Painting insects – are you serious? might be your first reaction to this article, but with over 900,000 different kinds of known insects there will be something to inspire every artist: perhaps a scarlet ladybird, the powdery wings of a butterfly, the jewelled body of a beetle or the stripes and velvet of a bumblebee?

But how can you capture their rapid movements or their unique mix of transparent wings and hard skeleton? This is where line and wash comes into its own. The mix of hard-edged ink with the softness of free-flowing colour is a wonderful way of capturing a little of nature’s bounty. However, even if insects are not your favourite technique, pen and wash is equally applicable to capturing urban landscapes or portraits so do read on.

Rhino Beetle, line & wash on NOT watercolour paper, (27x37cm)

Where to look

We are in the middle of winter and there aren’t many insects buzzing and scuttling. A trip to your local museum will reveal huge Victorian collections of exotic bugs. I like the Natural History Museum in Oxford, which I find less overwhelming than its big brother in London. You can also look online at Pixabay ( and Paint my Photo (, both of which offer a wonderful range of copyright-free high-resolution images.

Line and wash

I was going to say pen and wash, but there are many ways of using ink that do not involve a pen, and although the wash is usually watercolour, it might equally be coloured inks, acrylics or even Brusho (ink crystals). The technique involves drawing with ink and mixing with washes of colour. My aim is to capture essence and character rather than precise anatomical detail.


Just because insects are generally small, don’t think you have to paint them small. Consider what it is that attracts you and what you want to communicate in your painting. You might find that a larger-scale painting communicates your meaning better, or a miniature could be right for you. All I am saying is that size matters so please consider it.

Exercises for you to try

Continuous line

Do not lift your pen from the page (so don’t use a dip pen). As you outline and draw internal shapes, you will find your lines double back on each other. As well as producing a free-flowing image, it encourages your eyes, hand and brain to work together. According to Smithsonian Studio Arts, continuous line drawing is actually a very powerful way to create a piece that is both hard edged and fluid, representational and abstract, rational and emotional all in one.

Blind drawing

The aim is to draw without looking at the paper. You can do this as a continuous line (see above) or as a contour drawing, concentrating on the edges and shapes, but taking your pen off the paper if required. It encourages you to observe the object closely and trains your hand to mimic your eye movements. It may not be exactly what you intended, but usually has a charm that more than makes up for inaccuracy. I like to use a paper plate to act as a shield so there is no temptation to take a peek. Push the pen through a central hole and hold the pen under the plate to draw, while you keep your eyes firmly on your subject.

Liz Chaderton

Liz is a professional artist based in Berkshire. She runs weekly classes and monthly workshops (see and will be leading a week in Italy with ArteUmbria ( 4-11 July 2018, where she hopes to paint Italian black bees, honey buzzards and wild boar. Visit her website for details or her blog for tips and ideas:

Read more from Liz in the March 2018 issue of Leisure Painter

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