Jen Richards

Wildlife artist

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In Johannesburg right now, the 17th CITES Conference of the Parties (#CoP17) is taking place. From September 23rd to October 5th, over 2000 government representatives from all over the world will decide which species will see new international protection. You might remember the 16th CoP, which was a huge success for sharks and rays – the number of elasmobranch species listed under Appendix II increased from three to eight. There’s still a long way to go.

This year there are proposals for several more sharks and rays to be listed: all thresher sharks, all mobula rays, the silky shark and the ocellate river stingray. I couldn’t resist drawing a little show of support. Best wishes to all who are currently in South Africa fighting to conserve sharks, rays, and so many other animals and plants!

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When in Doubt, Paint a Shark

White shark, acrylics on 12 x 16 inch canvas

White shark, acrylics on 12 x 16 inch canvas

After a jam-packed two weeks in England, during which I had time to do a few little sketches but no substantial art, I really wanted to just let loose with something really messy last night. I’ll share more about my trip in a later post because I’ve got inspiration to last me years (thanks, Natural History Museum!).

In my efforts to diversify my work and develop my skills, I picked up an old 12 x 16 canvas from under my desk and started slapping on some paint. I’m trying to move out of my comfort zone of super fine details and trying to get things “perfect”, and instead injecting more personality into each piece. This felt like a good time to experiment; I’ve been doing a lot of precise commission work lately (which I do love) so it felt quite freeing. I did the whole thing in one sitting – very unusual for me! – and so worked solely with fresh wet paint and a limited colour palette. I do enjoy watching subjects materialise out of the mess.


1. Slapping on the paint 2. Adding some definition 3. Brief pause to confer with my assistant 4. Nearly done

I was particularly inspired by two things: one was a gorgeous 2008 photo by the incredible hobbyist photographer George Probst (check out!), who graciously sent me a larger version to reference. I just loved the scarring on this white shark and the tight framing. The other inspiration came from an artist I’ve been following on instagram for a while now, Aimée Hoover. I really admire her painting style and the scale at which she works – I’m currently too afraid to go quite that big but I can aspire to it! Her gorgeous brush strokes encouraged me to be less obsessed with the tiny details.

All in all, I was proud of myself for getting this done and I’m looking forward to doing more like it.

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Giant oarfish, acrylic on 6 x 12 canvas

Giant oarfish, acrylic on 6 x 12 canvas

A couple of months ago I received a commission request that I had to jump on. It was a species I’ve long been fascinated by and wanted to draw but hadn’t yet:

A deceased giant oarfish measuring 23 feet (7 m)  in California, 1996.

A deceased giant oarfish measuring 23 feet (7 m) in California, 1996.

the king of herrings, the ribbonfish, the streamer fish… most of us know it as the oarfish. You’ve probably seen them in the news because when they’re sighted (alive or dead) it’s quite a sight to behold; the aptly named giant oarfish (Regalecus glesne) is the longest bony fish in the world, achieving a length of about 36 feet (11 metres). Whale sharks (reaching well over 40 ft/12 m) still have the giant oarfish beat as the longest fish of all though.

My client is a volunteer at a natural history museum and fell in love with their oarfish specimen. She wanted a piece that helped to connect their preserved oarfish with its habitat in the deep, dark ocean, an idea I loved and was excited to work on. There were two specific challenges: one, oarfish are so infrequently encountered that consistent references were difficult to come by; and two, this massive species was to be painted on a very small 6 x 12 inch canvas. Both of these challenges helped to push me to be a bit more creative with this piece, and in the process I learnt a great deal.

This mighty little giant is now safely in his/her forever home in California. Thank you for this fun opportunity, Corinna!

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Sweep the Hooch 2016

Each year, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper organises Sweep the Hooch, a huge cleanup effort spanning more than 70 miles of the Chattahoochee river in Georgia. On Saturday April 9th I joined over 500 volunteers for this year’s event and had a fantastic time! I really enjoy doing river cleanups. I was lucky to grow up alongside the sea in southwest England, and even though I currently live almost 300 miles away from the nearest ocean beach I know I can help make a real difference for the ocean I love so much. Rivers lead there, of course, but that’s not the only reason I place such importance on local cleanups – they’re also important ecosystems for so many species AND provide resources, enjoyment and beauty for the community. Who doesn’t love a clean river?

The largest vodka bottle I found. Yes, they were all empty.

The largest vodka bottle I found. Yes, they were all empty.

Saturday morning was chilly, but we were excited to get going. There were about 20 of us at Island Ford Park, and the group was split in half to cover different parts of the area. My group took the route along Roberts Drive, so we got to wear some sweet National Park Service safety vests. Although we weren’t right on the river, it was still really fulfilling to clean there – roadside trash is still dangerous, unsightly, and can end up in our waterways. Plus, I reserve a special kind of hatred for people who throw rubbish out of their cars so it felt awesome to undo their grossness.

Wasn't kidding about the box spring.

Wasn’t kidding about the box spring.

My friends and I filled three bags each and found everything from vodka bottles to the remains of a car accident to an entire box spring mattress. Seeing that pile of trash we’d removed at the end of three hours’ hard work was really satisfying – I maintain that a river cleanup is one of the best things you can do for the environment and a great way to serve your community. Thanks to CRK and the entire Sweep the Hooch team! See you next time!

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I regret nothing

I make no secret of the fact that I love both sharks and puns. Whenever I can mix the two, it’s a good day… and leads me to do things like this:

Where ya from, you cartilaginous thing?

Where ya from, you cartilaginous thing?

Because zebra sharks (and others) breathe using their spiracles… which is funny because it rhymes with… anyway. It got stuck in my head and now it’s probably in yours too. Sorry!

For those of you who also like to have a giggle at nerdy ocean puns, this is available on shirts, mugs and stickers over in my design shop!


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Squid ink

Acrylics on 8 x 10 inch canvas board.

Acrylics on 8 x 10 inch canvas board.

This month I finished a small painting of a bigfin reef squid commissioned by a longtime friend of mine. She’s been obsessed with cephalopods since I’ve known her, so when she approached me and asked about designing her a squid tattoo I was both super thrilled and touched. Her request was for the piece to be realistic and I thought it’d be an added bonus if she got an original painting out of it too. Once the final sketch was approved, I painted the squid in acrylics on an 8 x 10 inch canvas board and scanned it in high resolution for her tattoo artist to use. She received the original a few days later, made the appointment, and… ta-daaaah!

I’m absolutely amazed at how perfectly Ed Weston at Custom Ink & Steel in Flint, Michigan recreated my painting on her arm, and I’m so happy she loves it so much! What a fun commission this was!

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A Commission for Christmas

Last year I had the pleasure of working on several commissions to be given as gifts for the holidays. One of my favourite things about commissions is hearing feedback from the recipient, and now I know it’s safe to share what I was working on. This particular 16 x 20 inch acrylic painting was for the client’s wife and was to feature her three favourite animals: a manatee, a dolphin, and a sea turtle. Here’s a look at the process from start to finish, including a shot of the framed piece in its happy home!

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striderIn the late 90s my school held a tabletop sale in the local town hall. 12-year-old-me ran a table to raise funds for whales and dolphins and to cover the cost of my first orca adoption. I already knew exactly which one it would be.

A6, also known as Strider, was an adult male in the northern resident community of orcas and the eldest offspring of A30 (Tsitika). Her matriline continues today. Born in 1964, he was often seen with his two brothers A38 (Blackney) and A39 (Pointer — I later adopted him too), and I still find photos of their three huge dorsal fins as they traveled together in books today.  (Here’s a good link from 2007 with ID photos of the A30 matriline).

A38 (Blackney), A30 (Tsitika), A50 (Clio), A6 (Strider), A39 (Pointer)

A38 (Blackney), A30 (Tsitika), A50 (Clio), A6 (Strider), A39 (Pointer)

I remember the morning the newsletter arrived a few years later that told of his absence and presumed death. I was devastated. It was Strider that helped me connect with wild orcas from almost 5,000 miles away and it’s his fin that’s still etched in my memory; that notch in the upper third was so distinctive he became the first individual orca I ever learnt to recognise. In a lot of ways he’s still somewhat of an inspiration to me. I have his dorsal ID photo above my desk in the office and the postcard I was sent with the adoption certificate is on the wall of my studio almost 20 years later.

It’s odd, then, that I never really drew him until now. I’ve been planning out a large painting featuring a particular group of orcas with even more distinctive dorsal fins (I’m sharing the progress from thumbnail stage on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook) and it got me thinking about Strider. I just wanted to do a simple ink drawing with stippling to highlight his silhouette. I’d love to do a proper piece featuring him and his brothers soon.strider_wm

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Acrylics on 6 x 12 inch gessobord

Acrylic on 6 x 12 inch gesso board

Happy new year! I’m not one for resolutions, but I do know it’s been way too long since I made a blog post. With the last couple months of 2015 getting increasingly busy I fell into the habit of updating instagram more than anything else (you can follow me here, by the way. Durp!) and neglected this poor blog, so I’m definitely going to be sharing more here.

After finishing a round of commissions in time for Christmas, I picked up one of a few gesso boards lying about in my studio and started playing with an idea I sketched out about a year ago: two adult male orcas breaking the surface of a choppy sea. These are of course two things I fall back on a lot – I love orcas AND choppy seas! – but I couldn’t help myself. I’ve also never completed something on gesso board before and really wanted to give it a go. It’s a very interesting surface, as it’s much more smooth than the surfaces I usually paint on but with just enough texture for me to feel comfortable with it. Next up: braving the super smooth clay board!

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The Wonders of the Internet

While browsing Pinterest this morning, looking for tattoo inspiration for myself, I found my art on someone else’s skin.


A screenshot of the work in progress from 2009.

A screenshot of the work in progress from 2009.

In 2009 I created this digital painting using openCanvas over a pencil sketch. I enjoyed the process given that the composition was quite different for me, as I’ve long been interested in the role of orcas in Native American culture. It’s an idea I’ve thought about revisiting and developing but haven’t made the time for.

I do take commissions for custom tattoo designs. I’m flattered by the use of my work and have been trying to find out whose arm this is – so far I’ve only been able to find it on Pinterest, pointing to a now-defunct site (even using Google’s reverse image lookup). The description mentions a tattoo shop in Massachusetts although it doesn’t appear in their site portfolio. I’d love to know who enjoyed this piece so much they wanted it on their body!

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The Charge

Acrylic on canvas, 12 x 24 inches

Acrylic on canvas, 12 x 24 inches

On April 15th this year I went whale watching for the first time. It was also my first visit to Monterey Bay, somewhere I’d longed to go for years and years. It lived up to my expectations and then some – although there were no orcas to be seen, I got to see several feeding humpback whales, an enormous pod of Risso’s dolphins, and a small but curious pod of long-beaked common dolphins. The latter is a species that can also be seen in my home waters in the southwest of England, but of course throughout my life it was always a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, so I was ecstatic to finally see them. They’re so small and quick and utterly charming; the pod made a beeline for the bow of the boat where I was crouching and were so close my lens was too long to get a good photo! Watching them erupt from the water (which in itself is so difficult to photograph) was so fantastic that I knew I had to paint it.

Detail view.

Detail view.

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Acrylics on 9 x 12 inch canvas board

Acrylics on 9 x 12 inch canvas board

In an attempt to create more of a sense of depth in my work, I started on this 9 x 12 inch canvas panel a few nights ago to try a few things out. It was relaxing to do a personal piece before diving back into a big round of commissions. This was my first time really focusing on using washes, something I’ve been wanting to do more of, and I definitely want to continue experimenting. I’m very much a trial-and-error learner!

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Sharks and Rays for 31 Days: The 31

31 days ago I announced my challenge to draw or paint a different shark or ray species every single day for the entirety of July. Throughout the month, these artworks would go up for auction with the proceeds going to the wonderful non-profit Shark Advocates International, a project of The Ocean Foundation. 31 days, lots of pencil shavings and paint and late nights later… here they all are! Many have already gone off to their new homes with winning bidders, and I can’t thank you all enough for the ongoing encouragement and interest these past few months. I’ve seen my work shared by individuals and organisations whose work I’ve admired for years, had amazing feedback from the scientists who are working to understand and protect these very species, got to represent elasmobranchs from the popular classics to the weird deep sea residents, and challenged myself to explore mediums I’d been afraid to before.

And best of all? So far more than $1000 has been raised for Shark Advocates – and it’s not over yet! Help me raise even more by bidding on the available art  we’ve still got ten days before the last auction ends. Own my original art and do something good for sharks and rays today – and thank you!!

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Sharks and Rays for 31 Days: 14-18

As my current work in progress dries on the easel behind me I thought it would be a good time to share the latest five artworks in my Sharks and Rays for 31 Days challenge. I’m over halfway through now and only have 13 pieces to go! The level of interest and support in this project mean the world to me and I’m so very grateful for every retweet, like and share. As an artist it’s immensely fulfilling to see your art gaining traction but there’s a whole other level to this: these works (and the people that bid on them!) are directly supporting shark and ray conservation. That’s why, when I’m spending every minute of spare time in a day drawing, colouring, or painting an elasmobranch, I know it’s worth it. The first seven auctions have been won and the funds are being raised, and that’s awesome! Thank you, again. (Here’s a link to the current auctions!)

Shark Advocates International (the reason for this challenge) is a project of The Ocean Foundation, who published a lovely interview with me this week about the project, my art, and sharks, so do please give it a read! I’m excited for what’s next.

Now onto the art!

14 - Common skate - Watercolours over sketch.

14 – Common skate – Watercolours over pencil.

The common skate is sadly not living up to its name. There are far more species of skate than people realise, but I chose this one because of its conservation story; hopefully their populations will recover. I love the shape of skates so I wanted to focus on that for this watercolour, doing something a bit more unusual with the composition. I’m learning more every time I use watercolours, so I’m really enjoying using them.

15 - White shark - Biro, white pencil and white gel pen.

15 – White shark – Biro, white pencil and white gel pen.

We ALL knew this guy was coming eventually. White sharks are a classic, and they’re undeniably impressive. I always like using the white pencil on toned paper to highlight their undersides.

16 - Cownose ray - Watercolours over pencil.

16 – Cownose ray – Watercolours over pencil.

My scanner kind of hated this one so I apologise for a poor representation of the colours, but no one can resist a cownose ray face. I wanted to do something fun with this species as well as play with perspective a bit.

17 - Spotted wobbegong - Watercolours over pencil.

17 – Spotted wobbegong – Watercolours over pencil.

Watercolours two days in a row! This one was actually a suggestion from social media. I’d asked for people to name me a species and there were so many fantastic ideas, but the wobbegong came up more than anything else! And you know my weakness for wobbegongs, so I couldn’t help myself. I really wanted to use watercolours for those lovely markings. More follower suggestions coming soon!

18 - Bonnethead shark - Markers.

18 – Bonnethead shark – Markers.

My second go at using markers! I’m so glad I decided to continue exploring this medium, because like watercolours, I’m learning more each time and getting more comfortable with them. These little hammerheads had been on my list since the beginning, but a few people have expressed interest in seeing me draw one and I couldn’t resist any longer. They’re just so cute.


Sharks and Rays for 31 Days: 6-13

I want to give another massive thank you to everyone who’s been following me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and providing so much wonderful support and feedback on this challenge. A particularly huge thank you to Shark Advocates International and The Ocean Foundation for the encouragement! I’m excited to share that most of the artwork created so far is now on eBay and beginning to raise funds for shark and ray conservation.

Here’s a look at the pieces I’ve done since my last update!

06 - Zebra shark - Watercolours over sketch.

06 – Zebra shark – Watercolours over sketch.

I’ve had this idea in my head for a couple of years now so I was glad to have an excuse to give it a go! I really love zebra sharks and wanted to illustrate the three equally adorable “looks” they rock over their lives – pup, juvenile, and adult. I’m getting a bit more comfortable with watercolours now – this was fun to work on.

07 - Prickly dogfish - Pencil drawing.

07 – Prickly dogfish – Pencil drawing.

Before I began this challenge I promised myself I’d highlight some of the more unusual species. There are so many underloved and/or poorly known species but I knew I wanted to include one of the rough sharks, and settled on the prickly dogfish. What an odd little guy! They inhabit the temperate waters of south Australia and New Zealand at a usual depth between 300-600 m (984-1968 ft). They also have a spine on the leading edge of each dorsal fin and very rough skin, something I wanted to bring out using my trusty 6B pencil.

08 - Blacktip reef shark - Acrylics on 4 x 12 inch canvas.

08 – Blacktip reef shark – Acrylics on 4 x 12 inch canvas.

Wanted to have a play with composition here! Blacktip reef sharks are an all-time favourite of mine; in fact, they were one of the very first species of shark I ever saw as a child. They have such striking markings and I decided to focus on that trademark dorsal fin.

09 - Puffadder shyshark - Watercolours over pencil.

09 – Puffadder shyshark – Watercolours over pencil.

After doing the zebra sharks I felt braver about using watercolours and wanted to visit one of the small, underrepresented species. How can anyone NOT be absolutely in love with shysharks? They curl up when threatened and cover their eyes with their tail. I wish they’d get their very own documentary. Puffadder shysharks are endemic to South Africa and have such lovely markings. Really loved working on this one.

10 - Southern fiddler ray - Biro, coloured pencils and whit gel pen.

10 – Southern fiddler ray – Biro, coloured pencils and whit gel pen.

Also known as the banjo shark, fiddler rays have some of the most gorgeous markings among elasmobranchs. I’ve been wanting to draw one for a while!

11 - Greenland shark - Biro, coloured pencils and white gel pen.

11 – Greenland shark – Biro, coloured pencils and white gel pen.

This weekend was a really busy one for me and it was a bit of a struggle to get something done on Saturday. I’d love to revisit this one in the future, but for now this attempt at foreshortening will have to do! Greenland sharks are an utterly fascinating species – one of my favorite facts about them is that there’s a parasitic copepod, Ommatokoita elongata, that only lives in the eyes of the Greenland and Pacific sleeper sharks. What the hell, nature!

12 - Spiny dogfish - Markers.

12 – Spiny dogfish – Markers.

Shark Advocates hit the nail on the head when this drawing was captioned with “king of the under-appreciated sharks”.  The Atlantic spiny dogfish fishery is the largest shark fishery in the U.S.and is currently understood to be sustainable, but previous years of overexploitation targeting females have left stocks skewed. This is a species whose gestation lasts two years! They’re an incredible little species and I was geeking out pretty hard when I finally saw some in person at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in April. I’ve had a few markers lying around since I bought them at HeroesCon 2014 and got the sudden urge to use them for this one; I’m excited to do more with them.

13 - Shortfin Mako - Acrylics on 18 x 24 inch canvas board.

13 – Shortfin mako shark – Acrylics on 18 x 24 inch canvas board.

And here’s today’s offering, the biggest yet! Shortfin makos are simply spectacular fish. I love their flashiness and that incredible blue sheen of their skin, so I wanted to try to represent that through a slightly rougher painting style than what I usually do. Since this painting is so much larger than the others this month, I started working on it on Friday and worked on it in my limited time this weekend. Glad I got it done.

13 down… 18 more to go!