Jen Richards

Wildlife artist


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It’s FebruaRAY!

You may have heard some big elasmobranch news a couple of weeks ago: the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Shark Specialist Group published the first-ever global analysis of sharks, rays and chimeras, and the results were not good. It found that a quarter of shark and ray species are threatened with extinction, putting them at a substantially higher risk than other groups of animals. That’s pretty huge. Especially disturbing is the fact that rays are actually more at risk than sharks are.

Rays are essentially flat sharks, but they don’t garner nearly the attention that their more well-known relatives do. Of course, you get the rockstar manta rays and aquarium touch pool favourites, but on the whole, rays are really underloved. I’d like to help change that.

So, for the entire month, I’m celebrating FebruaRAY. (I’m not sorry for the name.) As often as I can over the coming weeks, I’m going to draw and share art I’ve created that showcases some of my favourite ray species. I love rays dearly, but even I’m guilty of picking more traditionally “paintable” marine wildlife over them. Here’s to changing that!

My first Februaray offering is a double – two messy pages from my sketchbook. I was thrilled to hear that Sweet Pea, a bowmouth guitarfish (or shark ray – just to be confusing) at the Newport Aquarium gave birth very recently, which is particularly fantastic because this marks the first time this species has reproduced in human care. Guitarfishes are actually one of the most threatened families of rays. Go Sweet Pea! (Please do click on that link and to see photos of her pups. There’s little on the planet cuter than elasmobranch babies!)

Last Monday I had the undeniably awesome experience of being in the water with a small school of lesser devil rays (Mobula hypostoma) during feeding time. I was already kind of in love with these guys, who you’d not be too wrong to think of as tiny, hyperactive manta rays, but experiencing them so close and feeling the water move as they zig-zagged so effortlessly around me has me head over heels for them.

Please do feel free to suggest more ray species for me to draw! What is YOUR favourite?

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Sea Otter Awareness Week 2013

It’s that time of year again! Sea Otter Awareness Week 2013 is almost over, but it’s never too late to celebrate the hairiest of all mammals. Last year I shared the colouring sheet I created for Georgia Aquarium’s SOAW, but this year’s event saw me collaborating with a good friend who just happens to be crazy about sea otters. She created a very cute little narrative for me to illustrate that would cover some of the milestones in the first year of sea otter’s life – a “Watch Me Grow” pup journal to be given out for free. It was a lot of fun to work on! The journals double as colouring books and allow kids to name “their” sea otter and learn what it’s like to grow up in the chilly waters of the west coast. These were handed out on the first day of SOAW on Sunday 22nd and will also be available tomorrow (Saturday 28th), so if you’re in the area and want to pick one up – as well as have a LOT of sea otter-related fun with activities and storytelling – you should stop by! If you’re nowhere near Atlanta, check out the list of participating organisations and see if you can pop in to your local aquarium or zoo. You won’t find my artwork, but you WILL find a lot of enthusiastic, dedicated people who would love to talk to you about sea otters and other wonderful animals!

I believe that after this week, the journal will be available to download from Georgia Aquarium’s SOAW page. I’ll let you know!


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Wanderers

'Wanderers'

I decided to take a little break from the acrylics and dedicate myself to some pencil work. It’s been a while since I spent so long on something that wasn’t a painting, but I really enjoyed the process and it definitely brought back my love of working in graphite. Though I delight in the ease of being able to pick it up and put it back down again without having to wash brushes and pots, I actually find pencil work far more challenging. If I make an error with acrylics I can “easily” paint over it (not without excessive grumbling, I’ll admit), but a mistake in the middle of a complicated piece with its layers of tones is a lot more difficult to fix – it can terribly mess up the flow and will stick out like a sore thumb… at least in my experience. So I really took my time with this one, stopping when I got too tired or began to get distracted (my biggest curse). Here’s a look at the progress:

progress


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Return of the Giant Pacific Octopus

GPO

I’ve painted one of these beauties before and had quite a lot of fun with it even if suckers are possibly the most tedious thing in the world to draw, let alone paint. Apparently, when I’m sick I like to torture myself by reliving that tediousness by drawing even more of them. Fun octopus fact: the only hard part of their body is their beak… so if the beak fits, the whole octopus fits. It’s kind of awesome.


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Making mantas make sense

Mantas

You’ll need to click on this to see a bigger version. Fuzzy WordPress resizing ahoy!

It’s been a long time since I did manta rays. My first and so far only finished manta piece “Takeoff” was done almost two and a half years ago and remains my most popular image, even though I’ve since moved away from digital pieces and have fully embraced traditional media again (it doesn’t always embrace me back, as I’ve made several manta painting attempts and given up each time). You can see a dreadful rough sketch here and a screenshot of it in progress here. I’ve been wanting to return to mantas ever since I completed “Takeoff”, but nothing ever worked for me. My recent focus on whale sharks, however, has motivated me into trying again – you have to love the giant filter feeders.

Manta rays are utterly captivating. Their appearance is just so alien; I can look closely at sharks and other fish and their anatomy makes sense to me, but mantas are somehow beyond my comprehension sometimes. They’re just so big that it’s a lot to take in when that gigantic shadow is looming above you, the bubbles from your regulator tickling their bellies as they effortlessly glide on by like a spacecraft looking for a good spot to land. When those cephalic fins unroll to form a funnel for that cavernous mouth it’s hard not to imagine them coming from another planet. Which is one of the infinite reasons the ocean is so awesome: Manta rays make perfect sense in this environment.

They are, of course, another success story that came out of this year’s CITES CoP 16 (you can read my previous posts on this in my conservation tag). The manta proposal was actually the first elasmobranch one to pass on its first try, an indicator of our fascination with them (and, sadly, the precariousness of their conservation status). Manta rays are divers’ favourites; our desire to see and experience them makes them far more valuable alive than dead. Unfortunately their gill rakers are falsely believed to hold health benefits, and the demand for their parts has caused populations to plummet (PEW identifies decreases of more than 85% in several regions). As with many marine species bycatch is also a huge problem, and when you consider that your average manta will birth only one pup every two to three years, you can understand why these incredibly unsustainable practices are removing mantas much faster than their biology can cope with. With a listing on CITES Appendix II now official, manta rays have a much greater chance of recovering.

I wanted to practice drawing them from several different angles to try to wrap my head around them just a bit better. Looking forward to translating a few onto a nice big canvas!


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3rd International Whale Shark Conference

Sketches A couple of weeks ago, the lovely Dr. Al Dove appeared and asked me to do something awesome. The 3rd International Whale Shark Conference was to be held in Atlanta this coming October, and it needed a logo.

I did a very good job at not falling out of my chair. To have the opportunity to use my art for something so important to me – the Sketchesconservation and research of whale sharks, a species that has become a big part of my life – is quite literally a dream come true. After some chatting and discussing of ideas, I was sent off to sketch and came up with eight or nine scribbles. One of the ideas we’d mentioned was the trademark “swoopyness” of whale sharks, that huge sweeping caudal fin that creates a beautiful silhouette as they swim (and is one of my favourite things about them). As such, I doodled a few swoopies. The intention was to create a simple outline from one of these sketches, something that had a visual impact and was undeniably whale sharky.

Sketch

The four on the sides here were my attempts at different angles of this swoopiness. The one above was an idea I’d had early on that was a bit different – something that showed a whale shark doing what they like to do best – eating things – while the reflection of the animal on the surface would form a world map, incorporating the whole “international” Bubbapart of the conference. But we ended up going with something quite different entirely: the one I had affectionately called “blimp.jpg”. Al and I agreed that this one was more interesting because it shows the face, and whale shark faces are the best. (Really, though.) It also offered a different angle, something a bit more abstract but still undeniably whale sharky, and did a better job of alluding to the size of a BIG animal than any of the others did. Success!3rd International Whale Shark Conference

So here we are now. With a bit of editing of the angle, some inking and colouring and letters and a map, he’s live on the website and will hopefully do a good job of welcoming some of the world’s top whale shark researchers to the United States this autumn.


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Sharks, sharks, sharks

Oceanic whitetips (and pilot fish)

Oceanic whitetips (and pilot fish)

When asked what my favourite species of shark is, I struggle to answer. They’re all so interesting in their own ways (even you, goblin shark!), so I tend to go with whichever one I happen to be looking at at the time. Recently I’ve become particularly enamoured with oceanic whitetips. I’ve always found them visually striking – I like the rounded edges to their fins, their colouration, and their elegance. And I really love the imagery of their own personal pilot fish fan club that sometimes almost completely engulfs them. I plan to paint an oceanic whitetip soon so I figured I’d practice with some sketches.

Oceanic whitetip sharks are one of the species whose addition to CITES will be voted on in March (see my post about Shark Defenders’ awesome petition here!). The United States actually co-sponsored the proposal to list them, and this week said it would support all of the shark and ray proposals at the upcoming Conference of the Parties – fantastic news for these threatened animals. Oceanic whitetips are at particular risk due to fishing pressure: Their fins are especially valued but their meat is not (the case for many sharks, sadly), meaning that when they do fall victim to bycatch (or are targeted) their fins are removed but the body is dumped at sea, meaning exact numbers of catches are extremely difficult to obtain and regulate. Studies that have been done indicate a 99% decline of populations in the Gulf of Mexico – similar trends have been seen in the northwest Atlantic and the Pacific. More information on this species, as well as the others up for vote in a matter of weeks and the latest developments, can be found on PEW Environment Group’s utterly brilliant coverage of CITES CoP 16. And if you’d like to join Shark Defenders’ efforts to show support for listing them, one of Shark Stanley’s friends is the lovely Waqi Whitetip!

In other shark conservation news, a couple of weeks ago the Ocean Artists Society released its first video project, Artists United for Sharks: Saving Sharks. My whale shark painting “Entourage” is featured (I apologise for my rather dreadful narration), and it’s truly an honour to be alongside such an astounding collection of artists. Very much looking forward to our future endeavours!


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Happy New Year!

Ringing in 2013 with a trio of Rhincodon typus.

Ringing in 2013 with a trio of Rhincodon typus.

I’m not usually one for making New Years resolutions, but I am going to fill 2013 with art. Whether it’s just a doodle, a detailed sketch, or an involved painting, I’m going to make sure I spend at least a little bit of every single day doing something art related. I certainly won’t be able to post things online every day, but I’ll be putting pencil to paper or brush to canvas in whatever time I can make – and I’m going to make the time. Though 2012 was a very busy year, I still felt like I wasted too much time that could have been spent being productive and improving my work. I’m hoping that by making this commitment I can emerge at the end of the year with a more robust portfolio and a feeling of accomplishment. And now that I’ve published this on the internet, I can’t go back…!

The tidiest it may ever be.

The tidiest it may ever be.

A big help in this decision came in the form of a Christmas present I received  from my husband: my dream drafting table. I’d been waxing somewhat poetic about it over the last few months, since I craved an actual desk in my studio (when using my table easel, I sat on the floor with it) and endless trawls of craigslist continued to yield nothing. A little bit of rearranging and tidying up later, and my workspace has evolved. Astonishingly, drawing is so much more comfortable on a drafting table than it is hunched over on the sofa with my sketchbook balanced in my lap. How odd…


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Orcas past and present

Orca sketches in 2012…

In little snippets of spare time lately I’ve been picking up my sketchbook to draw orcas. They’ve always been my favourite subjects; beyond their endlessly fascinating behaviour, there’s something about them I find so compelling and beautiful. If I’m doodling, whatever the canvas, you can guarantee there’ll be one in there somewhere. After so many years they’ve kind of become my trademark. I can’t help it.

When I went home to England over Christmas last year I rediscovered my very first orca drawings. Literally. I had just turned eight years old when I first encountered them at SeaWorld and could draw little else. I’m impressed with Little Past Me’s

… orca sketches from 1994.

ability to remember all the correct markings, moreorless (with a small exception – white on the upper jaw? What was I thinking!), and determination to draw as many different actions as possible. I should take notes.

I have a few more from the years between then and now – including some rather dramatic scenes of predation(!) drawn when I was ten – that I’ll put here in future posts. It’s a lot of fun to be able to track your artistic development.

This 1994 orca was on the back of the others. I like his attitude.


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Humphead wrasse

I would be asked the same question about our larger humphead wrasse almost daily while working in our open ocean exhibit. It was always phrased in one of two ways: “What is that big ugly fish with the bump on its head?” or “What is that beautiful fish with the bump on its head?” 

Personally, I’m in the latter camp. It’s a remarkable animal. The humphead, or Napoleon, or Maori wrasse is the largest of the family, with adult males reaching about six feet in length and weighing more than 400 lbs – and if its size wasn’t enough, its bright greens and blues and even purples make it impossible to ignore. I love to lean in close when ours is by the acrylic window to get a good look at those intricate markings along the sides that look like an inaccessible maze. On the forehead is – surprise! – a big hump that grows along with it, and it has big, attention-grabbing lips. This fish seems to demand attention, but it’s actually quite shy.

It’s also an endangered species; habitat loss and years of exploitation are just two man-made factors that, combined with its slow reproduction rate, have led to a decline of at least 50% in the last thirty years.  More data is urgently needed in order to understand the scale of these threats and to form effective conservation measures ensuring its survival.

I feel like a grey sketch of the humphead wrasse does it little justice. I’ll find time to paint one in full colour at some point, and hopefully get more people to appreciate its rather unconventional beauty.


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Manatees

I didn’t know what a manatee was until I came face-to-face with one on a family holiday to Orlando in the early 90s. Although orcas dominated my brain (and every piece of blank paper in the house) for years after we returned to England, the manatees stuck with me in a big way too. Seeing these strange, gentle grey lumps drifting peacefully about their habitat and learning that those horrific scars and lost limbs were the fault of humans – the result of our careless intrusion into their world – didn’t sit right with me. I became so enamoured with these creatures that my family rushed out of the Shamu night show early on our last evening at the park to beat the crowds leaving just behind us so that I had time to buy a small plush manatee at the gift shop. We took a photo of me crouching next to the license plate of our rental car, holding my manatee and pointing, because it featured one right in the middle.

There was a piece on the plight of the manatee on children’s TV not long after our trip. The details are fuzzy to me 18 years later, but I remember jumping at the chance to write in and get involved. I donated what little I could. My primary school held an animal story writing competition; I wrote (and lovingly illustrated) a short story about an injured manatee being rescued and released. I still have my winning certificate somewhere.

These guys were really the first time I was able to get involved with a conservation issue and I’ve been passionate about it ever since. Several people have suggested I paint manatees and I’d love to – these sketches are some practice. I’d already drawn three out of the five when I learned that today is the 64th birthday of Snooty, the first manatee born in human care and an amazing ambassador for his species, just like the ones that touched my heart when I was eight.