Friday, August 24, 2018

My Garden in New Mexico, August update

Sun, soil, water, and air.... my crops have grown!

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Black Widow

I have a black widow spider living just outside the back door of my residence in New Mexico.  Two nights ago, I checked on the spider while returning from watering my garden.  I noticed there was a second spider sharing the web—a tiny one.  A male black widow!  For the first time, I was seeing live a phenomenon that is featured in all the books about spiders.  The male black widow puts everything on the line in hopes of mating with the female, who is twice his size and inclined to eat him.  I watched their dance, with the male hovering in the web atop the female’s abdomen.  I disturbed them by getting too close while attempting a photo, and sent the female scampering back to her protected corner behind the outdoor electrical outlet, where she can hide from outsized dangers such as me.  Meanwhile, the male dropped like a stone, until being caught by his silken life line.  He climbed up the thread, to continue his quest.  All my photos of their love ritual were coming out blurry, so I gave up, and left them in peace.

The next night, I flipped on the light outside.  The male spider was dead in the web.  The circle of life.  Only time will tell if he managed to seduce the female long enough before her hunger took over.  We will see whether the female produces an egg sac.

A beetle flew into the web, perhaps drawn to the light.  The black widow spider sprung into action, trussing up the insect in silk, her rear legs working rapidly to wrap the prey.  The unfortunate beetle didn’t stand a chance.  It received a quick death, as the spider’s bite paralyzed it then liquefied its insides.  The fortunate spider consumed the nourishing innards-smoothie, and would live on, and might even make baby spiders.  There was no way not to feel sorry for the beetle; all living things want desperately to stay alive—from microbes to ourselves.  The circle of life in a beautiful, heartless world.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

A Colorful Jumping Spider

Jumping spiders are sometimes referred to as the big cats of the arthropod world, being predators who stalk and pounce, guided by their superb eyesight.  These smart little spiders also adapt their hunting techniques and learn from past encounters.  

This one's rainbow of color has made a good study in marker for me.  I've been working in color a bit more recently in part to build some skills and confidence, because I'm at work on an illustration project about bats, for the NPS, in color.  More about that soon!  I'm glad to find that I didn't forget everything from my painting courses at Denison University, even though most of my art in the subsequent years has been black and white.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Wasp from my Nightmares

For another gouache experiment, I turned to the devil of the sky.  Or, the creature that seemed that way to a younger me—the tarantula hawk, the largest and most powerful of the parasitoid wasps.  Other species of parasitoid wasps target cicadas, caterpillars, and ladybugs.  The tarantula hawk goes after a large spider that eats mice and small snakes.  Despite being much larger than the wasp, the spider is outgunned.  After the wasp paralyzes the tarantula with a sting, it’s larva eats the spider slowly, while it is still alive.

As a child, I loved spiders and kept a pet tarantula.  In the picture books about spiders which I read and re-read, I skipped over the part about the tarantula hawk, after reading it once and being horrified.

I suppose that the prolonged torture of a living tarantula to nurture a newborn wasp is part of nature and therefore we must accept it?  Charles Darwin saw parasitoid wasps as evidence that the universe was not created by an omnipotent and loving god.

Tarantula hawks are common in the desert where I work, and I’ll acknowledge that their blue-black iridescence can be quite pretty.  Virginia’s state insect is the eastern tiger swallowtail.  Pennsylvania’s state insect is the firefly.  New Mexico’s state insect is the tarantula hawk.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Tarantula made the world?!

Who made the world?  Most pious midwesterners I know do not attribute it to a spider, but the Apache people are less constrained in their visions. 

From an Apache Legend:

"Tarantula spun a black cord and, attaching it to the ball,crawled away fast to the east, pulling on the cord with all his strength. Tarantula repeated with a blue cord to the south, a yellow cord to the west, and a white cord to the north. With mighty pulls in each direction, the brown ball stretched to immeasurable size--it became the earth! No hills, mountains, or rivers were visible; only smooth, treeless, brown plains appeared."


I used this as my inspiration while getting to know a new set of gouache paints.

Tarantulas are content to sit quietly in their burrows most of the time.  So a world made by tarantula seems like a peaceful place to me.  Alas, frenzy has invaded!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Ross-man the Barbarian; the dragons find him tasty

Awesome 'Possum Volume 4, the natural science comics anthology, edited by Angela Boyle, contains "Saliva & Skin," a story about Komodo dragons written by Steve Bissette and drawn by me. Here are my answers to some questions from Angela:

How did you pick your topic for Awesome ‘Possum?
I have been fascinated by Komodo dragons ever since I was a child. As a dinosaur-loving kid, I was thrilled that there were still a few giant reptiles inhabiting the earth. At age 10, I named one of my pet anoles “Komodo.” More recently, I learned from a Youtube video by the “Hybrid Librarian” (Kevin Garattoni) that until the 1920s, Americans had regarded Komodo dragons as cryptids, like the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot. In 1926, American naturalist W. Douglas Burden led an expedition to Komodo Island to verify the existence of the “dragon lizards.” In 1933, filmmaker Merian C. Cooper directed a blockbuster horror movie, largely based on Burden’s voyage. The movie, King Kong, is still popular 85 years later. Knowing that my collaborator for this project, Steve Bissette, is a wizard of dinosaur comics and expert on monster movies, I suspected that Komodo dragons would be a topic well-suited to his writing style. After I chose our reptilian subject matter, Bissette wrote a script (resembling a film script) and I created the comics pages based on said script.

What is your favorite animal or plant?
In recent years, I have been especially fascinated by spadefoot toads, denizens of the arid southwestern U.S. These amphibians stay quietly buried underground for most of their lives (up to three years at a stretch in the case of Couch’s spadefoot), until summer rain storms summon them to the surface. They engage in a frenzy of eating and mating, using the ephemeral pools, then return to their burrows for a long wait until the next “monsoon.” When I visited my friend Lesley, who was a park ranger at Colorado National Monument, we happened to strike it lucky and meet live spadefoot toads in the desert streams. Behind the huge cat-like eyes of the spadefoots, there seems to be an alien mind, one that does not object to hanging out alone in a hole in the ground for 1,000 or more consecutive days and nights.

Why do you think talking about nature is important?
We humans ought to preserve the earth’s remarkable diversity of life, what Charles Darwin described as “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” Considering that we’re in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, it is fair to say that we’ve been doing a poor job at this task so far. People will care more about protecting creatures that they know and like. Telling the stories of wild creatures is a way of getting people to know and like them.

What are your favorite drawing tools?
I remain attached to drawing comics in the traditional way—first I sketch the images in pencil on bristol board, then I make the final drawing with india ink on top of the pencils. Then I scan the pages, make some edits and do the lettering digitally. I’m especially fond of liner brushes, which I use primarily for inking the contour lines around foreground figures and objects. My main liner brushes for the Komodo story were a Grumbacher #4 and a Princeton #4, which are very different in size. (The numbers are not at all consistent across the different brands.)

The topmost picture is my self-portrait with Komodo dragons, inspired by Frank Frazetta’s painting “Conan the Barbarian.”

To get in the mindset of a naturalist-explorer, I read Burden's first-hand account.
I warmed up for drawing “Saliva & Skin” by visiting the ABQ Biopark Zoo and sketching (and photographing) live Komodo dragons.

Back at the studio, I posed for selfies and used them as reference material for many of the panels featuring human figures. In this one, I’m reenacting the experience of Maen, the Indonesian park ranger who survived a Komodo dragon attack. Below, the drawn scene as it appears in AP4.


My studio while I was working on “Saliva & Skin.” The floor is scattered with reference photos I printed from all over the web, as well as drawing tools and scraps of carbon paper.

If all this intrigues you, you ain't seen nothing yet! Awesome 'Possum Volume 4 is 229 pages long, and contains nonfiction comics about science and nature by over 30 creators. The tales are both educational and entertaining, and feature a broad range of plants and animals, including sphinx moths, lemurs, and Rafflesia. The tome is all-ages friendly and especially good for ages 9-12. The great American author of nonfiction graphic novels about science Jim Ottaviani said,

"You'll witness love of the natural world with every story, and your own love for it will grow with every page. You'll learn stuff, too, and learning stuff is awesome."

But to bring this book to life, we still need some backers on Kickstarter! Do you know anyone who likes nature or science or comics or learning stuff? This book will make them smile.

Book cover ©Kessinger Legacy Reprints. All other pictures ©R.W.S.