Line Drawing History

Scientific Illustrations for Entomology

Now that I am back in Blacksburg, I have been volunteering with the Virginia Tech Entomology Collection (bug museum).   After chatting with a colleague, I found the scientific illustrations.  The majority of the drawings in the collection were created in the 1980’s by Katherine Born. There are hundreds of original ink on board drawings that were used for publications. Most of the boards are about the size of standard office paper and incredibly detailed.

Calosoma sycophanta
Calosoma sycophanta beetle

My favorites are the ones that show the details of the plant host, and a zoom in bubble for the microscopic insects. Before our modern digital photo editing tools, inking by hand was an accurate way to combine these life stages together in one image

Juniper scale on Arborvitae
Juniper Scale on Arborvitae

Major orders represented.

The collection spans across the major insect orders with at least a few representatives of each. There are a lot of obscure animals that you would not likely see in popular insect art productions.  We all can’t be rock stars like imperial moths and longhorn beetles. Gall wasps, leaf miners and many scale insects are represented, again the microscopic zoom circles look very detailed. As a fun side note, oak galls were used to produce high quality inks in Europe for over 1500 years.

Eburia quadrigeminata
Ivory-market Beetle, 3x natural size, K.A. Born artist, 18-Aug-1983

Blister beetles can be cute.

The technical crafts that accompany scientific disciplines have undergone a major change since I entered the profession.  For creative images I use the latest iPad Pro and illustration software to create accurate scale line drawings. I also enjoy working with ink on paper which has not changed much since modern nib pens entered the market. The originals in the museum collection have a thick texture to the ink in the larger fill sections, and the stippling is very tiny. They are quite stunning to see in person, and remain detailed after scanning for publication.  After looking at a lot of images next to each other, I could start to see the difference between hand drawing and photography. It is not just the depth of field and everything in focus that grabs your attention. How to you make a pair of blister beetles look adorable? 

Blister beetles
Blister beetle line drawing


This was an inspiring collection of art to check out.  My own research continues to develop the latest digital tools to craft high quality creative designs for production copyright. At the same time, I also enjoy putting ink to paper. I like the challenge of drawing every cell in a dragon fly’s wing to scale.  Bristol board is interesting to me because there is no way to hide mistakes. All of my large pieces start with pencil on tracing paper, then are transferred to the board with a stylus. Later I go back over these groves with a pen, and when I fill in with an ink brush later it stays sharp in the tiny trough.   For purely creative art pieces there are never any ‘mistakes’, you just shift into a new direction and go with it.  Scientific illustrations in contrast require the utmost attention to detail, the entire purpose is to remain true to the original. 

I enjoy the mix of modern digital tools and centuries old techniques.  I feel there is value in having a few concept sketches taped to the wall for reference, even if my project is digital only. 

(note: Pen used for reference is approximately 13.5 cm in length)