Shining Rays of Light

Rhombic. Oval. Heart. Circular. Lozenge. Distinctive lilac bands. Vivid blue spots. Striking dark brown saddles and rings. Ornate yellow and gold rings. Pale blue marbling. You’d be forgiven if you thought I was describing the work of a Renaissance master obsessed with geometry, or that of an impressionist dancing with the changing light on each visible brush stroke. Well, to be fair, you’re not entirely wrong. I do speak of masterpieces. Works of art on live canvases that glide gracefully through water as a carpet would through the air on an Arabian night. I speak of the Batoidea - the rays of the world that evolved from shark-like ancestors some 200 million years ago and have swam our oceans and rivers ever since.

Image: CSIRO Publishing

Image: CSIRO Publishing

Rays of the World (RoW) is the world’s first ‘complete pictorial atlas of the world’s ray fauna’ – a major milestone in documenting ray diversity and an important step towards raising awareness of such a little-known, yet frequently encountered group of animals. As part of the broader and global collaborative project, The Chondrichthyan Tree of Life, the book serves as a comprehensive and reliable tool to aid the identification of ray species. Unfortunately, frequent misidentification and relatively little research attention towards rays has resulted in much of the published data being incomplete or inaccurate – quite alarming when between approximately 20% to 36% of ray species are threatened with extinction (with the exception of amphibians, this is the highest rate of any vertebrate group!).

Until recently, I’d been excitedly waiting months on end for RoW to be published. My affection and respect for an often ‘ignored’ species have grown immensely since my postgraduate days of caring for and studying pregnancy in southern fiddler rays (Trygonorrhina dumerilii). Dr. Lindsay Gutteridge (née Marshall), who illustrated RoW, formed a significant foundation of my studies as her paper was the only one that documented the reproductive cycle of the southern fiddler ray. Without her paper, I would’ve stumbled endlessly through the dark and my project may not have even gotten off the ground. Suffice it to say, finally getting my hands on RoW and a chance to interview Lindsay was like Christmas and my birthday all rolled into one!

Lindsay has no official artistic training and claims her talent is simply a result of passionate interest and ‘…just working at it… the more that you do it, the more you perfect your craft.’ Her artistic talents and exceptional aptitude for spatial recognition served her well during her postgraduate studies where she developed systems to identify shark species from their fin morphology. It was through her PhD supervisor Peter Last, her Honours supervisor Will White, and Gavin Naylor (all three are also editors of RoW) that her talents, both scientific and artistic, would merge to deliver the definitive illustrated guide, RoW.

Dr. Lindsay Gutteridge (n ée Marshall) and her artwork.  Image:     , courtesy of L. Gutteridge

Dr. Lindsay Gutteridge (née Marshall) and her artwork. Image:, courtesy of L. Gutteridge

Projects are often constrained by time and budget and some might ask, ‘Why not just use really good photos? Wouldn’t this be quicker, easier and just as effective?’ Yes and no. Photos can help you identify fish, and unlike paintings, they don’t take tens of hours to craft. However, for the purpose of distinguishing species, especially those that are closely related (e.g. the Pristidae family – the sawfish; or the leopard whipray (Himantura leoparda) versus the coach whipray (Himantura uarnak)), photos aren’t as effective as you’d think. Lindsay explains that ‘…as an illustrator you can really take out that ambiguity that you have in photos…’, which can arise from bad lighting or angles skewing proportions. Interestingly, Lindsay explains that ‘…there are also species that don’t have any photos… [only] line drawings and descriptions from hundreds of years ago.’ In such cases, using artistic license but within the realms of scientific evidence and accuracy, Lindsay was able to interpret the colours, shapes and shading through her knowledge of similar ray species within their respective groups.

Note the subtle differences in form, pattern and colouration in the leopard whipray (left) versus the coach whipray (right).  Image:  L indsay Marshall, as seen in  Rays of the World  (2016), CSIRO Publishing.   
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Note the subtle differences in form, pattern and colouration in the leopard whipray (left) versus the coach whipray (right). Image: Lindsay Marshall, as seen in Rays of the World (2016), CSIRO Publishing.

Painting over 600 individual ray species is no small feat by anyone’s standards and requires near-superhuman stamina and motivation. When asking Lindsay about how long each image took to paint, it was a question that was ‘…really hard to answer because it depends what species it is, how complicated it is…’ She continues by explaining that ‘…if I’ve been working on a similar group and I have a good idea of the animal in my head I can be more efficient that way, whereas if it’s a completely random species it’ll take a bit longer and I’ll have to start each one afresh.’ Ever the scientist, Lindsay developed a strategic methodology for painting with maximum efficiency without compromising quality. Where possible, species were grouped by similar features and in some cases, painting occurred layer by layer across multiple images. Of all the ray species painted, the giant stingaree (Plesiobatis daviesi) was Lindsay’s favourite; it ‘…came out exactly how I envisioned it, and I was like, yeah, I think I nailed that one.’

I’ve always enjoyed the creative arts since I was a child. Seeing Lindsay’s artwork, reading her research papers and listening to her approach and views on conservation have only emboldened my long-standing belief that science and the creative arts are very much complementary – they’re not all that different. Like artists, truly great scientists challenge ideas. With stunning creativity and by thinking outside the box, scientists are often able to answer some of the fascinating questions we have about our world.

The giant stingaree.  Images:   Bineesh. K. K [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons (left) & Lindsay Marshall as seen in  Rays of the World  (2016), CSIRO Publishing (right).

The giant stingaree. Images: Bineesh. K. K [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons (left) & Lindsay Marshall as seen in Rays of the World (2016), CSIRO Publishing (right).

Art can also complement science, helping to communicate concepts and issues in a manner that is engaging and appealing to a much broader audience. If we take the conservation of rays (or any species for that matter) as an example, the science of taxonomy provides us with evidence as to what species we have, what species we’re losing and where to direct conservation efforts. The artwork accompanies the taxonomy and serves a functional purpose, providing detailed and accurate images from which to identify species in the field. For me, I think that art’s biggest strength is that it speaks to everyone in their language. No matter where you’re from or what level of education you might possess, Lindsay’s art is able to bring each of the world’s ray species to life, showcasing their sublime beauty and shining rays of light on otherwise unknown or obscure animals.

Rays are sadly in serious trouble. At the very least, this book invites the reader or casual browser to truly appreciate the diversity of such magnificent creatures. RoW is both a field guide and a piece of art. To me, rays are a perfect manifestation of form, shape, grace and beauty. However, unlike most masterpieces, I’d much rather see rays alive and well long into the future than relegated to a museum of wonders passed.

For more information about Lindsay and her artwork, visit

This book belongs on your bookshelf... if you love natural history art, snorkelling, diving, and animal diversity. 

Head to the CSIRO Publishing website to purchase your copy. 

Leonardo Guida

Following a childhood love for sharks, Leo recently completed his PhD at Monash University investigating the effects of fishing on shark and ray populations. He is Director of Community Operations for Wild Melbourne.

You can find him on Twitter at @ElasmoBro.

Banner image courtesy of NOAA's National Ocean Service (Stingray at Sunrise) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Time + love = the wildlife art of Rachel Hollis.

The wildlife here is just so varied and colorful. Seeing it through British eyes was amazing. I loved it.

In the cities here, the wildlife is almost on your doorstep, you don’t have to go far to get to a National Park. Whereas, you know London – nature seems to be squeezed out of it.

Ian: Last month I was privileged to interview three amazing, up-and-coming wildlife artists about their work. In previous posts, Milly Formby and Kate Cranney talked about their art. This week’s post features the beautiful drawings of Rachel Hollis.

Rachel: I’m really pleased when I’ve drawn something that has a real likeness to what I am trying to illustrate but, at the same time, I’m not trying to get a photo-realist picture.

I want to create something that lets you see the character of what I’m drawing and something that triggers an emotional response in people: something they’ve seen before or that reminds them of their childhood or where they used to live.

Sometimes I think a drawing looks finished but I just know there’s something left that needs to be done. I’ll leave it there for a day or two and I’ll keep looking at it, and then suddenly I’ll think, “hang on, that needs to be changed.” It’ll just stand out.

It’s a feeling. You’ve got to give it a few days to realize it, but once those final details are in, then I know: that’s it.

I’m from the UK originally and we lived in Spain before we came to Australia.

I’ve always had a love for art and nature, but my wildlife drawings didn’t really come to life until I’d traveled more and had been to some stunning places and seen different species of birds and animals. Those experiences really encouraged me to start connecting the two: the wildlife and my art.

It’s only this year that I’ve started drawing wildlife, it’s still quite new for me.

Before I moved to Australia I mostly painted people in watercolor. My wildlife work is mainly in pencil and I haven’t tried wildlife in watercolour yet.

You never stop learning as an artist. You always try new techniques and different types of inspiration. I’m still learning.

When I’ve drawn something that I’m really happy with, I tend to put a little bit more extra time and love into it as well. Whereas if I’m struggling with a piece – I’m enjoying the process but maybe I don’t put as much emotional energy into it. And I think people can see that.

I’d encourage new artists to get out in nature and to find something they really enjoy – whether its birds or insects or anything – something specific that really touches them and moves them, and to use that in their art.

When you put a lot of love and time into something, it works out better.

All illustrations are by Rachel Hollis, used with permission. You can view more of Rachel’s work at her web site. Many thanks to all three artists for their enthusiastic conversation. The original transcript has been edited and condensed to improve readability.

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Beautiful like a blowfly: Kate Cranney’s wildlife art

I love trying to share how surprisingly beautiful ugly things can be – [like] centipedes crawling through the stomach of a dead sheep.

Ian: Last month I was privileged to interview three amazing, up-and-coming wildlife artists about their work. Last week’s post showcased Milly Formby. In this post, Kate Cranney talks about her love of nature and drawing. Stay tuned for next week’s instalment.

Kate: I grew up on a farm in western Queensland. I loved art as a kid, and I always loved being creative. I think the title pages on my projects in primary school were far more elaborate than the contents they held. Mum and dad always encouraged us to look closely at nature: at bower bird nests and cocoons and snake skins.

Growing up on a farm during the drought, there were lots of carcasses and flyblown sheep and dead fish in the dams. Maybe I was a little insensitive to, you know, how gross that might seem to other people, but I was always curious about that stuff. It was intriguing: seeing centipedes crawling through the stomach of a dead sheep.

I moved to Melbourne to study art but then I missed science so much that I changed my degree to a Masters of Botany. My artwork is focused on insects and fish; I do fine ink drawings with collage and watercolour. I started drawing with ink when I was taking public transport to uni. I couldn’t study on the ferry and bus or I’d get car-sick, so I drew.

I enjoy doing works that are aesthetically pleasing and educational as well. I’m working on a series called “Drawn to Science”. I’ll interview a research scientist and then do a drawing of their study subject. Recently I’ve been working on a project on insect ecology. Flies are beaut-i-ful underneath a microscope: they have metallic greens and blues and patterned wings. They’re stunning.

My favourite type of drawing is when I don’t know what I’m going to do before I start. Suddenly I’ll draw something and it’ll be something that I saw yesterday without realizing it. I think I store up memories of things that I’ve seen.

Paul Klee said, “drawing is taking a line for a walk” and I love the spontaneity of that. In a similar vein, I think the joy in creating makes it far easier for me to part with the work because I know that I had such a lovely time with that piece of paper.

You can draw wherever you are – when you’re on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere when you’re traveling. I always make sure I have access to pen and paper so that it’s always there.

I’m so happy to have art as part of my life now. It’s a core part of me. I squeeze it in – in the corners of the week. If I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t be nearly as happy.

All illustrations are by Kate Cranney, used with permission. You can view more of Kate’s work at her web site. Many thanks to all three artists for their enthusiastic conversation. The original transcript has been edited and condensed to improve readability.

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