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Behind the Scenes: Drawing Insects

Vichai Malikul: Capturing Insect Morphology on Paper

In an office filled with natural light, green plants and classical music, Vichai Malikul, scientific illustrator in National Museum of Natural History’s (NMNH) Department of Entomology, is peering into a microscope. Quietly, methodically, he looks from the microscope to his illustration and back to the microscope, recording every curve, every scale, every 3-D level of the minuscule moth that, at .0079 of an inch, is no larger than a speck of dust.

Using a pen with a tip smaller than a strand of hair, he illuminates the minute details of lepidoptera, or moths and butterflies. The details help scientists differentiate one species from another. "That is my part," he says, "to illustrate, to help scientists and others who study this group of insects understand."

It takes about two days to do a single color illustration. He points to one illustration and says, "This one I am so proud of, because it is so simple. And the wing scales are laid on top of one another like fine brickwork. The scales are even. You can see I had a very steady hand for this one."

To achieve a high level of accuracy, Malikul uses fine sable brushes and special ink pens. Another medium he uses is Bleed-Proof, a white opaque watercolor similar to Whiteout, which adheres well to paper. On top of the white paint, he uses a dry brush technique that he mastered with watercolor and acrylic. This technique creates an iridescent effect.

Malikul draws each scale on a moth or butterfly wing almost individually. This precision and the small scale of his work is his artistic signature. "I draw small because I can, and because it takes less time," Malikul says. His wing illustrations are usually not bigger than 3 inches. "Others may not be able to draw to wing scales at such a small size, but it is my technique and works fine for me."

The precise accuracy of Malikul’s work is of world renown, and he teaches his skills each year at entomological illustration workshops at universities and botanical gardens in the United States and Canada. His illustrations were part of a 1997 NMNH exhibition "Eyes on Science: Illustrating Natural History." At NMNH in 1993, he presented a one-man show of 10 plates from a book that he illustrated, Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies. He also has been featured in exhibitions in Canada, in the United States and in his native Thailand.

It was in high school in Bangkok that Malikul first began creating pen-and-ink line drawings and later studied fine art. "Of course, scientific illustration is self-taught; you learn at work," Malikul says. "When I started more than 30 years ago, there was no school for work of this kind." His first job was in Thailand at the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, where he drew mosquitoes for the U.S. component studying malaria and hemorhagic fever.

"My boss at SEATO encouraged me to come to the United States and work for the mosquito project here at the Smithsonian," Malikul says. In 1967, he moved to the United States and began working at SI. He worked with the Southeast Asia Mosquito project for 16 years and then joined the Department of Entomology.

February 1999

 

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Prepared by the Systematic Biology, Entomology Section,
National Museum of Natural History, in cooperation with Public Inquiry Services,
Smithsonian Institution

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