Wild Thing: Rockfishes. Oh, Rockfishes . . .

Wild Thing is an occasional series where JHU Press authors write about the flora and fauna of the natural world—from the rarest flower to the most magnificent beast. 

guest post by Val Kells

Rockfishes are a diverse and highly successful group within the Family Scorpaenidae, or Scorpionfishes. There are currently 102 known species of Scorpaenids worldwide. They live primarily in temperate to cold seas in the northern and southern hemispheres. Most are demersal, meaning they live close to the bottom of the sea. Most are spiny, some are venomous. They have a bony structure on the cheek that I won’t begin to explain.

I am in the midst of coauthoring and illustrating A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes: From Alaska to California, a new book to be published by JHU Press. It will follow the layout and design of A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes: From Maine to Texas and will serve as a companion. The overall goal is to illustrate and describe in field guide form all of the fishes to about 600 feet from both coasts of the continental United States. It’s a Guinness Book of World Records kind-of-thing . . . nobody has ever done this before. I’ll be the first–with invaluable support from my coauthors, Larry Allen and Luiz Rocha, and my fabulous editor, Vince Burke. It is an enormous and sometimes daunting task. But having worked for over five years on the Atlantic and Gulf book, and having been rewarded by its tremendous success, I’m up to the challenge. (Alternative: play golf every day? Uh . . . no.) And when the Pacific book is out in print, wow . . . on to what next? The Bahamas and the Caribbean Sea?

Anyway, back to Rockfishes . . . .

Two of the largest families I illustrated for the Atlantic and Gulf book were Gobies and Flounders. I toiled over Gobies for weeks. Flounders would have done me in if I hadn’t planned ahead and designated Fridays “Flounder Friday.” I illustrated one flounder per week for six months, thus avoiding insanity and bodily harm (think throwing myself out of the window). When I finally got to the flounder section, the paintings were done and I only had to complete the writing and design.

Illustrating Gobies and Flounders pales in comparison to illustrating Rockfishes. Gobies are slender, small, and mostly scaleless. Flounders are mostly brown, frustratingly spiny, and aesthetically boring. Regardless, I gave it my all and the illustrations are spot-on. But in true confession I was glad to move on.

Black and yellow rockfish. (c) Val Kells 2012.

Rockfishes just freakin’ rock. They’re deep-bodied, tall-spined, and often psychedelic in color and pattern. Complex. Complicated. Tricky. Many species resemble another. There are multiple variations within many species. They change color and pattern as they mature. And when they’re dead, most look nothing like themselves alive. Illustrating and describing all of the Northeastern Pacific Rockfishes will take the better part of three to four months, depending upon how many color variants we elect to include. What’s three or four months? A drop in the bucket on a grander scale. When Rockfishes are done, I’ll move quickly on to Greenlings and then Sculpins.

But guess what? There are even more Sculpins than Rockfishes. But that’s another story.

Below is a short and amateurish video I shot while completing my 14th Rockfish illustration. I shot it on a Friday after having been completely punch drunk on Rockfishes for five previous days. It’s not the best quality, and the lighting is poor, but it should give a clear idea of what will keep me off the golf course through Thanksgiving. Cheers. And, enjoy!

Val Kells is a marine science illustrator whose clients include publishers, designers, museums, nature centers, and aquariums. Her work has appeared in over 30 public aquariums and museums and numerous publications. She is the coauthor of A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes: From Maine to Texas, available from the JHU Press.

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