On a steamy Alabama evening a few years ago, I saw something desperately flopping on the pavement in front of the local grocery store. At first I thought it was a small bird, but when it suddenly looped into the air I saw that it was an enormous moth. It struggled upward, scissoring the air with its wings, and then — to my surprise — it flew right in through my open truck window and landed awkwardly on the seat beside me.
This wondrous visitor was Antherea polyphemus, the largest moth in North America and one of a gorgeous retinue of silkworm moths whose beauty rivals that of any butterfly. With no functioning mouth parts, they live only about four days after emerging from their silken cocoons. My polyphemus moth friend appeared to be at the end of his short lifespan. He was missing a leg and a generous wedge of one wing, evidence of a harrowing escape from a hungry bird or the jaws of a gecko.
I let him rest on the seat during the drive home. He died somewhere along the miles of country road and so, after unloading the groceries, I placed the moth gently on my drawing table and sketched the graceful arc and lush patterns of those huge wings. A few weeks later, the sketch became the inspiration for a set of fairy wings:
Few artists use the technique, but pencil overdrawing (drawing the shading and details over a thin, flat layer of watercolor) is perfect for the subtle patterns and textures of a moth’s wing. You build the layers slowly and gradually, barely touching the paper with strokes as light as a moth, and the drawing becomes a deeply relaxing process.
We used pencil overdrawing in this week’s Draw Paint Letter email video lesson. If you like to draw, but are intimidated by realistic watercolor, it’s a good way to get your feet wet (so to speak).