Jen Richards

Wildlife artist

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Storm Watch

‘Storm Watch’ – Northern gannet with orca

You’d think an English person would be tired of gloomy weather, but the grey skies and rain that have signified autumn in Atlanta actually do the opposite for me: I love it. Maybe it’s because the oppressive summer heat here makes me want to lie down in a quiet place and not do anything creative at all. Whatever it is, cold snaps and storms make me want to paint. And specifically, they make me want to celebrate the beauty of a choppy sea – something that definitely reminds me of home.

Gannet detail.

Although orcas don’t frequent my “home” stretch of the British coastline (and on the rare occasions that they do make an appearance, I’m nowhere near, of course), gannets are very common. While giving educational boat tours I saw them a lot, and was lucky enough to be able to observe their incredible diving behaviour many times (I recommend watching this video – with quite possibly the most dramatic music put to seabirds and some great footage of their, erm, elegance on land – to see how amazing it is).  I was stunned when I saw my very first gannet fold its wings back and plunge like an arrow into the dark water, popping back up few seconds later and several feet away like it was no big deal. But they’re visually striking birds to me too – I just love that splash of yellow and the impossibly blue eyes.

Orca detail.

This marks the first time I’ve ever painted a bird, unless you’re counting a 1990s primary school lesson on ancient Egypt in which I did a meticulously detailed Horus. Despite some initial grumbling over my decision to pick something with outstretched wings I actually really enjoyed it. It felt good to be branching out in terms of subject and texture and I’d really like to focus on seabirds more in the future. The entire piece measures 14 x 18 inches, meaning some detail is lost in the resized version, so here’s a closer look at both the gannet and the orca. When this composition popped into my head a few months ago I knew it had to be an adult male; those ridiculous pectoral flippers are so strangely endearing. I’m always taken by the diversity of markings on orcas all over the world and have a particular soft spot for jagged lines along the sides of the head. It was also an opportunity to develop my techniques for painting waves, since so many of my pieces imagine scenes below the surface. In all, this one was a challenge – one I enjoyed and managed to finish within a couple of weeks. Definitely a speed record for me.

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(Spy)hopping to it

Now that our wedding has happened and life is finally settling down again, it feels amazing to be able to dedicate some time to painting. This is a little peek at something I started about a month ago but haven’t had time to work on until this week, and I’m having some fun with it. The colder weather makes me crave a beautiful stormy sea and there’s never a time when I don’t want to paint orcas, but the finished piece will also feature something I’ve never painted before. It’s a good learning process!

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Adventures with auctions… and penguins

The 7th annual Aqua Vino took place last Thursday at Georgia Aquarium. It’s a very large, very fancy event featuring some of the best food and wine to be found in Atlanta, and proceeds from it go directly into supporting the aquarium’s Correll Center for Aquatic Animal Health. This year, the focus was on African penguins.

In December 2011 I went back to visit my former coworkers! Macaroni penguins at the front, African penguins mostly hanging out in the top right.

African penguins and I go way back. When I began my professional journey in environmental education, I worked at the UK’s only coastal zoo and became quite good chums with several dozen of them. In addition to giving plentiful penguin presentations to the public (try saying that three times fast) I assisted our animal care team with daily cleaning and food preparation duties and even fed the little guys myself. But life hasn’t been all too easy on wild African penguins for the last few decades, largely because of human impacts – commercial overfishing, oil spills, habitat loss, the harvesting of guano – and in 2010, they were downgraded on the IUCN Red List from “Vulnerable” to “Endangered”. In 2009 it was estimated that the global African penguin population was only 25,262 pairs, meaning that their numbers have dropped to less than 10% of their population 100 years ago. It’s this alarmingly rapid decline that makes conservation efforts like the AZA’s Species Survival Plans all the more urgent. Information gained from working with these precious birds directly supports those struggling populations in the field; I personally know several animal care specialists, on both continents, who have traveled to South Africa to help rescue, rehabilitate, and release oiled or injured birds. This January saw the hatching and rearing of Georgia Aquarium’s first two African penguin chicks – wonderful news for the SSP – and Aqua Vino’s support will go a long way in ensuring that this success continues.

My giant Pacific octopus alongside prints by Wyland and Guy Harvey.

That’s why I was so excited to have two framed prints of mine (Murphy the loggerhead sea turtle and the giant Pacific octopus) in the silent auction. To be featured alongside such renowned marine life artists as Wyland and Guy Harvey was an honour, and I was proud to be contributing to such a worthy cause. I’m very pleased to say that both of my pieces received a number of bids and together raised a few hundred dollars for penguin conservation efforts – an amazing thing for an emerging fine artist to be able to say! Painting is such a passion of mine so it’s very fulfilling to know that both of them have gone to good homes.

“Murphy” on display.

If you’re interested in learning more about African penguins and how you can help, I recommend checking out SANCCOB, an organisation dedicated to saving South Africa’s incredible seabirds. For less than $60 you can adopt and name a penguin – ensuring it can be rehabilitated and released! What a bargain!