Q-n-A: Fish illustrator

Ichthyology, the study of fishes, doesn’t always mean sitting down in a stuffy lab with jars of preserved fish.

For this installment of Q-n-A, I sat down with Val Kells, a renowned marine science illustrator with a passion for ichthyology. Val has illustrated field guide books for fishes of the Atlantic coast of the US and, more recently, the Chesapeake Bay. If you haven’t seen any of her books, chances are you’ve seen her work if you’ve ever been to an aquarium. Val has provided exhibit illustrations for aquaria around the world, some of which include Monterey Bay, Jersey State, South Carolina, the Norwalk Maritime Center, and Oceanario de Lisboa in Portugal.

I recently got to chat with Val about how she goes about her work and how it relates to the overall goals of fisheries science:

Fish illustrator Val Kells

1. Illustration is a somewhat overlooked branch of ichthyology. What was your background that led you to fish illustration as a career?

I’d always shown an interest and inclination for art. I took every available art class in high school which I supplemented with classes at the local art center and at Parsons School of Design. I was expected to study art at university level, but switched majors at the last minute to Marine Biology.

Through a series of planned decisions and dumb luck, I found my way to UC Santa Cruz where I expected to complete my degree in Marine Biology. Instead, I stumbled upon Science Illustration and Communication. Long story short, I was able to combine both of my passions into a career.

2. How do you collect the specimens you illustrate?

I’m an obsessive, compulsive, and indiscriminate fisherman. Meaning, I don’t just go after big game fishes like Tarpon or Sailfish. I fish pylons, jetties, tide pools, oyster beds, inlets and channels for what I call the ‘oddballs’. I also carry a dip net and cast net. I try to go seining on grass flats when possible. I photograph every fish I come across, either by my own line or net, or someone else’s.

Obviously, no one can document every fish. So, I often turn to my library which I’ve built for a long time. If I can’t find the resources I need in my library, I go online. If I still can’t find what I need to complete an illustration, I send inquires to my large network of associates. I’m always amazed at how generous fish folks can be!

Val uses a diverse combination of resources to create
accurate fish illustrations.

3. How many steps do you have to go through before you can complete a piece? How long does it take?

Painting can take anywhere from 2 to 12 hours, depending upon the size and complexity of the subject.

I combine all of the available resources (written and photographic) and develop a preliminary drawing in pencil. I scan the prelim, save it, and print it. I then use a soft graphite pencil to ‘carbon up’ the back of the printed preliminary. I cut out the printed prelim, tape it to the watercolor paper, and use a very hard pencil to trace the outline and important features of the subject. When I lift the printed prelim from the watercolor paper, a faint graphite outline is left behind. Then I begin painting.

Creating a fish illustration is a multi-step process

4. How/what has illustration taught you about fishes? How can fisheries students use illustration as a learning tool?

I have become acutely aware of the vast morphological variety that fishes display. Form and function often go hand-in-hand. And yet, some fish features defy explanation!

Accurate illustrations can be invaluable identification tools. Knowing which species occur or don’t occur in various habitats helps students learn about population and migration dynamics, for example.

Illustration can be a useful tool for students interested in learning the
anatomy and classification of fishes

5. When you’re illustrating a fish, how do you balance the need for a realistic depiction with artistic creativity?

Fisheries illustrations have definitely changed through time…it seems they have changed from an artistic to a more realistic perspective. To be successful as a contemporary scientific illustrator, one must realize that realistic representation trumps all other urges. Period. Otherwise, it’s a cartoon.

Each generation of scientific illustrators builds upon the accomplishments and techniques of the previous generations. The earliest scientific illustrations can be traced back to Roman times. Flash forward to Michelangelo, then forward again to John James Audubon.
The kind of project dictates the media I work in. For example, when I worked on the NC Aquariums, I developed very large, overhead panels that were installed over the main graphic panels. Because they were overhead, the illustrations had to be ‘punchy’, they had to be visible from afar. So I worked in ink that I mixed with black Prisma and watercolor on grainy paper. However, a Loggerhead is a Loggerhead, no matter what media I use to depict it. So even though the image of the Loggerhead was mixed media, it still had to look realistic and not cartoonish.

6. Through books it’s clear that scientists value your work, but what are your other interactions with (fisheries) scientists?  How does your work mesh up with the work of fisheries scientists to promote conservation and management?

It’s safe to say it’s a small community! Everyone knows everyone else, knows of everyone else, or is connected in some way. I’ve found that the folks I work with all LOVE what they do. There is mutual respect throughout the community. We work independently, but also rely on and share with each other. The exchange of information is particularly educational. It’s a fun, exciting, and extremely satisfying way to make a living while also making a contribution.

…my work certainly acts as a tool to promote awareness. I do think that knowledge and understanding lead to appreciation. Appreciation hopefully leads to conservation. In the simplest terms, if what I’ve done helps people learn, appreciate, protect, conserve, share… then I’ve done my job.

For more information on Val Kells and her work:

–Brandon Peoples

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