Saturday, 13 December 2014

Drawing & Painting Nature (ii) - from museum specimens

There are many of us that love drawing and painting nature, but actually getting out there and building up field sketches can be difficult, especially if mobility is an issue, but also some species are rare or difficult to see.  Also, we may have to complete a commission and need to research for this.

Drawing from photos is ok, but you cannot really get the feel of the animal concerned, its form, proportions, the way it moves, its behaviours, true coat or plumage colour etc  These all go to making up a really good composition.

When I worked as an Ecologist doing wintering bird surveys (wildfowl and waders), there was never any time for sketching of course, but I spent hours identifying different birds and watching their behaviour, sometimes through a telescope, and this all helped to lay those foundations for accurate observation.

In the old days - not doing a bird survey, but watching Harbour porpoises in Scotland
So where else can we observe nature ?  We can of course visit wildlife parks and zoos, but it can be daunting standing or sitting there sketching with people peering over your shoulder.
The other resource available to us are museums.  The specimens are of course stationary (which is a help) and in some cases you may be able to 'go behind the scenes' and draw from their collections not on display. 
In today's world of budget cuts, some natural science collections do not have a specific person responsible for them, so arranging access to collections can be an issue if that person's time is limited.
I am very lucky to have access to a Museum Services natural science collection and over the last few months I have been able to spend several visits sketching insects and birds, with many other items still on my wish list, including fossils too !

Stag Beetles and Rose chafer beetles
So the aim of this blog post is to give you some hints, tips and interesting facts about using museum collections as subject matter.
  • Approach a museum service with a flexible approach in terms of when you can visit.  Be aware that if the staff have other short-notice commitments, these may have to take priority.
  • Be aware of what you are wearing.  If you have to handle specimens or move boxes some clothing can get in the way.  When I first visited, I was in the habit of putting my glasses on my head when I didn't need them - if you are peering over drawers of delicate insects this is a complete no no, you can imagine the damage if your glasses were to fall.
  • Follow instructions of the staff when handling specimens.  If you are not sure ASK. 
  • I was able to take this Stag Beetle out of the drawer, but I had to make sure it was pinned to a piece of the special foam.
  • Wash your hands before and after handling specimens.
  • Some specimens may be extremely old and therefore their condition may not be perfect.  Usually they are still useful in some way.  Sometimes if there is more than one specimen of a particular species, using several of them together to get the information you need for your study is a good idea.
  • Bird specimens will have been posed in a particular position and bear in mind that if using an older specimen, this pose may not be truly accurate. This may be due to the taxidermist not having been familiar with the species, or it may have been posed by a less experienced or 'hobby' taxidermist, as some of them were in the past.
  • You will often find that those specimens created and posed in Victorian times may not be as accurate as some of those posed in more modern times, such as the 1970's when taxidermy was still taking place.

  • Remember the specimens will have glass eyes, especially the birds.  So take this into consideration.  They can appear somewhat stark, so if you can look at photos or actual birds to get the feel and accuracy of a natural eye.
  • The plumage on this Tawny owl was in excellent condition and I could really observe the details and pattern, as well as formation of the wing feathers.

  •  There were several specimens of Kingfishers that had been posed in different behavioural positions - diving and flying, this was a great help.
  • Be aware that space may be limited.  It maybe a good idea to take a limited painting kit, very much like a painting field-kit.  Although you can see above that my paintbox was rather big !
  • Remember to take other useful items, such as a magnifying glass and of course a camera.

I realise of course this may not suit everyone, and you may not be happy with handling what are dead animals.  One thing to bear in mind is that even though many specimens were collected in a time when it was considered 'fashionable' and the only way to increase knowledge as an amateur naturalist, they have quite often been gifted to the museum service as a result of a benefactor's passing, in some cases several generations later.

It is far better to keep such collections together, rather than spilt them up and sell them for profit.  Using them for educational purposes, in whatever way has got to be more positive.  I know when I visit the museum service, they are just thrilled that the collections stored away are benefiting me in my development as an artist.

As a treat here is a video of my latest sketch completed this week.


  1. Sarah, that video is magical!! Wonderful post! You're so inspiring xx

  2. What a lovely post Sarah. Like a child in a sweet shop, what do you choose? Museum collections are fascinating and very inspiring. What a wonderful opportunity you have and great to see your video and watch you working.
    Thank you for visiting and your nice comment.


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