Natural Science Illustration: Painting a Bumble bee January 31st 2014

Story posted: Friday, 31. January 2014 by Lizzie Harper

I was commissioned to do an entomological illustration for a natural history illustration interpretation board on flight by Anglezarke Dixon Associates.  The client wanted a White tailed bumble bee (Bombus lucorum) to accompany my scientific illustrations of the pipistrelle bat and peacock butterfly in flight (which he purchased for re-use from my online image library).

As always, the first step is to assemble your reference.  I use as wide of a range of reference as possible; this decreases the chance of "copying" mistakes, and helps show the main features to highlight.  I also read up around my subjects so I know a little about them before I start.  There's a lovely book on bumble bees I read recently, A Sting in the Tail by Dave Goulson, which I thought about as I drew.

There's a youtube video to accompany this blog, showing the steps involved.

Lizie Harper natural history illustration of a bumble bee

The best bit of reference I have is a slightly battered white-tailed bumble bee.  I pinned her onto a rubber and found myself referring to her constantly throughout the process.  There's nothing that beats having the actual plant or animal in front of you to draw from, and a treat to have my own specimen which I can examine and dissect out with impunity.

Since hymenoptera are more or less symetrical (like most insects), you only need to draw up one side, then can flip and trace down the mirror image to get your picture.  Above is my pencil rough surrounded by my ref.

I had a lot of trouble deciding how to start the bee; whether to work on yellow or black first.  I decided on black, although intunitively painting black on top of yellow which is already in place makes more sense.  My main objctive with the colours was to avoid making the yellows greenish, which will happen if black gets mixed into yellow.

Lizie Harper natural history illustration of a bumble bee

Using Winsor and Newton series 7 brush (size 1) and Winsor and Newton watercolour paints on fabriano artistico paper, I began building up a thicket of tiny black brush strokes.

Bumble bees are very fluffy, and I wanted to show this, so used various mixes of black to build up some depth and variety of tone.  This initial black is a mix of vandyke brown and purple with a touch of indigo.

Lizie Harper natural history illustration of a bumble bee

I also made sure to place the hairs in context; it may be hard to see the bumble bee's underlying exoskeleton but that doesn't mean it's not there; I looked to see what parts of this were visible and could make out some abdominal segmentation, and the edge of the thorax.

Working into the legs is easier; I dissected out the bee's legs and took a close look as shape, segmentation, hairs, and colour.  In fact, it was only after a second examination of the legs that I realised most of the hairs were golden brown rather than black.  Once I made this change, the legs instantly looked more "correct".

Lizie Harper natural history illustration of a bumble bee

I have a terror of doing eyes; it's so easy to get them wrong which can compromise a whole painting.  So I tried to get them done and out of the way.  I also had a minor disaster with the antennae as I leant on one when the paint was still wet and smudged it.  Unfotunately, bumble bees have no long hairs on their antennae which could dover my mistakes, so it was a matter of working at the smear very slowly and carefully with a wet tissue rolled into a tiny point.  I think I got away with it this time.

Next, the wings.  To get the veination correct I used diagrams of this species' wings from the internet, coupled with my own specimen.  Her wings were folded backwards rather than outstretched (and the client specified outstretched or "spread-eagled" wings) but were still iseful, especially for colour and texture.  The wings aren't clear, but honey coloured, with regions of darker brown.  the main veins are purplish brown.  Plotting areas of shade around the network of veins, and edging the veins in van-dyke brown and purple was the first step.

Lizie Harper natural history illustration of a bumble bee

The margins of the upper wings are stippled; this was quite tricky to do as each tiny spot was so small that even a size 000 paintbrush created marks a touch too large.  Still, I managed to do an ok job.  Yellow ochre mixed with cadmium orange light and a touch of yellow for these tiny dots.

To get the crinkly texture of the wing, I plotted in areas of shade, then worked into the centre of these with a slightly darker colour.  You can see the mix I used for this on the edge of my paintbox in the photo above; yellow ochre, yellow, and orange; all applied vas a very wet wash.

Lizie Harper natural history illustration of a bumble bee

Next came the yellow.  Although bumble bees are considered bright yellow, when it comes to mixing the right shade, it doesn't feel so straigth forward.  I wanted the areas of yellow in the light to be bright and clear, so went for cadmium yellow light.  Mid tones were cadmium yellow dark mixed with yellow ochre.  Darkest regions required the intorucudtion of reddish browns.  Although the yellows were getting there, the black regions were beginning to look flat and disoccaited in comparison.  Introducing more layers of different shades of black, and some glimmers of the yellow into the black areas evened it out a bit.

Lizie Harper natural history illustration of a bumble bee

The transition between yellow and black as tough as I didn't want to compromise the golden yellow by getting it dirty with black.  But the two areas lie on top of each other.  Getting the shape of the lines between the colours is important too.  Lots of tiny strokes, and concentrating instead of just painting on auto pilot helped.

Lizie Harper natural history illustration of a bumble bee

More and more work into the black makes the hairs look small, and the black regions look thick with colour and texture.  This meant leaving paler areas within the black, but not so many that the fur seemed grey.

Finally, the white terminal abdominal segments needed doing.  The shadows here are picked out with purples and cereulean blues, with a very washed down black for the darkest regions.

Lizie Harper natural history illustration of a bumble bee

So this is the final bumble bee.  Although I think it looks corect, somehow, for me, it hasn't been entirely successful.  I think this illustration shows the bumble bee as too neat, without any of the life and verve that the insects have in the wild.  It's as if someone's combed her hair, and she seems far smoother than in reality.  However, having said that, I also think it could only be a white-tailed bumble bee, and am pretty happy with the way  the wings worked out.

I read somewhere that in the medeival courts of europe, if aomeone wanted to be a court illustrator (illuminating psalm books and psalters) one of the common tests was to ask for an illustration on a bumble bee.  I think it makes sense; getting bumble bees just right is a very tough call, and I'm not entirely convinced I'd've been hired on the stregth of this one, although hope I'd've stood a chance...

Category:  Zoological step by step   |   Comments:  2   |   Viewed:  15961

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Bumble bee

Saturday, 8. February 2014, 03:59:41 – Janene Walkky:

I think your bumble bee looks very plump and lively, as if he is just taking off. Well done!


Friday, 22. August 2014, 07:42:46 – Karen Wilkinson:

This is really beautiful. I adore ze bee! I hope you don't mind but I've shared this on my Facebook page 'Love Bees' it's wonderful. X