Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Some Artists Just Sit Around and Draw Flies

An insect illustrator that I know claims he has the best job in the world. He stated, "All I do is sit around and draw flies!" While he is very good at "drawing flies," he is not the first person to produce an image of an insect. Far from it. People have been inclined to create pictures of insects for most of our history.

One of the earliest known drawings of an insect is on the wall of a cave in Valencia, Spain. This rock drawing dates to somewhere between 15,000 and 10,000 B.C. and shows bees flying around a honey gatherer on a ladder beside a rock wall. Certainly by 4000 B.C., the Egyptians of the prehistoric period were creating pictures of scarab beetles in hieroglyphs. The Chinese painter Hung Ch'uan included 12 insects in his work "Beautiful Birds Sketched from Life" completed in the early 900s.

By the 1500s, artists throughout the world, like current illustrators, were drawing all kinds of flies and other insects. Many early artists like Hung Ch'uan before them included insects as part of a larger picture. The insects in the paintings of Hung Ch'uan very well might have been food for the birds that were depicted.

Many times, natural history pictures created in the Middle Ages when artists were beginning to illustrate from what they observed in nature included insects and plants. Or, more accurately, pictures of plants dating to this time would also depict an insect or two. Such a combination of living things makes sense. After all, many insects feed on plants, and almost any plant will have an insect crawling on it.

It is also probably not surprising that these early works depicted plants more correctly than insects. In many such works, it is possible to identify a plant to genus and species, but the insects in most renderings are more stylized. The reason for this is simple. Plants remain in one place waiting for artists with brush or ink to record their likeness. Insects, on the other hand, don't stand still very often and certainly are smaller and harder to see than plants.

While insects were not the primary focus of early works of art, there is an outstanding exception. German artist Albrecht Durer in 1505 created "The Stag Beetle." This is probably the most famous insect illustration in history, and today is owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

It is clear that Durer's watercolor and gouache beetle is not a preparatory study but an independent work of art. This was remarkable because, at the time, Renaissance artists considered insects the lowest of creatures. So singling out an insect for such a work was unprecedented.

To be sure, Durer also included the stag beetle as a minor part of other works. Not surprisingly, the beetle shows up in "The Virgin Among a Multitude of Animals." The beetle is also seen crawling on the stones in "Adoration of the Magi."

Other famous artists have managed to let a few insects into their work. "Death's Head Moth" by Van Gogh is such an example. The insect depicted is certainly a moth. But the moth is not what is known as the death's head, the insect made famous in the move "Silence of the Lambs," but a giant peacock moth. Van Gogh may have been using the moth as an earthly representation of the soul of departed people -- an idea that goes back to ancient Greek literature and the goddess Psyche.

Many insect renderings are produced to illustrate books or scientific papers. Some early scientists did their own artwork. For example, the entomologist C. V. Riley, who produced wood cuts to show the insects in his numerous publications. One of the first U.S. textbooks of entomology was written by John Henry Comstock and illustrated by his wife Anna Botsford Comstock.

Some designers also use insects in their creations. French designer E. A. Sequy used butterflies and beetles in repeating patterns to create an insect-inspired art. M. C. Escher also incorporated insects into some of his designs. In fact, I have an Escher tie consisting of repeating moth pattern. I guess if I can't draw insects, I can at least wear them on a tie.


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox