Saturday, March 20, 2010

Painting Insects from Specimens

I started an insect collection while taking an entomology course as a grad student at the University of Michigan. Since then, I've continued to add specimens from time to time, mainly when I come across something interesting by chance.

I've often felt conflicted by the ethics of insect collection. Some view it as a needless waste of an insect's life, and that one ought to collect photographs of insects rather than the insects themselves. But from an artistic perspective, there is really no equivalent to appreciating the intricacies of an insect's colors, patterns, and minute features when drawing from an actual specimen. In my own mind, I justify my collecting in that the act of drawing and painting from specimens heightens my appreciation for the creatures, which in turn translates to others' appreciation when viewing my work. I'm always careful not to collect population sensitive or environmentally threatened insects.

I most enjoy drawing Odonates (dragonflies) and Lepidopterans (moths and butterflies). Dragonflies' iridescent colors that make them so attractive often fade when they are deceased, so it is helpful to have the specimen for drawing body structures and a photo for accurate colors.

This is a male Cecropia moth painted with gouache on black paper - my first experiment using gouache. I painted it from a specimen I collected in the forest behind my house. Besides having very large antennae, I know that it is a male because when I found it, it was mating with another moth on the forest floor. I watched them for over an hour, taking photos and even video. When I came back to check on them later in the evening, they were being attacked by slugs. Not wanting them to be eaten alive before they'd had a chance to reproduce, I moved them to a safer location, still conjoined. In the morning, they were separated, and I decided to collect the male, knowing that his life's mission had been accomplished. The female seemed weak, but I placed her on a crab apple limb (apparently a larval food source, according to a moth guide) in hopes she'd live long enough to lay her eggs. A few days later, I found her body in the tall grass below the apple tree. Her abdomen was damaged and had eggs attached to it, and I could see that many of her eggs had hatched. So hopefully, her life cycle had been completed. I had not been planning on it, but I collected her as a specimen too.

Some photos of the mating Cecropia moths:

Here are a few dragonflies I painted from specimens. I also used field guides to guide color choices.

Amberwings are very diminutive dragonflies. Their wings are like stained glass, and you often see them skimming close to the surface of a pond or lake.

Wandering glider:

I vividly remember the day I collected this Wandering glider. Actually, Brian is the one who netted it. We were walking in the Nichol's Arboretum in Ann Arbor, MI, when we noticed this glider flying a beat on the edge of an open prairie restoration area. It was a sunny spring day, and Brian mentioned that he thought Wandering glider's were migratory, which is kind of cool. Brian has incredible dragonfly identification skills, and I'm always impressed at his ability to discern them, even at a distance. The beat this glider was flying was fairly high in the air, but Brian was patient, and finally netted it when it swooped in a litter lower. The specimen kept its colors very well.

Black saddlebag:
Black saddlebags get their name from the dark area on the hind wings near the abdomen.

Tiger swallowtail butterfly, not painted from a specimen:

I remember chasing this swallowtail all over the Institute for Fisheries research pond facility in Saline, Michigan. Butterflies may seem like they fly haphazardly, but anyone who has ever tried to catch one knows that this is certainly not the case. This butterfly evaded me for quite some time. The painting was done before I collected this specimen, so I only used a field guide for the painting. In my opinion, the painting is fairly lacking in detail and character, so I think this underscores just how much having a specimen for reference can lend to this type of painting.

If you like paintings of insects from specimens, maybe even so much that you'd like to own some, you're in luck because I have some dragonfly cards for sale on my Etsy site!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Can't Wait to Paint Another Mural

My husband and I have some major renovations planned for our home, so until we accomplish this, I've been holding back my desire to paint a mural in our home. In our last place of residence, I painted a deep sea ocean floor mural in our basement. The hardest part of selling that house (besides the actually selling it part) was leaving that mural behind. The new owners said they would keep it, which is some comfort.

The mural in progress:

The finished mural:

In the same house, I had refinished one of our bathrooms with an adapted design from a Dover Pictura Art Nouveau book that I really really love. I plan to remodel the bathroom in our current home in a similar way, but probably not for awhile.

The Dover Pictura Art Nouveau picture the design was based on:

Cabinet in progress:

Finished cabinet:

Some electric fixtures:

I even painted the floor:

I've painted two murals in my eldest sister's home. One we call the "underwater room". She traveled to Australia and went scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, so this room commemorates that experience for her.

It's an oddly shaped room, so difficult to get good pictures:

This was a key to the fish that I created for her:

The room next door to this is the "Mardi Gras" room. My sister lived in New Orleans for a brief period of time, and she really loves Mardi Gras, so this room has a few different New Orleans themes in it -- Rodrigue's Blue Dog, Bourbon Street, and Jazz.

Felt Rugs - My New Obsession

Lately I've really been enjoying exploring different techniques in wet and needle felting. Between my sister's flock of Montadale ewes and a friends flock of Tunis and Tunis-Churro crosses, as well as a few random fleeces I acquire from time to time, I have access to a practically unlimited amount of fiber to work with, which is awesome. The aspect of fiber art that I really enjoy is being able to start with a dirty piece of raw material and take it though the steps of skirting (sorting good fleece from not so good fleece), washing (primarily to remove excess lanolin), dyeing, carding or combing, and finally felting. It's a long, labor intensive process, but it's also very gratifying. Here are some pics of some of my first forays into felted rug making.

This was the first rug I ever wet felted. The base fiber is a nice gray-brown Border Leiscester fleece that I picked up off of an add in the paper. I needle felted the tree design on top. It is modeled after an ancient Sugar Maple that has been growing in my parent's front yard for the last 200 years or so. The finished piece is roughly 2' by 2.5'.
The next rug I made was born out of a recent infatuation with American eels. American eels have an amazing life history and are incredibly beautiful creatures, if you ever have the luck to see one up close. My husband, who works in an aquarium, introduced me to one of their resident eels by allowing me to feed it. I placed my hand in it's tank and made an OK circle shape with my fingers. The curious eel swam through my fingers and rubbed against my hand, which was an amazing experience for me. It's skin had a very velvety feel, and it's movements were so fluid. Well, that was enough to make me want to memorialize American eels in a piece of art. The design I chose is loosely based on a design in a Dover Pictura Art Nouveau book that I absolutely love and often look to for inspiration.

The wet felted base is a blend of Tunis and Churro-Tunis cross that I dyed orange and red and then carded together. The eels are needle felted on top with Montadale fiber that I also hand dyed.

The rug in progress:

The finished rug is roughly 2' by 3'. I couldn't bare to walk on it, so it hangs on one of our walls.
For Christmas last year, I decided (about 1 month before the holiday) to make a bunch of rugs for some of the women in my family. So, working for four weeks straight-out in all my spare time, I cranked out 6 rugs. One of the rugs was almost completely finished when I decided that I wondered what would happen if I put the whole thing in the washing machine to speed up the fulling (this is the second stage of felting where the fiber becomes very dense and firm). I had read books warning me not to do this and that it would create uneven felting, but curiosity overcame me. Experimenting is an important part of the creative process, but maybe not such a good idea when Christmas is only a few days away... So, I ruined that one enough to not want to give it away, but I salvaged it some by stretching and trimming off the edges.

Here's some shots of a few of the finished rugs. They are all 100% Montadale fiber and about 2' by 3'. The designs were all simple geometric design. The circle designs were inspired by an album cover I saw in a store (I'm not sure who the artist was -- the result isn't actually anything like the album cover anyways), and the line design is like a quilting technique I've seen before.

Willie didn't want me to give this one away!