How does a young boy raised on a farm in the Western Australian Wheatbelt end up as one of the most renowned and prolific illustrators of marine life in the world?

Roger Swainston can remember exactly what led him down this path:

“I have been drawn to wildlife since a very early age, and I have always wanted to be a natural history artist. Growing up in the bush, there was a rich diversity of wildlife. It was quite an isolated life and so that wildlife quickly became my passion. I collected all sorts of wildlife, including insects, snakes in jars of methylated spirits, and bones and skulls of all sorts,” says Roger

“As long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by illustrated guide books to birds and marine life, and any other nature guides I could get my hands on. I can distinctly remember at the age of about nine meticulously copying with coloured pencils the entire plate of raptors from Neville W Cayley’s What Bird is That? I was, and am still, fascinated by the astounding variety and complexity of our natural heritage, although these days more particularly the marine environment,” says Roger.

“Then at around 10 years of age, my family and I began making holiday camping pilgrimages to the wild south coast of Western Australia, to the Fitzgerald River National Park and other wonderful locations in the area. I discovered fishing and the ocean and began to realise there was an entirely other world to be discovered there,” says Roger.

After leaving high school, Roger Swainston went north and worked on trawlers in the Gulf of Carpentaria. He was amazed by the “wealth of life” brought up in the nets. After being introduced to scuba diving by a friend, Roger discovered he could go into the water, stay there and keep breathing: “I never really wanted to come out again!”

Roger’s beautiful illustrations feature on the Norfolk Island Wrasses stamp issue, released on 30 April 2018. The stamp issue presents two wrasse species commonly found in Emily Bay Reef, Norfolk Island: the Surge Wrasse (Thalassoma purpureum) and the Luculent Wrasse (Pseudolabrus luculentus). Roger’s detailed illustrations sit on a white background, giving them a scientific feel.

“Wrasses are one of the largest families of fish and one of the most varied. There are more than 180 species in Australian waters, and they range in size from the giant Humphead Maori Wrasse (Cheilinus undulates), which can reach nearly two metres in length, down to the tiny Flasher Wrasses which are some nine centimetres or so in length,” says Roger.

“Wrasses are one of the families of fishes which are capable of sex reversal. They have quite a complicated reproductive cycle.  Juveniles, which are often one distinct colour pattern, develop into either initial phase males or females, with another distinct colour pattern. These will live as a group dominated by one or more mature females and a terminal phase male, with again their distinct colour patterns. If the dominant male is removed, one of the mature females will change sex (and colour pattern) and become a male. This means that for any given species there are always quite a few different colour patterns and forms, sometimes leading to much confusion amongst scientists!” notes Roger.

And indeed, the brightly coloured minisheet presents a scene of wrasses that shows the number of colour variations possible from just a few species. As well as the two wrasses from the stamps, the minisheet scene also presents the Threespot Wrasse (Halichoeres trimaculatus), Inscribed Wrasse (Notolabrus inscriptus) and Green Moon Wrasse (Thalassoma lutescens).

Part of the reason for Roger’s ability to achieve such scientific accuracy in his illustrations is his study of Zoology at university.

“Studying Zoology gave me a really thorough grounding in comparative anatomy of all animals, essential when you are called upon to illustrate them. It also gave me an understanding of evolution and ecology and the forces which drive animals to adapt both behaviourally and anatomically in order to survive and prosper. It is a combination of all of these which enables me to find and portray the particular ‘character’ of an animal, and they all have exactly that – a definite and sometimes indefinable character,” says Roger.

In 1992, Roger created his business “Anima”, with his partner Catherine, as a way to organise, display and commercialise the extensive collection of illustrations he had built up over the previous decade or more. The website now contains some 3,000 illustrations and is the largest image bank of marine life illustrations in the world.

So what does it take to become a successful scientific illustrator?

“I think patience and eye for detail are essential, but perhaps more important is a thorough understanding of the subject being portrayed. A scientific illustration must bring to the fore or accentuate the important characteristics which enable correct identification of the animal or plant in question,” says Roger.

“If I am asked to illustrate a subject which is totally new to me, it necessitates a great deal of research into the entire family or group containing this subject. Only in this way can the essential characteristics which differentiate this particular subject be understood and portrayed,” says Roger.

“Fish are not the easiest of subjects to illustrate. Firstly a choice has to be made as to what exactly you wish to portray: the underwater live colour as a diver sees it? The underwater colour taken by flash photography? The colour of a specimen as most see it, from a market or similar? Or the colour of the animal just out of the water, alive with all its colour intact, even though it’s not in its element? The latter is generally my choice, as it is probably most representative,” says Roger.

While the ideal scenario is to photograph an animal just out of the water, more often Roger relies on photographic material from a wide variety of sources, including his own library. He also hunts out original scientific papers describing the species as well as other research material.

“The challenge of illustrating the wrasses for the Norfolk Island stamps was firstly one of researching the species which were actually found there, then verifying as closely as possible the actual colour forms found there. Wrasses are quite variable in colour depending on where they are found. Some with wide distributions such as the Surge Wrasse are quite different depending on their location. At one stage I contemplated a dive trip to Norfolk Island to verify for myself any regional differences, but I managed to find enough photographic material from the area to be sure enough of the colour forms. Then it was a process of preparing the anatomically accurate drawings and again this required quite a bit of library and online research. In the minisheet, I wanted to show the incredible variety both across the family of wrasses and also within a single species,” says Roger.

“I take a great deal of pleasure from my work, a lot of that is the discovery process, the research leading slowly to a better understanding of the animal, and the small pieces of information coming together,” says Roger.

“I am very much looking forward to seeing the Norfolk Island release. I think it is something quite new for Australia Post – this ‘scientific diversity of a species’ approach. I feel honoured to have been asked to produce works for stamps. I collected them when I was younger (and had quite a large collection of marine life stamps), so this is something of which I am very pleased to be a part.”

To learn more about Roger Swainston and his work, visit his website and the ANIMA image bank.

The Norfolk Island Wrasses stamp issue is available from 30 April 2018, online, at participating Post Offices and via mail order on 1800 331 794, while stocks last.

View the gallery and technical details from this issue

This article was produced at the time of publication and will not be updated.

Philatelic Team