In the details: how i paint an insect

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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.

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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. :)

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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. . . :)

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Interesting! I have always painted pictures (mostly landscapes and seascapes in oils, watercolours, and more recently, digital paintings) as well as doing technical things (currently bioinformatics). I like to be less controlled when I paint - eg when I use watercolours, I usually keep them wet. I like accidents. Not that my art is very wild or anything. Don't you find your patient attention to tiny details when painting too much like lab work!?

Thanks for this bit of behind-the-scenes. Very cool -- maybe I'll beg a brush from mi esposa bonita and try my hand this.

By Craig Pennington (not verified) on 09 May 2010 #permalink

LOL, Graham, I'd say that maybe I do it because I *miss* lab work, but I actually painted a lot in graduate school, and it was relaxing then too. Although I would not have voluntarily spent any more time at a dissection scope, as I did here. I do also work wet-in-wet, which is much faster and more organic, but I'm really not a huge fan of accidents in or out of the lab. I like having at least a rough idea what my paint is going to do before I slap it down. :)

Nice work, although I would have thought the hardest part about painting insects is getting the little scamps to hold still until it's dry.

I really like your art work...I admit to feeling a bit xenophobic with insects, your work counters that by bringing out the beauty of the critters.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 09 May 2010 #permalink

Hi Jessica, I'm a huge fan of insect paintings and like your cicada very much... It I was fortunate enough to spend a week doing field surveys in a forest in Sabah, N Borneo, recently, where the cicadas are a dominant sensory feature. During the day they sound mostly like dentist's drills (astonishingly loud) but at nightfall there's a really eerie species that greets the dusk with an almost melodic crescendo in a minor key - uncannily like a zombie movie soundtrack, quite sinister and very unnerving! And then at night there's a truly massive species, 10-12 cm in body legth, that comes to batter itself against the lights. Never seen anything like it. We caught some to take a closer look: they're amazingly light for such a large insect. Full of resonating chamber... and little else.

By Kattato Garu (not verified) on 10 May 2010 #permalink

Wild. I love the close ups seeing all the brushwork and texture :D

It must be a real challenge having your eyes adjusting between the microscope and the image.

Tahnks for the post on your work, hope you find the time to paint again soon.

By E du Plessis (not verified) on 18 May 2010 #permalink

Funny-- I always forget that you work in watercolors, you get such intensity out of your palette. Must be all that dry brush and gouache.