Recently a reader commented that my painting, Fall:The Cicada, is a little, um, insect-y. Yes, I have a propensity to paint insects-lots of ’em. I have a box of dead ones just waiting for the day I get around to painting them, so I thought I’d explain why. About the same time, I was encouraging a friend who is also an artist to start blogging about her works-in-progress. I don’t have any works-in-progress at the moment, but I figured why not follow my own advice, so here you go: a post about painting insects.
I enjoy insects as subjects because they’re like tiny jewels, each one with many different textures and colors, and many of the effects – translucency, iridescence, reflections, etc. – are a real challenge to paint. When doing insects, I try to do as much as possible with transparent watercolor, then go back in with gouache (opaque watercolor). Here, all the hairs and bristles are painted with a very fine brush in yellow and white gouache, as are a few of the highlights on the wings. The reflections in the eyes and black carapace, though, were done with the traditional subtractive watercolor method, layering the colors around blank paper. I recommend either hot-press or fairly smooth cold-press watercolor for detailed paintings like this – all the details here are about twice actual size, and it’s hard to paint details on rough paper.
An interesting challenge with insects is painting them from life. This cicada, which I collected outside my bedroom window, was pinned under an old (currently misaligned, boo) dissection scope, and I was painting it from life with one eye to the oculars and one on the painting. The field of view’s a circle, which is why the painting’s a circle too. It makes it harder to get the proportions and perspective consistent, and to get the overall composition evenly lighted, but I like the process of painting like they might have done before the advent of color photography. If you don’t have a microscope though, a photo is just fine. 🙂
I usually sketch before painting, at least if I’m doing realism, but here, the pencil lines are pretty much obliterated by the drybrush watercolor, so you don’t see them anymore. Drybrush is when you use very little water on the paper’s surface, which controls the paint and lets you layer it on very intensely. You don’t get the stereotypical bleeding-and-feathering of typical watercolor, except where you permit it (the eyes and a few other places).
Drybrush is very slow, very controlled, and very, very relaxing. Fortunately you can do it while watching television or listening to music, pretty much anywhere (you tape the paper to a big wood board and tote it around the house). A painting like this will take me about a week, painting in intervals of a couple of hours at a time. Unfortunately, I don’t really have time for that right now, but maybe someday soon again. I have a few more critters in a box somewhere just waiting for their close-ups. . . 🙂