Jen Richards

Wildlife artist


Seeing stars

If asked to describe what the largest fish on the planet looks like, one of the first things you’d probably say is that it’s covered in white spots. That’s true! But what a lot of people don’t seem to see as clearly are how the spots transition rather beautifully into stripes, which then become alternating vertical bands of spots and stripes all the way down to the caudal fin (take a look at this one!). It’s absolutely gorgeous colouration, and one of my favourite things about whale sharks physically. It’s obvious why Project Domino is so named. In Madagascar the whale shark is known as marokintana, which means “many stars”. In the Kiswahili language, it’s papa shillingi – “shark covered in shillings”. From the East African Whale Shark Trust: “There is a local legend that God was so pleased when he created this beautiful fish, that he gave his angels handfuls of gold and silver coins to throw down from heaven onto its back.  So it goes that whale sharks have their magical markings and swim near the surface, catching the sun on their backs, as a way of saying thank you to their maker.” I’m kind of a sucker for cool creation legends.

The markings responsible for these fantastic names are kind of hellish to paint, though. Every single whale shark has unique markings (which allow researchers to identify individuals), so I know I have a certain amount of freedom when it comes to the placement of these spots and (eventual) stripes, but I want to ensure that what I’m painting is still within the boundaries of typical whale shark patterns. I spend a lot of time observing our whale sharks, and one of our females has these stunning diagonal lines just above her pectoral fins. I’m thinking she just might be the inspiration for this one.

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Sir Fish

Spotless. Still rough, but working on it; this one will keep me busy for a while.

I’ve always found it very difficult to narrow down my favourite kind of shark. With approximately 400 species to choose from, I can’t blame anyone for not being able to single out just one. For many years I’ve had a soft spot for blacktip reef sharks, which I’ve always considered particularly beautiful, and blue sharks, whose elegance is impossible to deny. But since moving to the United States whale sharks have become quite literally a big part of my life. They’ve always been fascinating to me, but little prepared me for actually seeing them in person: a wall of white spots gliding by, punctuated by a caudal fin taller than I am (not a huge feat considering my lack of height, but still). It’s especially remarkable to consider how little is actually known about the largest fish on the planet. I’m personally very proud to be playing a role in educating people about this fantastic animal.

In the Gulf of Mexico, hundreds of whale sharks gather in the same place at the same time. My friend @para_sight (follow!) is the lucky bugger who gets to study them, and he’s been out there this past week. You can see some gorgeous pictures and footage from the trip right here, and follow the fabulous Deep Sea News blog (which is a wonderful marine science blog all round) for more posts. And if you’re developing a particular affection for whale sharks – it’s OK, it’s hard to resist those faces – you should definitely be following @wheres_domino, a whale shark with the impressive ability to type, who documents his adventures. He’s lovely.

It’s this ability to be able to digitally come along on the journey that prompted me to paint. I’d only completed one whale shark piece up until now, and it was coloured using my computer tablet, so painting one with acrylics was long overdue. I’ve got big plans for this one: lots of spots, of course, but also an entourage of juvenile golden trevally to add a pop of vibrant colour. Doing a close-up like this allows me to further appreciate just how awesome they are.


On Cephalopods and Science Fiction

Enter: Octopus!“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same.”

Lines from my favourite book tend to pop into my head whenever I’m watching our giant Pacific octopus working on whatever enrichment item she has her tentacles on. Sometimes the main theme from Jeff Wayne’s musical version starts playing in there too. Cephalopods really are remarkable animals and I’ve been meaning to paint one for a long time; their intelligence and quite alien appearance has me weirdly enthralled. Recently I watched ours open a network of opaque jars to get to the crab claws inside, and as she did so her skin colour and texture changed before my eyes – something I’d never been in the right place at the right time to see before. It was really something.

I’d started on this small 8 x 10 canvas several months ago, every now and again drifting back to it to slap on some base colours and “doodle” between larger pieces. I wanted to explore texture and colour a bit more, and a cephalopod seemed like the perfect subject, as the possibilities are nigh endless there. It was only in the last couple of weeks that I actually started to focus on it a bit more and decided to finish it. I wish the textures were more apparent in the scan, but it was fun to loosen up a bit in an attempt to paint something that wasn’t a smooth-skinned cetacean. Looking forward to improving further!

In progress. Evidently I preferred sitting on the floor for the entirety of this one.