The synthesis of scientific and artistic approaches, using living insects and watercolor, creates a complex and enchanting natural art. The relationship between the artist and the arthropod is unique in every creation. Instead of using a brush insects are the living moving brushes that create art by transferring pigment to the paper as they move. Imagine if you only painted with finger paints and then someone gives you a paint brush to paint with for the first time. There are over a million species of insects and as many artistic techniques as there are artists. The resulting art has a broad style incorporating a natural work that gives the viewer both scientific and artistic insight into movement and direction.
MATERIALS: The materials used include arthropods, especially larger insects, watercolor paints (Gouache), brushes, lazy- Susan, water, and watercolor paper. By using more opaque colors the footprint patterns can be more easily recognized by the less sophisticated observer.
METHODS: In general, insects are carefully held and concentrated watercolor pigments are transferred to insect legs and body parts or by having insects walk through pigment and then place them on paper. The transfer of pigments from wings and other body parts is a delicate procedure and requires great skill. There are a number of techniques and methods I have developed, including the following, watch excerpts of my Bug art movie on you tube or order a copy of the full video…
A. Procuring insects and choosing species and choice of insects: Insects are obtained by catching them locally. Some come from my butterfly garden. I rear insects for educational purposes and use some of these for creating artwork. I collect insects on my entomological forays for painting purposes. I look for larger insects that are strong and walk or fly well. For the artist, an understanding of the handling and behavior of arthropods is essential to their use. I have investigated approximately 15 different species of insects and i have found that insects that are easy to handle and have their legs far apart are usually the ones I use. The Arthropods chosen are usually easy to raise in captivity. Some insects are seasonal and available only for relatively short periods of time. The choice of insect for art is influenced by both their life cycle and availability. I am always looking for other insects to use and my choice depends on their adaptability to the conditions required for painting. Sometimes someone will ask why not use a millipede. When an arthropod has is legs close together the footprints will merge into each other.
B. Insects used as a method to transfer paint: I initially use one insect species or genera for each painting. The use of color and design is complicated and the images are greatly influenced by the dampness of the paper and the drying time of the paint. Imagine visualizing an image and then attempting to transfer it to paper using a paintbrush that moves and has a language you must learn in order to find the synthesis that moves you towards the direction of the image you wish to create.
Another type of creation relies on learning the behavior of the insect and coloring or shading the images as they start to develop.
Lighting is important in art and is essential aspect in creating insect footprint art. Most insects orient to light. They usually move towards or away from the light. This behavior as well as the movement of the watercolor paper or light creates a variables used in controlling the direction and movement of the insects.
The placement or restriction of movement is another variable used. The transfer of pigment depends on the application and the wetness and surface texture of the paper. The dryer the paper the less pigment will transfer. Initially the greatest amount of pigment is transferred when it is first placed on paper and the amount diminishes over time as the insect travels. Each work must be carefully structured so that it can be completed as the majority of work must be completed before the paper dries in order to keep the background neutral. Touch up and mist spraying can be used in small areas but wetting the paper afterwards has a tendency to pool water and thus distort and diffuse the color.
Each insect has it own requirement. Generally, one insect is used at a time. Occasionally, as in the case with bees or beetles two or more insects may be used at the same time. Bees and wasps have the ability to sting and care must be taken when using them. The choice and texture of the color for each leg is a decision of the artist and this greatly influences the look of the work.
C. Cleaning insects: The insects should be well fed and their consumption of paint should be avoided. The method of cleaning depends on the application of pigment and the type of insect. With beetles, I gently rinse it under running water, use a squeeze bottle with a fine stream of water to remove pigment from the beetle one leg at a time. Then I place the insect on a damp paper towel to remove any excess pigment. If done properly there is no apparent harm to the beetle.
D. Painting background: I use a large brush to wet the paper and create a uniform background. I use a number of layers of paint. Then the color or color theme is chosen so that the background separates the art of a particular insect. Later on I made the background more complex. (see below)
E. Painting images plus insect footprints: In 2014 i started incorporating my own art in conjunction with using insect footprints.
F. Number of insects used: 1. I generally use one type of insect per painting hoping that people will be able to see the movements of that insect. 2. I usually use more then one individual of the insect type to create a piece of art.
G. Gallery of small Artists (Arthropods): When the insects die they are sometimes put on display so they can seen. It is recommended that either the insect or a picture of the insect responsible for the work be displayed.
H. HOW MY PAINTING HAS EVOLVED: I met Patricia Watts in March of 2003 at the ecology fair at L. A .Co Arboretum. She was curating an exhibit of insects used in art. I told her the story about the “Amazing stories” commercial I did in the early 1980’s, where JI was asked to make a fly walk through spilt ink and leave fly footprints on paper. I did not know how to do that because insect’s bodies are covered with wax and ink is water based so it would not adhere to the insect’s foot. I experimented and figured out a way to make it work. Patricia suggested I try to create some art using my technique. I got paint and paper and thought about how to paint. When you take an insect and dip it in water color paint and then place it on paper the result is little foot prints barely visible to the eye. I thought of adding shoes to the insect’s feet to make the imprint larger.
My paradigm is that insects will get wet when it rains and track mud from the earth. Insects so they do not get stuck in the mud and they can walk away. Well if they walk away they will leave footprints. Thinking about rain and my art background painting water color I must have come to the conclusion that wetting the paper first would amplify the footprints. I used tubes of color to put on the insects feet one foot at a time. This was not easy to do and I had to learn how to hold the insect and how much pigment to apply. I tried some tests before I achieved amplified footprints which turned into Bug Art (see 1-2- coming soon).
My next step was to experiment with this new way of painting. How large a piece of art can I make and will the background get distorted if I paint on a colored background? I laid own 4 different colors as base and then put paint on a beetle and wanted to see if the footprints would diffuse color on the background (paintings 3-4)see Gallery and amazingly they did not distort the background and so I knew I could paint without the background diffusing. I also wanted to see if I could guide them in any way to make images or if I had any control at all. I found that I could guide them and make abstract images. Early on. I then developed a technique of using a template restricting the footprints) the early paintings were mostly experimentation. In Bug art number five I used Fly footprints enclosed in a cut out of the letter “F.”(Number 5 see gallery). I used lots of paint so the flies would not fly and if necessary I knew how to make walking flies without touching the wings.
The background is very important and I initially wanted a monotone so there would be contrast with the footprints. It took a while to paint the background and would put down 3 to 6 layers of paint with drying periods in between before I started painting with the insects. Since the painting language I was creating would be hard enough for some viewers to understand that I should initially only use one species at a time although I might use a small number of insects to paint a picture
Now that I had started to develop my brush strokes I then focused on orientation and more in composition (see 6-9 coming soon). I studied insect behavior and I knew that insects will orient to the light. I realized that insects move towards the light in more or less a straight line and that if I wanted them to turn I could manipulate them by guiding the insect or I could move the background. I initially placed water color paper on a large sheet of Plexiglas. If I wanted to turn the paper I would turn the Plexiglas. There was a lot of friction between the Plexiglas and the surface beneath it. I tried to reduce the friction by placing slippery material und the Plexiglas. It was not until I took a trip with a friend to a plastic store I found what turned out to beneath solution a plastic Lazy Suzan with metal ball bearings that made moving the artwork very easy. I could then manipulate the insect and make it go in circles or cures by moving slowly spinning paper. One of my favorite moments was placing three honey bees with paint on their feet on one piece of paper at the same time and when I turned the paper all three bees moved in the same direction at the same time.
From numbers10- 11(see Gallery) on I started to focus on composition and the use of color. I had to answer the question, should I use more than one species on each art work? Initially I felt the language of the art could be best expressed by only using one species of insect at a time. As I was developing my techniques I was also exploring different insects as brushes. I started out with beetles, flies, and hissing cockroaches up to this point I have tried about twelve different arthropods. What is important to me is to have the legs sturdy and as far apart as possible. If the legs are close together the water adhesion will make the pigment a solid line as the insect moves. Number 27-28 (see Gallery) I used butterfly feed and the wings of dead butterflies to print on the paper.
I experimented with how wet I should make the paper and what the effects of paper wetness on images. An artist friend suggested I use black and white and so I explored restricting color. Around Bug Art number 38 I started to focus more on images and things people would relate to as images.
Occasionally the movements of the insect created work that appears to be painted by man as in number 47 “Eye on You” (see Gallery) created with a moth’s wings and feet. Starting around number 51 the focus of images were even more defined and by number 55 different colors on different legs were added to the art. Although I started mixing colors on hissing cockroach abdomen as the insect walked by number 57 I was developing that technique and used it more precisely.
Number 64 was the only piece done on canvas so far. The linen Canvas was prepared to have the texture of water color paper but I was not satisfied and required a different technique. Numbers 66 and 67 (see Gallery) were created to have a trail of footprints in a box and at the end of the trail a dead beetle was attached to the paper to give the appearance of a beetle making a trial of tracks on the paper. Number 68 was a tree image created on camera for my movie “Bug Art.” In number 70 “Olympic “(see Gallery) I used a beetle and in every run I changed color so that the tracks would stand out and also create a colorful motif. Numbers 72-75 “Dancing Beetle”(see Gallery) was my first quadriptych where four paintings were put together to create a larger image. I plan to expand upon this theme and create even larger pieces.
Number 78-82(see Gallery) were smaller pieces done in black and white as part of an exhibit that went to Belarus. From this point on I started to use white paint more often as contrast color in the painting. For no 86 I used a live emperor scorpion and in number 87 I used a Rose Hair tarantula. Both arachnids were not easy to use and I cleaned off the paint carefully when I was done. Around Number 88 I started to vary the background to a greater degree to produce a less monotone background. Number 93 “Fireworks in the Forest”(see Gallery) is one of my favorite pieces. It depicts moonlight on the trees and the reflection of white on the leaves. It was also experiment in adding pigment after the paper had dried. Number 97 “Lightning Strikes “was created using very wet paper to see how much I could get the pigment to spread. Number 100 is a work in progress. I wanted it to be my first 24×30 and although I had the idea back in 2014 it has finally starting to progress. In number 103 I used the back two legs of the beetle to make outlines of images. In Number 150 I used only one leg of a live beetle to create the art. Number 108 was created in one sitting for a German TV Filming. Number 110 was created as part of a series that went on display in Kansas where the curator asked if I had done any work similar to classical works of art. Although none of the previous were initially created that way (with the possibility of number 9-see Gallery). The first piece was based on Kandinsky’s “Unequal which is in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. I studied the painting carefully and then I did my version (see Gallery).
I have been asked to develop a technique that children could use to paint Bug Art. I did not feel safe in having them handle all the insects I handle so I came up with using Zophobas larvae. This is a 2 inch beetle grub sold as pet food and for fishing. Number 113 was used to show children what is possible. You can see some of their work in the Gallery next to number 113. Number 114 was my first collaboration with another artist Deanna Nim. She did the Calligraphy and I did the bug Art. Number 111, 115 and 116 used large amounts of pigment on the abdomens of hissing cockroaches. Painting with them feels closer to painting with brushes. Numbers 117-120(see Gallery) was done at the Peabody Essex Museum in front of an audience demonstrating how I could manipulate and guide the direction of the Hissing Cockroach. Number 122(see Gallery) was the first time I incorporated my painting along with the Bug Art. The painting was done for the Tivoli Hotel in Vail Colorado. It contains hidden animals and the word Tivoli as well as most of the green area was spelled out using a Darkling beetles. …….(more to come soon)
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS: How long have you been doing bug art? In 2003 I Met Patricia Watts who suggested I might explore using insects in art. I started experimenting in 2003 and originally wanted to make shoes for the insect so their footprints would be larger, but I figured out how to enlarge the insect’s footprint.
Why use bugs to paint? The world is covered with insect footprints and most are invisible so I decided to make those footprints visible. I studied insect behavior at the university and wanted to investigate the movements of insects. I liked the idea of combining art and science and using insects.
Have you ever thought about doing the same thing with other animals? No, but if I did I would use animals with delicate feet like a vireo or large animals, like elephants, camels or buffalo, on a large format. Beetles are easier to get and keep then giraffes. I do take pictures of animal footprints like cat footprints a car hoods or fly footprints on beach sand.
Do you keep the bugs as pets or are they released into the wild after they’ve completed a piece? I keep them in my bug zoo and they have a good life with plenty of food and housing. When beetles are caught in the wild you do not know how old they are. The beetles live up to five years in captivity.
How do you handle the bugs? Do you wear gloves? Having a delicate touch is extremely important when handling insects. Your grip must be strong enough to hold but not too strong to damage the beetle which has a hard exoskeleton. When I first started I used my bear hands. Now, I have found it more convenient and less messy to use latex gloves.
How long does it take you to complete a typical piece? The background may take a number of hours or days to complete. When I first started it was on session of 1 to three hours. I know how to paint better so one painting may take place over a number of weeks or months but a significant part of the painting is done in one or two sessions.
How do you keep flies from flying away?