Recently I was commisioned to do a painting of a particular type of beetle called a Staphylinid, (aka Rove Beetle). This beetle’s latin name is Zalobius nancyae. Of course I was very excited to do a large “habitus” of this fascinating and ancient lineage, but I had no idea how small it was until I was handed the box with the specimens inside. We are not talking about long-grain basmati, this was more like a runt-sized grain of short grained rice: TINY.
As I do not own a stereo microscope, I had a major dilemma in making my preliminary sketch accurate- actually making one at all! But without too much having to dig around and research, I was soon offered use of the stereo microscopes in the back room at the jewelry shop where my sister works..thanks Sarah! I sat down to do a large shaded pencil study of the details, with notes on shading patterns, hairs, and glare. (I then reduced the prelim sketch down for the transfer).
I decided to use gouache for its amazing blending properties, and how rich the tones can be by layering more and more and more swaths of color. Artists of any medium must always be patient to push on through the “ugly” phase of a painting, when it appears flat and dull. This illustration certainly had that stage, but truly I live for the last moments of a painting like this when I get to add the glare, and the drop-shadow…utterly rewarding!
It does this amazing dimensional transformational thing where it just starts to bulge and warp in waves right up off the paper. I just finished the piece last week, and I am quite cheeky with it…check out the nice version of it in my portfolio- there is no tissue-paper smudge protector around that version!
This extremely tiny spider (~1mm across!) is called Silhouettella assumptia and is from an elusive and little known family of spiders called Oonopidae. They are known to lay people as the “goblin” spiders, but to latin linguists in labcoats the Oonopidae means egg-eyes.
3/4 view of the Oonopid Silhouettella assumptia
Illustrating a spider requires special techniques. They are different from insects in that their exoskeletons aren’t as hard all around- many parts will shrivel up so they must be stored in alcohol. That’s why you don’t see all the gorgeous spiders of the world mounted in cases next to insects in Natural History museums! (…but not to discredit the world’s bias for insects and against all things arachnid- it is real!! you must teach the next generation to love them!) For example if you try to dry and mount a spider, likely the abdomen will quickly resemble a raisin. A terrible inconvenience.
For this project I had to keep the specimen submerged in liquid so that it wouldn’t dry out, and surprisingly (to me) sand is used at the bottom of the liquid petri dish to help steady it. This enables me to study under a stereo microscope and a powerful light. I also had access to “stacked focus” digital images if many different angles. I had the experts around me at the Cal Academy to help me come up with the illustrated posture, (and crucially) the relative lengths of the legs.
I rendered the image in gouache, and stroked the many different colored hairs in colored pencil right over the paint…a great combination! The original drop shadow I painted underneath was quite disappointing, so I opted to make a subtle digital one instead.
Are there any other spider lovers out there on the WWW?