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!

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