Jen Richards

Wildlife artist


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Art Gone Wild 2015: Paint Out Week – Days 3, 4 & 5

Wednesday: Because I only had a couple of hours to paint on Wednesday morning I decided to focus on my racket-tailed roller piece to get it closer to completion. On the way to my chosen spot, though, I happened to lock eyes with a favourite resident and instead spent a good 30 minutes drinking my coffee while he and his mother stared back at me as they had breakfast. Again… can you blame me?

Good morning, Andazi and Jabari!

Good morning, Andazi and Jabari!

After my rhino detour I focused on my roller and got a lot of detail done. I still have the back and wings to go as well as defining the branch some more, but overall I’m liking how it’s coming along. Never thought I’d enjoy painting lots of tiny feathers.

Detail of my racket-tailed roller.

Detail of my racket-tailed roller.

Thursday: Earlier in the week I’d been able to finally get a good look at Suhana, the zoo’s beautiful young clouded leopard. I’d been planning on painting her this week but hadn’t caught so much of a glimpse of her on previous visits, so with my own long-awaited references I set Thursday as my Suhana Day. I had picked up a new canvas especially for it, as the composition came to me as soon as I saw her! What an utterly captivating species this is. A few years ago I saw Zoo Atlanta’s previous clouded leopard, Moby, who passed away in 2013 at an impressive 16 years of age. It’s wonderful now to see Suhana settling in.

Slow, difficult-to-photograph-properly progress on Suhana.

Slow, difficult-to-photograph-properly progress on Suhana.

I spent all day working on this piece but still have so far to go! It was a lovely, productive day though, much of it spent with fellow artist Natalie Huggins as she worked on her own clouded leopard painting. I also took time to watch the bird show and managed to get over my toucan-related geek out just enough to get photos of Friday’s subject.

Whoops.

Whoops.

Friday: Not everything went to plan today, as illustrated brilliantly by my poor car over there. Luckily it happened while I was right by the zoo, and thanks to the help of event coordinator Julia Knox and Tommy the maintenance guy I was able to get home safely at the end of the day! (… and later ended up having to use up a lot of painting time getting all four tires replaced. Womp womp.)

Savanna!

Savanna!

Anyway, I had a later start and a shorter stay than planned but I made headway on what will probably be my final Art Gone Wild piece. It’s a portrait of Savanna the lanner falcon, an absolutely stunning bird I stumbled upon on Monday while carting my equipment through the zoo. I thought she was one of the most visually striking birds I’d ever seen, so when I saw her in action in the bird show I knew I had to paint her too. I’ve got a huge soft spot for raptors and currently have a broad-winged hawk painting in progress, so I’m excited to be working on my first falcon. Coincidentally, I made a good t-shirt decision today.

Painting a falcon. Wearing the Falcon.

Painting a falcon. Wearing the Falcon.

This weekend will be spent finishing all my pieces before dropping them off in time for the Art Show and Silent Auction event on Saturday June 13th. Please come if you can! The variety of artworks that will be available is fantastic, and you’ll be able to bid on them all and take them home. Proceeds support both the zoo and the artists. If this week’s been any indication it’s going to be an incredible show!


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Art Gone Wild 2015: Paint Out Week – Days 1 & 2

My favourite week of the year is in full swing! Yesterday was the first day of Paint Out Week at Zoo Atlanta, and I’m one of several artists creating works en plein air celebrating the zoo’s animals and exhibits for the next few days. It’s brilliant to see so many familiar faces from last year, and just like before, the diversity of styles is astounding! I can’t wait to see everyone’s completed works at the Art Gone Wild show on the 13th.

I definitely got a few curious looks.

I definitely got a few curious looks.

Monday: I started the first day off in the Living Treehouse, one of my favourite spots whenever I visit. It’s home to a stunning collection of birds and I knew already that I wanted to paint a racket-tailed roller, so I set to work. The birds and I seemed just as interested in each other so it proved a distracting painting location for me, but it was still a fun experience. I forgot, however, that even though it wasn’t raining it was still a stupid idea to try to paint under a large tree whose rustling leaves provided the same effect at random. That plus the humidity of the morning prompted me to move inside the treehouse, which was freezing but at least allowed me to get my base colours on (and my paint could finally dry!). I’m going to finish this little guy tomorrow.

Racket-tailed roller in progress.

Racket-tailed roller in progress.

In the afternoon I set up in Scaly, Slimy, Spectacular, the awesome new reptile and amphibian building. I quickly established the base of an emerald tree boa painting, but the light wasn’t ideal for it and I’m not sure if I’ll continue with it. Love this species though.

Very much a messy work in progress.

Tuesday: I’d said last month that because I had painted two rhino pieces for the show last year I’d branch out a bit (despite my love of painting rhinos). And yet… this is where I found myself this morning. Can you really blame me?

Zoo Atlanta's adult male rhino, Utenzi, had his horn removed earlier this year due to concerns about the cracks he'd had in it since his arrival.

Zoo Atlanta’s adult male rhino, Utenzi, had his horn removed earlier this year due to concerns about the cracks he’d had in it since his arrival.

After spending most of the day with the lovely Utenzi and chatting with guests while I worked, I took some time to gather more inspiration for my other paintings this week. While doing so I stumbled onto a snake presentation and got to be just a foot or two away from a green anaconda without barriers – super awesome for this snake nerd! Looking forward to returning tomorrow to tackle some new subjects. (Not literally though.)

pbbbttt

pbbbttt


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Makana

Acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14

Acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14

I'm impressed I could contain my geek out even this much.

I’m impressed I could contain my geek out even this much.

Last month I fulfilled a long term goal of mine: visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’ve been an admirer of the incredible work that goes on there for years and was beyond excited to finally be setting foot inside the building for real (they’re lucky I didn’t somehow manage to fit those life-sized orca models in my bag upon leaving). It exceeded all my expectations – what an amazing team, collection and facility! I even got to see humpback whales, sea otters and seemingly endless seabirds from the deck.

I gathered so many references for future works of species I’d longed to see, like leopard sharks, flamboyant cuttlefish and bluefin tuna (just to name a few), but was particularly inspired by meeting a very special bird named Makana. She’s a Laysan albatross from Hawaii that suffered a wing injury and cannot be released, so she serves as an ambassador for seabirds at Monterey. This role is particularly important because of the threats seabirds, especially albatrosses like Makana, face in the ocean from plastic pollution. This video does a lovely job of introducing Makana and sharing this critical message. It’s also worth nothing that of the 21 albatross species, 19 are threatened or endangered.

Given my love of seabirds I couldn’t resist painting an 11 x 14 portrait of Makana. I’ve long been fascinated with albatrosses for their size and lifestyle – they can go years without touching land and it’s believed they can even sleep while flying! This painting is now in its forever home in California and I’m thankful to have met such a special bird. Thank you Makana and Monterey!

Isn't she beautiful?

Isn’t she beautiful?

For more about Laysan albatrosses and the problem with plastics, check out the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal. To become smitten with these birds yourself (and I definitely recommend a visit to see Makana for yourself), take a look at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s live nest cam!


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Art Gone Wild: Art Show and Silent Auction

My four acrylic paintings on display at the show.

My four acrylic paintings on display at the show.

Zoo Atlanta’s Art Gone Wild event came to a close last night with a spectacular art show and silent auction. From June 2-6, myself and 36 other artists became a temporarily invasive species at the zoo as we created artwork inspired by the animals, horticulture, and exhibits, and I had an excellent time tackling subjects I’d never done before. If you missed my Paint Out Week posts, you can see them in this tag.

It was wonderful to see the dozens of finished pieces at the art show! There was such a wide variety of subjects, styles, and mediums that it was truly a joy to walk around and see everybody’s work. It was definitely an honour for me to be showing my work among such talented people. I had wanted to create five pieces in total, but because of a long-anticipated and busy dive trip from June 5-8 (which I’ll post about very soon!), I only had time to complete four. I had chosen to focus on Betelgeuse, the stunning male wreathed hornbill; Andazi and Jabari, the black rhino mother and calf; Idgie, the red panda; and Utenzi, the male black rhino. These five animals are some of my favourites to see whenever I visit Zoo Atlanta and they were, naturally, a lot of fun to paint. What made all my efforts worth it was the feedback from event guests and zoo staff and volunteers, particularly those that work closely with these individual animals.

I’m absolutely thrilled to say that all four pieces saw multiple bids and went to good homes at the end of the evening!

So happy this painting went to a good home!

So happy this painting went to a good home!

Knowing that my art touched a lot of people and helped to raise funds for the zoo made all of my hard work worthwhile. My hornbill painting was won by a lovely couple who bid on it for their young son who’s obsessed with birds; I made sure to sign and date the painting for him and I hope he loves it as much as I had fun painting it.

From the very beginning of this event, the zoo team have been nothing short of fabulous – coordinating staff, keepers, volunteers, event staff… This whole experience has been utterly fantastic and that’s largely because of their support, so thank you, Zoo Atlanta! I hope we can do this again!


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Art Gone Wild: Day One

Today was the first day of Zoo Atlanta’s Art Gone Wild event! Since being selected as a participating artist a few months ago I’ve been eagerly anticipating a few days of painting alongside some truly wonderful animals – and of course stepping outside of my comfort zone. Not only am I branching out and tackling feathers and fur instead of fins and flukes, I’m also painting… in public. I’m quite a private person when it comes to the actual creation of my art, as I feel most comfortable losing myself in my work without being disturbed (and usually blasting Florence + The Machine), so the idea of putting my process on display was quite a terrifying thought at first. But after the first day of this simply awesome event, I can honestly say that I had a blast.

Shortly after arriving this morning I was shuttled straight to my most desired spot: a slightly shaded area in front of the wreathed hornbill exhibit. I was well into establishing some flat colours on my canvas when I moved away from my easel to stretch my legs, and realised that one of the Sumatran tigers was lounging at the window right behind me. Pretty much the coolest neighbour to have first thing in the morning before the zoo opens. I spent all day in this area, every now and again shifting my setup as I chased the shade. It was unbelievably cool to spend so much time with my subject as he went about his day, often providing his own soundtrack (hornbills make the cutest barking sounds). It was also fun to chat with guests as they passed through the space and provided feedback on my work. A little girl even told me she wanted “to grow up to do that.” Oh my goodness.

I’m not finished with this hornbill piece yet but wanted to share my progress! I’m going to work on him some more tomorrow, but I’m also looking forward to taking on a new subject. Unfortunately I can’t participate in the event on Thursday or Friday, but there’s a VERY good reason for that – I’ll be sure to share what it is when I return on Sunday!

With my fabulous subject in the background.

With my fabulous subject in the background.

If you’re in Atlanta, you should stop by this week to see us in action! You can also attend the art show and silent auction on Saturday 14th June, when you can bid on our creations to raise funds for Zoo Atlanta.


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Preparing for Art Gone Wild

Wreathed hornbill sketch with some coloured pencil touches.

Wreathed hornbill sketch with some coloured pencil touches.

As announced back in April, I’m one of the selected artists participating in Zoo Atlanta’s brand new Art Gone Wild event in a couple of weeks. In the run-up to Paint Out Week I’ve been thinking a lot about my potential subjects and spent last Friday at the zoo finding my muse. With the sun out and the temperature in the 70s, it was the perfect day to be outside observing and sketching animals for hours on end! Collected here are some of my quick zoo doodles (zoodles?) done from life.

I plan to paint a variety of subjects but definitely found myself gravitating towards a certain few – is anyone actually surprised that I’m focusing on hornbills? I don’t know what it is about these birds, but I’m just captivated by them. I was also thrilled to finally get to see Jabari, the zoo’s ridiculously cute eastern black rhino calf who was born last year. Watching him run around was definitely the day’s highlight for me.


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Devon Wildlife: Great Cormorant

My hometown in 2014.

My hometown in 2014.

A couple of weeks ago I traveled to Devon, England, where I was born and spent my whole life until I moved to the USA at the end of 2009. It’s an area rich with biodiversity and is the only county in the UK to boast two separate (and stunning) coastlines, north and south. I was lucky to grow up on the south Devon coast and to be so accustomed to its native wildlife, the marine-dwelling locals ranging from bottlenose dolphins and basking sharks to spiny seahorses and common cuttlefish. Though I currently live about 4000 miles away, south Devon will always be close to my heart.

I snapped these cormorants just outside Torquay harbour in 2009.

I snapped these cormorants just outside Torquay harbour in 2009.

When I returned home recently I was motivated to get to work on a personal project I’ve wanted to do for years: a series of paintings featuring my favourite Devon marine wildlife. It’s a way for me to celebrate the fantastic animals that live there and share them with the world.

More cormorants in Torbay. I love the wing-drying pose so much!

More cormorants in Torbay. I love the wing-drying pose so much!

Because I’ve been on quite a bird kick lately as I gear up for my participation in Art Gone Wild, I decided to start with a great cormorant. They’re extremely common around south Devon but I’m always excited to see them – there’s just something about birds that spend their time at sea. I’ve actually planned out a larger painting of an individual drying its wings – one of my favourite sights – but completed this little close-up study of one today on an 8 x 10 canvas. They’re such prehistoric-looking birds. When I worked at Living Coasts I had the pleasure of spending my time with two charismatic bank cormorant brothers, a different species that is endemic to South Africa, but also got to watch native cormorants go about their daily business right off our balcony. I would frequently spot them while out on boat trips across Torbay and loved to watch them dive down and pop back up again.

Great cormorant, acrylic on canvas (8 x 10)

Great cormorant, acrylic on canvas (8 x 10)

And a couple of in-progress shots…


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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

Swellshark

African penguin - About 10 minutes

African penguin

Beluga whale - About 15 minutes

Beluga whale


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Hornbill


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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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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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!