and boys like spaceships, blah blah blah. I like dinosaurs, I like Star Wars, I like comics, and I’m an adult who can make her own decisions.

But it’s 2014, and last week I took my reusable Star Wars bag to the grocery store, and the male cashier took one look at it and said “Did you steal this from your son?” What. The. Hell. I blurted out a loud “No, it’s mine!” (Note: Dude, I don’t even have kids. Rude!) It was not the first (or even thirtieth) time I’ve had a comment like that, but it’s no less hurtful: I was angry that I was challenged by another adult for liking a thing that I like, because my gender dictated that I Wasn’t Supposed To Like It. I hate that it happens to me as a grown woman, but I can handle it. I’m used to it. But how do those kinds of comments affect little girls? It’s 2014, and the toy aisles are still split into Pink Stuff and Blue Stuff.

This brings me to sharks. You’d think animals would be gender-neutral interests, right? Do me a favour: Next time you’re in the children’s section of a store, go and find the shark stuff. T-shirts, toys, whatever. Was it in the girls’ section? Or was it nestled in between the Avengers and R2-D2?* (Case in point: How many of these [frankly awesome] shark products look directed at young girls?)

The simple response to this would be “Well, nothing stops girls from buying this stuff.” That’s very true, but it’s not my point. My point is that the placement and promotion of these kinds of things, and the resulting absence of sharks and dinosaurs where girls can comfortably find them, perpetuates this idea that these things are Not For Them. And what does that do? Every little girl disappointed that the shark t-shirt doesn’t come in her size is a potential future shark biologist discouraged. Science is a Boy Thing, right?

Instead of sitting and complaining about  it on the internet, I decided to use my art to do what little I can to encourage young girls to be proud of their love for sharks. Whether or not she becomes a marine biologist, no girl should be made to feel like she shouldn’t like the things she likes. I was also inspired by my recent viewing of Mission Blue, an excellent Netflix documentary about the wonderful Dr. Sylvia Earle, and by Dr. Eugenie Clark and other prominent women in marine science (Women Exploring the Oceans is brilliant!). These women have gone on to do amazing things for the ocean, and every little girl deserves the chance to follow in their footsteps.

I drew three popular species to feature on a design that could go on t-shirts or prints: the blue shark (a personal favourite of mine since I can remember), a smooth hammerhead, and of course a great white (hey, kids love great whites!). My hope is that even the existence of this shirt lets at least one little girl out there to feel justified in her passion for these awesome animals.

Available now in my shop!

If you know a little girl who loves sharks, you can also encourage her to join the Gills Club and learn how to become a shark scientist!


*Please don’t get me wrong: I’m a proud nerd and I feel the same about the marketing of superheroes and science fiction almost exclusively to boys. But there’s hope in places like Her Universe!

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Dive Team

A terrible photo of a very rough sketch that I think I did in 2009.

A terrible photo of a very rough sketch that I think I did in 2009.

This 11 x 14 acrylic painting was the result of two sessions. TWO! I’m astonished at myself. Usually my work gets dragged out for weeks because of work and other commitments that prevent me from holing myself up and painting from dawn to dusk. I had an advantage with this one though – one, it’s not as detailed as some of my more recent pieces, and two, I’ve had it planned for ages. When I went home to England earlier this year I found a lot of old sketchbooks, and within one of them was this pencil sketch. I’d wanted to paint it years ago but ended up crossing the Atlantic instead, and it was long forgotten until my recent trip. As soon as I saw it I decided I wanted to paint it for real, so I snapped a quick photo of the sketch for me to work on when I returned to my studio.

A screenshot from Procreate showing the rough colour ideas. I ended up going a lot less green.

A screenshot from Procreate showing the rough colour ideas. I ended up going a lot less green.

… and promptly forgot about it. Again. At some point I had even planned out my colours (which ended up differing a bit in the final version) and tones using Procreate on my iPad – something I often do when planning a painting. While browsing my files in Procreate last week I rediscovered it again, so I just went for it and tried not to sweat the small stuff. So here it is! A fun little painting that allowed me to prove to myself that I can finish things more quickly if I really try… or remember to do it in the first place.


Type B

Orcas have been my favourite animal on the planet since 1994. There are so many things I find utterly captivating about them, but one of my very favourite things is the uniqueness of each population of orcas around the world. To name just a few… in the Pacific Northwest you’ll find residents, who only eat fish, and transients, who only eat other marine mammals. In New Zealand you’ll find the expert stingray hunters. In Argentina you’ll see the ones that beach themselves to catch seals. And in Antarctica you’ll find the wave washers – orcas that have learnt how to use teamwork to create waves that wash seals off ice floes. Not only are each of these behaviours specific to these geographically distinct groups of whales, but their genes are too. The differences in social structures, feeding, and habitat preferences between the world’s orcas are so distinct, having not interbred for hundreds of thousands of years, that many believe they should be separated into different species. They don’t just act different – they look different, too.

NOAA and natural history illustrator Uko Gorter released a brilliant poster showcasing these different ecotypes and the variations in their shape, size and markings. The wave-washing orcas of the Antarctic (whose incredible behaviour you can see here, though sadly not narrated by David Attenborough) are known as type B, and they’ve fascinated me for a long time. The diatoms in their chilly native waters cause the normally white areas of their body to appear yellow, and their dark skin looks grey or even brown and are often dotted with rake marks and other scars. There’s even a pale line that sweeps from the tops of their eye patches (which are huge, by the way) to the edge of their saddle patches. They’re just weirdly beautiful creatures and I’ve been dying to paint one for ages, so while warming up the other day on a 14 x 11 inch canvas I ended up with a composition that’s been on my mind for a while: a type B orca sinking back into the strikingly blue Antarctic water post-spyhop. Maybe he found a seal.

Some in-progress peeks:

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Over the last three years I’ve had the opportunity to watch a young loggerhead sea turtle grow. I was there the morning he (or possibly she!) was added to the exhibit, the smallest sea turtle I’ve seen in person. Back in 2012 I finished a painting of Murphy, another loggerhead sea turtle I knew who spent some of his life in human care before being reintroduced to the ocean, and I wanted to do the same for T.J. This little guy, also rescued as a hatchling on Jekyll Island, has become quite special to those of us that have met him and watched him develop over these last few years.

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International Whale Shark Day: A gift for YOU!

If you weren’t already aware, the largest fish in the world is SO awesome that it gets its very own day of recognition! International Whale Shark Day was declared in 2008 after the 2nd International Whale Shark Conference and is celebrated on August 30th each year. You know by now that whale sharks hold a special place in my heart. Last year I helped create some educational activities for Georgia Aquarium (check out this year’s event taking place on Saturday), and this year I wanted to share the whale shark love with all of you!

I noticed that the most popular post on my blog, and the most frequent search result that lands people here, is my colouring page that I created for Sea Otter Awareness Week in 2012. I’m so thrilled that people enjoy it so much, and excited to move forward with my plan of creating a full marine life colouring book in the coming months. Anything I can do to help kids get interested in marine life (and art)!

With that said, I created this colouring sheet for you to download, print and share with the children in your life (there is also no shame in colouring it yourself) in celebration of Whale Shark Day 2014! I’m offering this for free, and all I ask is that you do not use my artwork for any other purposes, remove my website link or claim it as your own. If you would like to host this on your website, please just let me know (jenrichardsart [at] gmail)! Thank you!PDF link for easy download

The image features a feeding whale shark (feel free to add your own plankton/krill/fish eggs) as well as a school of juvenile golden trevally and a yellowfin tuna.


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