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    Natural History Illustration: A Stag Beetle in Woodland

    beetle, coleoptera, woodland habitat,


    I had a wonderful comission recently; to do a natural history illustration of a stag beetle to accompany a poem by Chris Meredith.

    Starting the job

    I began by reading the poem carefully (I’ve transcribed it at the end of this article) to get the atmosphere right, and to list what species I’d be needing to illustrate.  These included ones named in the poem, but also making sure there was enough of a variety of other plants and animals in there so the image would be full of life, and the colours wouldn’t be isolated within the composition.

    Next step is a very swift set of thumbnail sketches, these are just different ideas on how to include all the elements into a composition that will work and lead the eye into and through the painting.  Below is the one I settled on.

    Quick sketch composition
    Thumbnail sketch of a stag beetle in woodland


    Gathering reference

    Then reference for all the species needs to be collated.  I have sketchbooks of botanical studies, and have assembled loads of ring binders crammed with my photos and notes, all organized alphabetically and by type of organism.  I also refer to google images for a broad spectrum of views of one animal or plant, and increasingly find myself using my own earlier illustrations for reference.

    Piecing together the background of a rough takes a while; this one is loosely based in Cwm Byddog, a beautiful nature reserve run by Radnorshire Wildlife Trust, near my home.

    pencil rough of stag beetle
    Pencil drawing of stag beetle in a woodland landscape based on a nature reserve near my home, pencil rough drawing


    Drawing up the rough

    I leave the foreground until later, but it’s important to block in where the animals and plants will be so that you can construct the scene around them.

    Next, I spend time on the animals, the focus of the illustration.  If these aren’t drawn correctly the entire illustration will fall apart, so it’s an exacting business and calls for consulting lots of reference and always, if possible, an actual specimen.

    coleoptera, woodland,
    Stag beetle in woodland, stag beetle plotted in


    With both background and the animals plotted in, I can construct the flora and habitat around them, remembering to lose size and definition as the image goes towards the background; and trying to ensure the eye moves easily across the illustration.

    woodland coleoptera sketch
    Pencil rough drawing ready for painting


    Painting in the background

    Once I’m satisfied with the rough, it’s time to get the paints out.  Over the years, I’ve found that the more disciplined I am, and the paler I keep the farthest areas of the painting, the more depth I get.  So I start with the most distant features in a very pale, blue-ish palette.

    stag beetle in woodland
    Initial pale background painted in


    Next comes a little more detail, and as I paint further to the front of the image there is more contrast and depth of colour.  I work very hard at not getting the middle distance too muddy or dark; with watercolour you can always come back and work into it later, but it’s far too easy to swallow up the light and thus flatten the illustration.  I paint the background around the more detailed elements in the foreground, and it’ll be the prime point of focus (in this case the stag beetle) that gets painted last of all.

    coleoptera, woodland,
    Background and trees painted; foreground and stag beetle still un-painted


    Adding Detail to the Background

    I work more detail into the background, and put some very pale washes over the leaves of the trees.  Then it’s time to work on the flowers, which is lovely.  I use a tiny brush (winsor and newton series 7, size 0 or 00) and make sure the colours at the back are really pale.  This means mixing in reverse; you mix the colour you’ll need for the flowers in the foreground, dilute it enormously, then work from the furthest background forward, adding minute drops of the colour as you progress.  Sharp detail as well as intensity of colour and contrast bring things into the foreground, so I’ll keep detail to a minimum until you’re right at the front of the illustration.

    I paint in the details of the flowers, and work further towards the front of the painting; we’re approaching the point where it’s all looking coherent except for the white cut-out spaces where the animals are going to be.

    coleoptera in woodland
    Landscape almost completed, only the animals to add


    Once I’ve blocked in the flower shapes, and “drawn” them with their correct colours, I work into them with washes and then with overlying shadows.  Again, it’s vital not to swamp the details by making the washes too heavy or dark; white areas in a watercolour are what keep the painting fresh.

    Painting the Stag beetle and other animals

    Finally, I get to work on the animals, my favourite part.  I block in the darkest areas first and then work into them, up towards the lighter areas.  With the butterfly it’s important to keep the venation clear as it gives the insect some real structure.  I unify the details of the animals with a series of washes.  Sometimes at this stage I panic and think I’ve ruined it all, but it’s normally a minor or easily salvageable mistake.

    beetle, coleoptera, woodland habitat,
    Stag beetle Lucanus cervus in bluebell wood: Completed illustration


    Finishing up

    The last step is to take a quick tea break then come back and consider the painting as a whole.  Does anything need tweaking or sharpening up?  Do any elements stand out more than they should?  Are the shadows clear enough, and coherent in terms of the light source?  Is there enough detail in the mid ground, and enough colour in the foreground?  Once these final questions have been dealt with, and adjustments have been made, it’s time to scan the final artwork (at 300 plus dpi) and send a copy to the client to see what they think.  In this case, I’m elated to say, the client was really pleased.  A lovely job to do, for a happy client.  That’s my idea of a dream job.

    I have made a short youtube video of this painting process:


    Under the Shadow of the Tree by Chris Meredith

    Under the shadow of the tree

    We are cool in each other’s company

    The breeze gently moving your hair

    A piece of sunlight highlighting your eyes

    Under the shadow of the tree

    Our love secretly takes shape

    Beneath the wind and the willows

    Our shadows sleep

    Under the shadow of the tree

    Raindrops lightly dust the moss

    I place a buttercup under your chin

    You blow a dandelion to the wind

    Under the shadow of the tree

    A stag beetle challenges us to a fight

    Our laughter downgrades the threat

    As well it might


    For more poems by Chris Meredith please look at his Chris Meredith website.

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    Lizzie Harper