My short bio: Excerpt from my website, : is home for fish illustrator Joseph R. Tomelleri. Joe licenses his fish drawings for advertisements, magazines, ID guides, books, websites, posters, signage, clothing, etc. Visit the Shop for more than 60 fine art prints and for original art, including 18 limited edition prints of trout and salmon.

Can't find your fish? Then try the giclée print page for a listing of more than 1000 fishes that can be produced as fine art with state-of-the-art giclee printing. If your need is for reproduction rights to specific illustrations for a special project, check out the fish list on the licensing page for a listing of Joe's 1100+ scientific illustrations of North American fishes.

In-Fisherman Article about me

Science-Friday Article about my process

My Proof:

Feel free to ask me almost anything about my process or artwork!

Note: I, his son Sam, may be answering some questions I know the answers to.

P.S.: My dad's amateur YT channel with fishing related videos.

Edit: Going to bed now, but if there are more questions in the morning I'll do my best to answer them.

Comments: 71 • Responses: 30  • Date: 

AndSaul8 karma

Your work is great! You should be proud! How long had you been drawing before you decided to stick with fish?

americanfishes5 karma

Thank you for the kind comments. I've been drawing and painting since grade school, but my first scientific illustrations of fish were done at age 27. Like anything, it took a long time to get accomplished at it though - I think maybe at least 100 illustrations before they were really acceptable to scientists.

Trish-the-Stalker1 karma

As someone who is 28 with an art background I have to ask where do I go to attempt to do scientific images? I love biology and while I was never good enough to get a masters I do know the basics.

I know the AMA is probably closed but this is the coolest AMA I have seen in a while so I hope you do reply.

americanfishes2 karma

I would say your subjects are as close as your backyard. Always draw from the real thing if possible, there is infinitely more information in the real thing as opposed to a photograph -- it's better science and better art too. Think how beautiful insects look if you can paint them 10X life size, they can be spectacular art and science, and 95% of them have never been illustrated in color (estimate of course!).

anthonywall5 karma

What's one thing changed the most about your job from when you started to now that you like and one that you don't like?

americanfishes7 karma

Great question! When I started, I had to have a photographer make 4 x 5" color transparencies of the images in order to get them reproduced properly, then those were taken to a someone with a drum scanner to make color separations for publication. So anytime a magazine wanted to publish images, I had to send them transparencies and they had to make their own scans to a specific size for the magazine, and output the film, strip it, etc. Now when I finish a drawing, I can scan it right here on a flatbed scanner at 600 dpi, then I only have to send a digital image via dropbox or email and any publisher can use it at any size they choose. It's so much cheaper and so much more efficient for both me and the publisher -- so they use many more color images than they used to in books and magazines. What I don't like is the proliferation of copies and people using images without permission, particularly on products for sale. That comes with the territory I guess. At least online, every image appears to be "free" -- more folks should ask for permission.

SheepleMagazine5 karma

After perusing your website (which is very nice on mobile, btw): why do all the fish go to the left? Is this an industry standard?

americanfishes17 karma Jordan Dunseth designed it, and since I'm over 50, I know next to nothing about this web stuff.

Now, as far as why all the fish face to the left, this is absolutely a standard! It's called "left-lateral view." In the 1800's, when scientists got serious about having illustrators draw accurate pictures, it became a standard that any tissue samples or dissection or scales pulled for aging be done on the right side of the fish, that is, with the fish snout facing the right of the viewer. So all drawings were done from the left-side of the fish by convention to avoid having to contend with the damaged tissues, etc.

ottoman_jerk3 karma

what do you do for flatfishes like halibut and sole? are they always "topside"?

americanfishes3 karma

Yes, good point, I don't want to draw the left-lateral of a right-eye flounder -- so those are drawn facing the right. The left-lateral of course would be essentially white with no eyes! But the left-eye flounders work out well since they're already facing to the left on topside. I had to draw quite a few of these for a recent project on Fishes of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea by Ted Pietsch and Jay Orr. We're almost done with that project. I hope they don't come up with another flatfish in the meantime as they are hard to draw and not a lot fun for me!

ottoman_jerk1 karma

yeah, but don't you feel like picasso when you paint the eyes?

americanfishes2 karma

Almost, they do look pretty goofy.

ottoman_jerk1 karma

do you do squid at all? I once had the privilege of breaking down a 5 foot humboldt squid, and it was a pretty cool looking creature.

americanfishes1 karma

No squids. I'm about 99.9% fishes. I had to do a couple of crayfish last year and that was interesting. Those big squids are awesome, I have a great book about the giant squid, I think by Richard Ellis. Amazing facts as well as mythology.

orangejulius3 karma

What are some of the biggest challenges facing endangered fish in the southwest United States?

americanfishes3 karma

I've collected fishes a lot in the southwest -- New Mexico, Nevada, California, Texas, Utah, Colorado, and a tiny bit in Arizona, and a LOT in northern Mexico. Most of the problems I see are due to dewatering of streams, be it through surface water irrigation or center-pivot irrigation; and another MAJOR problem is introduction of non-native predators such as green sunfish, flathead cats, largemouth bass, or even trout. They can seriously reduce or even wipe-out a stream population in short order. Another problem for SW natives is flow regimes established by dams and the cold water habitats created by drawing water off the bottom of reservoirs. It surely makes for good trout fishing but is really hard on the native fauna. Lastly I guess slack water in some of the reservoirs greatly reduces spawning habitat for some species, but I'm getting too general now!

tocko_supreme3 karma

Do you like fish sticks?

americanfishes12 karma

Kanye West and I both like fish sticks but not for breakfast.

NotANestleShill3 karma

what types of fishing do you like? Has interacting with fish this intimately helped you gain a sense of understanding behind the issues facing them today, such as pollution and conservation?

americanfishes4 karma

I love to fish for Mexican trout with a flyrod, or more often with an electroshocker, since they are often so rare that it takes that kind of equipment to determine absence or presence in many of the streams. As for here at home, I like to flyfish for carp in the local streams.

There is no question that the fishing I've done has given me a much greater understanding of the problems facing native species. Many species are endangered or uncommon because they have very narrow tolerances to environmental variables, be it water temps, siltation, water clarity, and the list goes on and on. But more often, widespread species become species of special concern because of broad degradation of habitat. For example, the Plains minnow is gone from much of it's Great Plains habitat because (we think) the typical high spring flows that suspended it's eggs is essentially gone. Since I've collected most of the specimens I've drawn, I've had the good fortune to collect and travel with the scientists that study all these fishes -- it's a fantastic learning opportunity -- one really HAS to learn the ecology it in order to know where to find the fish!

sneed36683 karma

What did you study in college?

americanfishes6 karma

I have a B.S. in Biology and also a M.S. in Biology with emphasis in Range Management of all things. I am really much more of a botanist than an ichthyologist, and Limnology was really as close as I got to a fish class in college! So obviously I believe that if you have a passion for something, you can learn quite a bit on your own. However, I am deeply in debt to the many fisheries biologists and professors that have taught me more in the field than I could otherwise have learned from a book! I'd list some of these folks but it'd be too long and somebody would get inadvertently omitted!

SheepleMagazine3 karma

Do you eat fish? Do you fish?

And more seriously, how did you get into this field, and how did you rise to the top of the field?

americanfishes5 karma

I started illustrating fishes as a graduate student in the mid-80's. Some other biology students and I did a local interest book for Fort Hays State University (Kansas!) and I drew the fish pictures. I didn't really know what I was doing at the time, but always had a penchant for drawing -- something I must have been born with, lucky! There are several things that help with the accuracy/precision of the drawings. Most importantly, drawing from actual specimens of fish and seeing those fish live in the field whenever possible. Secondly making contacts with ichthyologists and showing my work to them, generally through professional meetings. And yes, I do eat fish, but generally not those I catch!

SheepleMagazine3 karma

Thanks! Is illustrating fishes your full-time occupation now?

americanfishes4 karma

Yes, I've been full-time for almost 30 years, although there were a lot of lean years in the beginning! Computers/digital files and of course the internet have helped tremendously.

orangejulius3 karma

What are some of the problems that we might not know about associated with invasive species of trout in California's rivers and streams?

americanfishes3 karma

I don't know if I'm qualified to tell you what you might not know, and a California fisheries biologist would be more qualified than me. Of course all the universal problems come to mind -- hybridization and dilution of the gene pool and loss of the original strains of trout that evolved for those systems is principal I think. Diseases and competition with native trout would be the other main problems I could think of off the top of my head.

Ego_testicle2 karma

Joe, love your work. I get the trout of North America wall calendar every year. Off the wall question, do you have a favorite char species? To me, there is nothing more beautiful than a fully colored up brook trout or arctic char.

americanfishes4 karma

Wow, I love char, but they have too damn many scales it seems! They are very difficult to draw and keep the subtlety of the scales where it needs to be. My favorite I guess is indeed the arctic char, probably because of the difficulty we went through to get specimens to draw for the Trout and Salmon of North America. In southern Alaska they are pretty uncommon, being mostly dolly vardens down there, so we had to grab a float plane and go across the cook inlet to Upper Tazimina Lake, but the clouds and the weather didn't much cooperate. The pilot wanted to take us somewhere else to catch some "reds" and dollies, he just couldn't understand why it had to be these out of the way char in some obscure lake. But in the end we were able to fly under the clouds and get to our lake which indeed had arctic char, small, but just what we needed. They are all beautiful fish! Find some of Paul Vecsei's work on Canadian char, he's drawn many specimens for a Canadian project, really nice!

__--___---____----2 karma

Hello there Joe, Sam. Fellow biologist here, I enjoy field guides for both artwork and information.

What's your favorite field guide?

I'll crawl over your provided links later, but could you tell me of any parameters or specifications on having your art considered scientific?

I know how hard it is to photograph specimens, especially fish. With the quality of cameras today, do you think guides will ever shift towards photography over artwork?

americanfishes3 karma

for freshwater it has to be Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes by Page and Burr. The descriptions and especially the range maps are really well done. That was a huge undertaking.
As for scientific, a specimen needs to be carefully measured to get the proportions/insertion of the fins, etc. correct, and the fins need to have the correct number of rays/spines. Scientific to me doesn't necessarily mean having the exact number of scales on the side of the specimen. For some species, this is essentially impossible to accomplish (trout/salmon/char especially), because there are always irregularities in the scales and scale rows and they are so small as to sometimes be obscured in preserved specimens. So what I strive to do instead is get the number of scale rows correct. If my brook trout has 223 rows of scales above the lateral line, that's my goal in the drawing - there are also several points along the way where I need to count the number of scales in the row, for instance the row of scales from the insertion of the dorsal fin to the lateral line may have 39 scales so I'll put 39 in there (or maybe 40!). However, I don't count the number of scales in EVERY single row on that specimen, that would be insane! I will only count maybe 5 or 6 specific rows, then interpolate the remaining rows that are in-between -- at least for the fish with the higher scale counts. The sizes of the scales is very important because some species of basses for example will have smaller scales on the cheek than on the opercle, and on many species the scale sizes will vary from front to back of the fish, and such characteristics are really diagnostic of the species, at least to a scientist. Some fish with larger scales - minnows for example - can be drawn with the exact number of scales as per the specimen. It's important to note however, that a species varies from fish to fish, and locale to locale in meristics; i.e. the number of scales, fin-rays, etc. A brookie might have (and I'm making these numbers up!) anywhere from 210 - 250 lateral rows of scales.

I was just in Mexico with Dr. Dave Neely who is a wonderful fish photographer and an ichthyologist, and has photographed many hundreds of specimens for publications. I do think photography is at a point where it has become very useful for field guides, etc. Like any discipline, it still takes a lot of time to get good photos. Dave likes to "nuke" the fish in strong formalin then quickly puts it in a glass photography tank while the colors are still pretty well intact. But yes, it is much, much easier than it was 25 years ago to photo the specimens.

StereoTypo1 karma

When field guide illustrations are as detailed and accurate as your own, I find them to be infinitely more useful than a mere photograph. Even the most accurate photograph cannot match the salience of an illustration that subtly emphasizes characteristics without exaggeration.

americanfishes3 karma

The one advantage illustration still has (I think anyway) is that life colors are more accurate than freshly preserved fish, and all of the fins can still be laid out in uniformity showing the rays and differences etc., between species. Somehow they seem to look better when they appear all together - at least I guess it's the uniformity. Of course there is always going to be a little bit of bias from the artist, no matter how small - so I try really hard to avoid that, but you know.... and there are just some great photographers out there!

stemsomale1 karma

Is it difficult to illustrate fish that you've never seen in real life before?

americanfishes2 karma

It's best to get a specimen, photographs, etc. all at one time in the field. When one has to draw strictly from old museum specimens, you'll be limited by the quality of the specimen, quite often they're pretty bad. A good museum specimen (these are preserved in 70% ethanol) is no more difficult to draw from but the color in the drawing will never be as good as it would be if you'd seen the fish alive.

WhiteHarem1 karma

Do You Know The Timeline Of History?Past,Present,Future?

americanfishes1 karma


vadkert1 karma

How does one get into the field of wildlife/textbook illustration? Do you need a certain level of credentials or formal education, or is it all about a portfolio?

You say 'illustrator' and people often think children's books, and advice is geared that way, I haven't been able to find much in this area. Basically: how do you go about making this your job?

americanfishes3 karma

For science anyway, go where the scientists are! That might be an annual convention, where they typically have vendors that setup booths and sell or advertise products to the scientist. You do need some background in your subjects. You don't have to be an expert, but you do have to know a lot about your subjects to be able to talk with a scientist or author at or close to their level. Sometimes you will see things in a specimen that they never see if you are good at observing. So a lot of this can be obtained on your own from study, it doesn't have to be from a university. However, it would be an immense help to have a biology degree if you were say to illustrate insects or crayfish, etc. You will most likely have to draw quite a few specimens before you master the medium that you choose, or if you've already mastered the medium that's about 3/4 of the battle, it will take a bit of practice to master the subject. I always wanted to do a children's book but never had the time. I'm probably not qualified to give advice on that - you may have seen the publication called "Artist's Market" though I haven't seen one in some time and don't know if it's still viable! Master the medium, do your homework on your subjects, get a website with lots of big, beautiful images, and again, go to where the scientists are (or even a convention of State fish and wildlife officials) and show your work. Someone at these conventions is writing a book, or is editor of a magazine, etc., and needs artwork.

wattohhh1 karma

Do you paint or sketch for leisure? If so, so you have a preferred art style or medium?

americanfishes2 karma

I haven't done that for a long time, mostly because I have so much to do otherwise. But I particularly admire artists like Al Agnew, Larry Tople, and Mark Susinno for their works which to me are more difficult than what I do because they are better at working images into a composition. Sometimes I do yearn to draw or paint in a looser style because of the freedom it would provide, but I really can't do that now at least not with the scientific work. Watercolor is a beautiful medium I think, and watercolor landscapists can really be accomplished artists, it is I think very difficult to master so I can appreciate the time and effort of someone who is very good at it. Kind of like an iceberg, you see only the 10% on the canvas, and not the 90% effort and trial and error that went into it.

wattohhh1 karma

Thanks for the reply. I admire your work!

americanfishes2 karma

Thank you.

SKatieRo1 karma

If you had an aquarium, what would you stock it with?

americanfishes3 karma

My good collecting buddy had a juvenile alligator gar in an aquarium for years, now that was pretty cool. For some reason, I'm partial to bowfins and wouldn't mind one of those if I could ever find a little one! I kept a juvenile flathead for a year or so too, he would eat as many goldfish as I could put in the aquarium, until I thought he would burst! Love the predators. I remember Ralph and Lisa Cutter raised trout from eggs in a refrigerated aquarium, more trouble than I would want to take on, but what a cool experiment.

Oncorhynchus_nerka1 karma

I have one of your paintings on the back window of my truck! (A Maine IF&W brook trout sticker). How does it feel knowing that thousands of people around here have your work on their vehicles?

americanfishes3 karma

Well that's flattering. I didn't know the sticker was that widespread, although yes, I did some artwork for Maine back in 1999, and sold them some existing fish art to use as they wanted. We got to collect a few oddball fish there including a landlocked atlantic salmon, and my favorite from there: a Sunapee trout from Flood's Pond. That's still the only sunapee I've ever seen alive. Fun stuff! Great place.

Oncorhynchus_nerka1 karma

The Sunapee is one of my bucket list fish (and the only Maine salmonid I've never caught). I love catching landlocked salmon, this is one from Rangeley Lake last year.

americanfishes2 karma

Yes, there's a pretty narrow window for the Sunapee to be in shallow water. Your landlocked is just as I remember, at first glance they are silvery, but really have a lot of beautiful subtle colors in that "silver."

rmpocock1 karma

Has european perch (perca fluviatilis) ever been transplanted to any US bodies of water or has serious consideration ever been given to same? it would seem ideal for the great lakes, as I believe they are genetically the same as yellow perch (perca flavescens) and the benifits would seem to out weigh any negative environmental impacts, which seem from a sport fisherman's point of view to be minimal.

americanfishes2 karma

I haven't heard that any have been transplanted and have never been requested to draw one although I have done a LOT of invasives. I doubt with the current push for natives that the European perch would be (although the Zander seems to have made it over!) particularly because of the possibility of hybridization with the native Yellow perch. The current thinking must be that they are still genetically distinct or they would have been synonymized and have the same name. With the DNA research what it is, scientists are more and more able to discern genetic uniqueness among related fishes, and are wanting to keep even different strains of a species separate from each other. The Pike is a good example, as is the brown trout which has now been split into (I think) more than a dozen species.

rmpocock1 karma

I see your point and in view of the current problems we are experiencing with invasives here in the great lakes (I live by St. Clair) share your concerns. But in terms of the hybridizations that have occurred with pike, musky, and some panfish the results seem beneficial over all, basically.. distinct populations of both species. I know it would have to be weighed Verrrrry carefully. Just wondering your views/input. One of those things I keep meaning to run by a DNR biologist when I run into one. lol. saw your creds and thought i'd run it by you. Tight line bro!

americanfishes1 karma

Yeah, it's usually a big carp on the tight fly line too. We couldn't stop them from taking over, so now we just catch 'em for fun.

forava71 karma

what was your favorite fish to illustrate? which one did you have the most trouble with?

americanfishes3 karma

Any Mexican trout would be my favorite, mostly because they're beautiful, so rare, but great fun to research and to collect. The most difficult fishes would be saltwater on the average. There are many hard ones, but especially the kelp poacher (see it here: , the spiny lumpsucker, and others with too many protruberances to count. Sturgeons and their many saltwater relatives are also difficult because the many scutes (bony plates) on them that need to be positioned correctly.

goin_nil1 karma

Coke or Pepsi?

Mac or PC or Linux?

Android or iPhone?

eBooks or real books?

Reality or Virtual Reality?

Istartedthewar1 karma

I know I can answer this one for my dad:


Mac, but he understands PC's are better value.

He uses a windows phone for some reason.

Real books.


americanfishes1 karma

And speaking of computers, one of the most useful thing any illustrator can learn now is Adobe Photoshop and perhaps even Adobe Illustrator. Very valuable. You might get left behind if you don't know Photoshop.

Serpes1 karma

I've seen your work many times as a biology student, so thank you for the inspiration, and for your contribution to my education!

As a scientist and amateur artist trying to break into the world of science illustration, I have a few questions for you:

  1. How and how long did it take you to master your technique and medium? Are you self-taught, or have you had professional training? Did you ever consider using other mediums in your work?

  2. What is the extent of your scientific training/background?

  3. Are you a part of any professional organizations for science illustrators?

  4. What is the job market like for natural science illustrators? Is the work secure?

  5. How much do you rely on computers as a part of your creative/artistic method, and what programs do you use?

  6. What is your favorite piece you've ever produced? The one you're most proud of...

Sorry for the long list of questions- you are a big inspiration to me, and the career you've carved out for yourself represents a way of reconciling to one another my dual passions as a scientist and an artist. Thank you for everything you do!!

americanfishes1 karma

  1. probably at least 100 color illustrations -- taught myself, sometimes I use watercolor wash under the pencil, sometimes I'll use opaque watercolor or acrylic to bring out highlights on top of the pencil.

  2. M.S. in Biology, lots of fish collecting with a seine, fishing rod, and with electroshocker, and occasional trawl.

  3. No.

  4. I don't really know what the job market is outside of fish -- although I would suspect if you were the best at what you do, for example with insects, or crayfish, etc., you'd find steady work. My sense is that there are more jobs in medical illustrating than in scientific per se.

  5. I have an older Epson scanner that's pretty darn good, and use Adobe Photoshop to drop the background and color correct all my images, size them, prepare them for publication, etc. One can learn that through trial and error, of course there is still so much I don't know, but I'm decent at it. I also use Final Cut Pro X for movies, etc., and that's a lot of fun.

  6. Maybe a male brook trout that I collected through the ice in a mountain lake in Arizona many years ago. It's been reproduced many times, but the digital image I fear is far removed from what the original art is (which I don't have anymore).