Q&A with Joseph R. Tomelleri

Chattahoochee bass. Illustration by Joseph Tomelleri

Chattahoochee bass. Illustration by Joseph Tomelleri

Interview by Jeff Schaeffer

The Fisheries editors have this vision of a bunch of first-graders in art class with the assignment of drawing their pets. They draw stick figures while you produce an anatomically correct picture of a goldfish with the correct number of fin rays and lateral line scales. The art teacher freaks out. Seriously, how did this all get started? We are dying to know how you got into both art and fish.

I was able to draw from a young age, something about hand/eye coordination I think-though it certainly never translated to basketball or baseball! My aunt, Donna Aldridge, is a well-known Kansas City artist and encouraged me—that was important from a confidence standpoint. I never did spend much time drawing, though, until graduate school when I did my first fish—kind of odd for a master’s candidate in range management.

Your website states that you work with Prismacolor pencils and do most of your art in the field. Can you tell us more about your process?

I collect my fish in the field—most of them anyway—but don’t actually do any drawing out there. Especially with color pencil being such a slow working medium, it just is not feasible. I believe some artists (Ellen Edmondson and Hugh Chrisp come to mind) did spectacular work in watercolor many years ago and could use live fish for their color models, although I don’t know how one would consistently keep “natural” colors in a captive fish for any length of time.

Redbanded Rockfish. Illustration by Joseph Tomelleri

Redbanded Rockfish. Illustration by Joseph Tomelleri

Your work is unique and differs from most other outdoor artists who usually portray leaping salmonids with a fly affixed to their jaws: trout stamp art. Have you ever experimented with that genre?

I have done a few of those, but it’s really something I’m not very interested in. Part of what keeps me motivated is that every new drawing is another piece of a bigger picture, like a puzzle, and while I might never finish it, at least it’s “mostly” done. When I do something different, while I enjoy the freedom, it feels like I’m working on one piece of an entirely different jigsaw puzzle. That being said, such work as you describe is certainly more involved and can often be more difficult in terms of layout and composition than a standard scientific illustration. A few artists that I admire in that genre are Al Agnew, Larry Tople, and Mark Susinno, among others.

Come to think of it, we are familiar only with your fish. Have you ever drawn other branches of the tree of life?

Yes. I have played around with birds somewhat, and I used to draw horses many years ago. I once did a large mural for my father on the side of his building—a buffalo. There are so many wonderful artists that do birds, etc.; it would be quite an investment in time to become proficient at that and make a living. I’m comfortable doing one thing and doing it well.

Do you think of yourself as an artist or an illustrator?

There is no question that illustrators, be they scientific or not, are artists—as they are interpreting and then expressing how they see a certain object in nature. Mostly, scientific illustrators are doing their art in a tighter package, within certain strictures that are required by their discipline. But every illustrator, even if they are drawing the same specimen, is going to have a different interpretation of that animal. So it’s really a combination of an artist, illustrator, and scientist.

What are some of your current or upcoming projects that we might look for during 2016–2017?

Fishes of Idaho by Don Zaroban and John Sigler is getting close to being done. Fishes of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea will perhaps be done in 2017. Ted Pietsch at the University of Washington and Jay Orr of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are spearheading that-it’s been a long project-about 11 years for me, longer for them!

You have drawn more than a thousand fish, but are there any that are especially memorable, and why?

The best memories come from collecting the fish and seeing them in the wild. High on the list would have to be any number of Mexican trout because of the logistics, research, and planning that go into finding them. Number one would then have to be the Conchos trout (northern species-we later also found another species down south) as none were previously known to science from that huge watershed. We had circumstantial evidence but had to look for several years before we were successful. Of course, I say “we found,” but the native people (Rarámuri) knew it was there all along! They were just very rare.

Orange throat Darter. Illustration by Joseph Tomelleri

Orangethroat Darter. Illustration by Joseph Tomelleri

And of all those fish, which one was the most challenging?

I’m going to say the most challenging fish of all is sitting on my drawing table right now, the Kelp Poacher Agonomalus mozinoi. Barely two inches long, but so full of prickles and unusual protuberances as to be, well, a pain in the rear, but fun no less. There is no question that saltwater fishes as a whole are more difficult to draw.

Given the number of North American species you have drawn, it looks like at some point you will have exhausted the biodiversity here. Do you have any plans to focus on species in other continents?

The splitters are so hard at work that I can’t keep up. I would like to get a reasonable facsimile of “every” freshwater species in the United States. I am what I would call reasonably close, but I would reckon there is still easily 10 more years of full-time work just to try to do that, and I hope I can still draw in 10 years!

Somewhere out there is the species you have always wanted to draw but haven’t. Which one is it, and why is it still on your to-do list?

Maybe an Inconnu Stenodus nelma, as it’s really the only native gamefish from the United States and Canada that I’m missing. And a few more Mexican trout that I can’t seem to find time to do.

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