Activity Snapshot: 

Scientific illustration is an artistic-scientific discipline. It represents information so that people can learn about the natural word. It is a visual approach to a scientific idea! The goal is to be as accurate as possible. 

Roger Tory Peterson was a very successful naturalist and scientific illustrator, who worked at Chewonki as a counselor in the 1920’s. He went on to illustrate and publish many field guides that help people connect to the natural world to this day. You can learn about him in this video and his time at Chewonki in this record from the Chewonki Archives. 

Practice your drawing skills! You can use animals as your inspiration. First you can practice by drawing an insect, and then move on to a bird. You could draw a bird you can see from your window, a pet bird, or a bird in another setting. You can also take a photo of a bird and draw from that.

Most importantly, be safe and HAVE FUN! If you are more inspired by other animals and want to draw them, we would love to see what you come up with! Also, if you would prefer to create collages, mixed media compositions, sculptures or paintings, we are excited to see those creations as well!


Create a scientific illustration of an insect and bird using your skills of observation.

Time Recommended:

2-4 hours


  • Paper
  • Pencils (if possible, various weights H, HB, B1-B8)
  • Eraser
  • Fine point pens (if possible, micron drawing pens)
  • Colored pencils 
  • Grey paper
  • Q-tips for blending/smudging shadows


Get Set Up
  • Begin your creative process by doing some simple research to learn more about Roger Tory Peterson and scientific illustration.
  • Dedicated artists who want to learn more can read this short article to  find the answers to these questions:
    • With digital technology, why is the skill of drawing still important for scientific illustration?
    • What can a scientific illustrator do that a camera cannot?
    • Where might a scientific illustrator work?
  • After completing the research, it is time to collect your naturally expired insects
  • These might be dead insects on window sills, outside on the ground, underneath lights, or on a vehicle’s windshield or grill.
  • Next gather drawing materials and tools. 
  • Try to find a well lit area to start your first sketch.

Practice Sketch (Insect)
  • There are 5 important steps to create a successful observational drawing.

#1.  Focus on the major shape and draw only that.

  • In this image, there is a wasp on the paper, and the basic overall shape that the was would fit into.

#2. Break down the large overall shape into the smaller individual shapes you see. 

#3. Use a straightedge or a ruler to make the shapes.

  • Using a ruler will make it easier for you to make the proportions accurate. It is easier for human eyes to recognize straight edges.

#4. Use a pencil to measure the different parts of your insect.

  • The distance between the wasp’s head and stinger is the same length as it’s closest sing. 
  • Using that proportion, the artist can have those same measurements in their sketch.
  • The sketch will be bigger than the actual insect, but the proportions will be the same.

#5. Add in the curved edges and erase the unnecessary lines.

  • Now that the general drawing is done, details can be added.
  • Add values (Shading and highlights).

  • When you are using a pencil, it is never too late to make changes. 
  • In this image, the angle of the wasp’s head was changed.
  • Once value was added, the artist noticed that a change was needed to make it more accurate. 

  • Consider adding shadows.
  • Shadows bring a sketch to life and make it look realistic.
  • Look closely at the edges of the subject you are drawing and where it rests on the paper.

  • If you have a darker drawing tool, you can use that to increase the contrast and help your drawing pop off the page.

Sketch a Bird
  • Now that you’ve practiced sketching the insect, it is time to try drawing a bird.
  • You can sketch them from life (in nature from a window, a pet bird, or from a zoo)
  • It can be very difficult to draw a live bird, so artists will often take a photograph of a living subject and use the photo to draw from.

  • Repeat the same drawing techniques that you used for the insect drawing when you draw the bird.

  • Try adding color to represent various hues and shadows. 
  • Think about adding detail around the bird that shows its natural environment.

  • If you sketch on white paper, you can use the white color of the paper as the brightest highlights in your drawing.
  • This chicken was sketched in pencil and the highlights were created by leaving white paper exposed.
  • Marker was added for hue (color), and a black fine point pen was used to partially trace the outline of the chicken.

  • Feel free to capture a photograph of your process, pre-planning images, your pile of natural materials, and the final masterpiece. Follow the link to learn how to take great photos!

Important Resources: 

Ask yourself questions such as:

  • What do I see?
  • How do I look and observe more deeply?
  • How can I represent texture?
  • How can I illustrate with accuracy and realism?

Helpful Vocabulary:

Composition- Is the arrangement or placement of visual elements in a piece of artwork.

Subject- Any person, objects, scene or event described or represented in a work of art.

Scale- Artists create scale for drawings to correctly show the size relationship between objects.

Proportion- Proportion is the principle of art that refers to relative size. 

Value- The use of light and dark in art.

Form- Is a concept that is related to shape and can be created by combining two or more shapes, resulting in a three-dimensional shape.

Texture- Texture refers to the tactile quality of the surface of an art object. The feel or shape of a surface or substance; the smoothness, roughness, softness, etc. of something.

Emphasis- To draw attention to a certain area, usually a focal point, in an artwork

Elements of ArtLine, shape, space, value, form, texture, and color. 

Other References:, 3 Tips to Improve Drawing Skills

Arttutor. com 13 Minute Bird of Prey Sketch

Mattia Lanas, Chewonki Semester School Alumni

Roger Tory Peterson Facebook

Closing Questions:

  1. What is one thing that worked well with your composition? (Examples: I really think the wings were accurate. My composition popped off the page because of the shadows I included)
  2. What is one thing you would do differently next time you did this project? What advice or suggestions would you give to a friend who was doing this project?
  3. Did you try something new? How did you experiment and explore in your drawings?

Share with your Community:

Not only would we like to see a picture of your final project we would love to see your process too! Send us photos of your process, your subjects, and your final masterpieces! You can also answer the reflection questions and submit your work to the online galleries on our website. They might even be published in an end of summer edition of the Chronicle!

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