Val Kells talks about her work on Ocracoke’s community radio WOVV 90.1 FM. Photo: P. Vankevich

Editor’s note: Val Kells is partnering with Candice Cobb and and Melanie Wall of Bread & Butter Screen Printing to sell T-shirts.  All profits will go to the Outer Banks Community Foundation for Ocracoke hurricane relief. The design is at the end of this story. For more info and how to order, click here.

By Peter Vankevich

Marine science illustrator Val Kells is one of those enviable individuals who has built a successful career combining two passions.

Kells, a longtime Ocracoke visitor who lives in Free Union, Virginia, is the illustrator of “A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes from Maine to Texas.” 

Co-authored with Kent Carpenter who edited and fact-checked the text, the book contains 1,076 of Kells’ meticulous watercolor illustrations.

Over a 30-year career, in addition to book publishing, she has created more than 2,000 illustrations for a wide variety of clients including, museums, nature centers, and public aquariums, as well as limited edition fish prints.

Saltwater and freshwater fishing is in her blood, having grown up in Rye, New York, that overlooks the Long Island Sound, which fostered her love of the water and the creatures that inhabit it, especially fishes.

Her grandfather taught her to fish on Candlewood Lake, Connecticut.

“So, I had freshwater fishing and saltwater fishing as a girl,” she said during a recent interview on the island. 

But her life changed when she attended SeaCamp on Pine Key in the Florida Keys.

“That experience exploded my mind,” Kells said. “I was in love with fishes as a little girl but going down to the Keys was a whole different world. And my passion was just lit.”

Her artistic talents were recognized early.

“I won quite a few competitions, although I’m not a competitive artist,” she said. Her mother supplemented her talent with local art classes, and Kells also went to New York City for classes at Parsons School of Design.

Her style–highly detailed renderings of her subjects–didn’t impress all of her teachers.

“I wanted to draw every little vein of every little leaf,” she said. “I wanted my artwork to be as exact and precise as possible.”

A Longspine Squirrelfish. ‘Very technical and colorful,’ Kells says.

But her art teachers discouraged that.

“They hadn’t seen any kind of artwork like mine and they wanted me to be big and bold and impressionistic,” she said.

Because of their discouragement, she lost confidence in her artistic abilities, and rather than pursue art, she elected to major in marine biology at Boston University.

Between semesters, she joined a crew of scientists and students for the Ocean Research and Education Society (ORES) on the “Regina Maris,” a barquentine square rigger, and set out to map the migration routes of humpback whales.

The two-month summer project took her to Greenland, the Arctic and Newfoundland. 

She liked it so much, that, when offered to continue with ORES, she withdrew from college and set sail for the Caribbean.

After that, she moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. While there she heard great things about the marine science program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and, as luck would have it, enrolled in its newly formed science illustration program. There, she found her calling and an instructor who finally encouraged her style of art.

Her finely detailed and aesthetically pleasing works start with a bit of genius.

“I have a photographic memory, for better for worse,” she said. “So, everything that I’ve pulled out of the ocean, I remember what it looks like.” Next is the extensive research.

“I use photographs, look at specimens and rely on the written descriptions from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (an open access digital library for biodiversity literature and archives),” she said.

From there she creates a pencil drawing on tissue paper, which is like an architectural drawing. “If I get the preliminary drawing right, then the illustration is going to be right.”

Exactitude in her illustrations involves proportions and counting scales and their patterns.

“The number of scales along the lateral line might be the one ID feature that distinguishes a fish species,” she said.

Then she begins her watercolor painting.

“I turn on my music and I just go into a Zen mode,” she said. “Since I’ve done all my background research, I already know what the fish looks like, so I don’t really have to think about the painting.”

A sheepshead illustration by Val Kells

Kells is a bit of pioneer in the publishing world.

The prestigious Johns Hopkins University Press is the country’s oldest running university publisher. Noted for its academic publishing, “A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes From Maine to Texas” was their first field guide.

Since then, Johns Hopkins has published other field guides including “A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes: From Alaska to California” which Kells co-authored and illustrated, and “A Field Guide to Fishes of Chesapeake Bay” which Kells illustrated. This book has been available on the island at Books to be Red, but, unfortunately, is currently closed due damage caused by Hurricane Dorian. 

Most recently she illustrated “Tunas and Billfishes of the World,” published in August, and co-authored and illustrated “Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Virginia,” due out in September.

Her next book will be “A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes: From Bermuda, Bahamas and Caribbean Sea.”

So why are field guides so popular?

“I think humans have a natural curiosity to understand what’s around them and to name it,” Kells said. “Last weekend, we pulled up a seine near Springer’s Point and noticed there was something weird in it. It turned out to be a Plumed Scorpion fish and it was way out of its range.”

But Kells knew what it was: that species is in her book (page 180).


One of Val Kells’ favorite fishing spots is Ocracoke Island. Photo courtesy of Val Kells
To purchase your own piece of Val Kells art on a T-shirt to benefit Ocracoke post-Hurricane Dorian, go to
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