By Ellen Hong
“I assume that the reason most of you guys are here is either that you already love drawing insects or that you want to learn how to,” naturalist and professional scientific illustrator Tim Manolis said, addressing the dozen eager students, ranging from age 5 to 60, sitting inside the Rotary Nature Center. With no professional bug drawing experience, I was excited to learn a new skill and glad that he decided to get started with the instruction right away.
“So there’s a very different approach to drawing vertebrates vs. invertebrates,” he explained. “When you’re drawing birds or mammals, it pays to know what’s on the inside–the bones, the skeletal system–for example, when drawing the skull, you want to know where the eye sockets are in relation to the jaw.” The opposite is true for insects, however: “What you see on the outside is pretty much what you get.”
Tim then illustrated for us the basic plan of the insect, which includes three main structures: the head, the thorax, and the abdomen.
Basic outline of an insect, drawn by Tim Manolis. Photo: Ellen Hong
As Tim pointed out, an insect’s head is where all the sensory organs are. The thorax, divided into three segments, is where the legs and wings come off of. The abdomen, made of ten segments, is attached to organs used for reproduction.
As for drawing the legs, Tim told us that it’s pretty difficult to capture exactly how the legs come off the insect’s body. There are many parts of the leg that are important to include: the coxa, femur, tibia, trochanter, and tarsus. It can be tricky to capture all of them correctly.
Tim explaining insect leg structures. Photo: Ellen Hong
It’s also vital to take perspective into account. Whether drawing from the side or from above, insects will look very different from different angles.
For a “standard winged insect,” Tim told us that there are two wings on either side–typically a hard covering on top of a single set of wings. Beetles specifically have Elytra as a hardened forewing, with their main wings used for flight hidden underneath.
Some two-winged insects have halteres, tiny knobbed structures on the wings almost too miniscule to be seen, that are partially vestigial but thought to be used for balance in flight.
Certain types of insects don’t have wings at all, however. Insects that may look like ants may really be female wasps. Especially in insect caste systems, there may be, for example, worker insects that are non-winged while higher-authority insects possess wings.
“Once you have a good idea of an insect’s build/parts, then you can start to look at real insects and identify the structures,” Tim told us. He doesn’t do a lot of field drawing himself, however–mainly because of how difficult it is to do with insects. But according to Tim, dragonflies are the easiest insects to draw live, especially when they’re sitting still.
“Draw as much as you can,” Tim advised about field sketching in general. He said that capturing as many key features as possible is important, especially if we wish to identify the species later on. In his own experience, after drawing a dragonfly hanging from a tree, Tim was able to label the creature as a spot-winged glider because he had incorporated very important details; the dark spots at the tips of the dragonfly’s wings were telling marks.
As for advice on what materials to use when field sketching, Tim said that the best sketchbooks for drawing insects are ones that are pretty small, about 6×8 in. and bounded by rings, so that the pages separate and flip open easily. He doesn’t use anything fancy when it comes to pencils; No. 2 pencils or even mechanical ones are fine. A hand lens is also handy to carry around in the field, and bringing a handheld watercolor set with a plastic vial of water is ideal for any colored drawings. Tim also likes to carry around little orange pill bottles for capturing insects out in the field, so that he can bring them back to draw and release them later.
Beetle used for drawing practice. Photo: Ellen Hong
Bee used for drawing practice. Photo: Ellen Hong
It was time for us to practice what we had learned! Tim passed around some clear boxes with insects inside of them and gave us 15 minutes to try our own hand at drawing them. After some practice, Eddie Dunbar–insect expert of the Wild Oakland team–offered to take us out to the pollinator gardens to catch some insects.
Before heading out, Eddie shared his main rules about handling nets:
1) Be careful with your surroundings–watch out for others!
2) No nets over your heads (it’s dangerous!)
3) Don’t drag your net on the floor
After some time in the Mediterranean Garden, the group had captured a pretty good variety of insects for drawing, including some bees and spiders. We got back to the Rotary Nature Center and freely practiced with the live bugs, Tim walking around to help us if needed.
Tim was a wonderful teacher, and the illustration class was a relaxing yet totally fun way to spend my afternoon. Thanks so much to Tim Manolis for his time, and thanks to everyone who came out to the lesson! I hope everyone enjoyed themselves and gained something from the class.
Check out Tim’s field guides if you haven’t already; they’re awesome!
California Natural History Guides by Tim Manolis. Photo: Ellen Hong
Ellen Hong is a senior in high school and interns for Wild Oakland.