Entomlogist Gavin Broad began this workshop by explaining the practice of taxonomy, particularly the act of describing species, in the curatorial setting of Natural History Museum (NHM). I presented my own field-based research on the role of drawing in contemporary morphology (Anderson, 2014a), the artistic project that unfolded during my residency at the NHM, and the Isomorphology system.

Participants were offered the opportunity to explore, through drawing, the differences between similar specimens from the Natural History collection that may represent separate species, and the description of species.

The Workshop

Broad’s presentation covered his work as a taxonomist and curator of wasp collections at the NHM. He gave an overview of the various approaches to discovering, identifying and describing (wasp) species. Broad described how drawings are useful to identify the morphological features that distinguish one species from another, emphasising that drawing highlights relevant characters amidst complicated morphology and can provide an idealised visualisation of anatomy that is not necessarily apparent in a particular, unique specimen.

The Specimens

The specimens were pinned adult insects and microscope slides, all of the parasitoid wasp family Ichneumonidae . The participants began to observe and draw specimens, paying attention to the identification of characteristic features. Several participants discussed questions of function with us during the observational drawing process. Drawing helped participants to investigate both form and function and, for example, after drawing a specimen and asking Broad about the function, one participant said ‘I found out that the hamuli are design features for hooking up the wings whilst in flight’.

There were also questions about the nature and function of the three miniature eyes (ocelli) on the top of the head; about the nature of a wing vein and how the wing is dried when the adult insect emerges and about the function of the sting. One participant drew the subtle differences between the eyes of several wasp specimens, while another drew general differences in the heads of two specimens. Figure two demonstrates an effort to highlight that one species had rounded and protruding bulky eyes, while the other had smaller eyes which imparts more space between, producing a wider ‘face’.

Drawing made me aware of the need to observe more and more closely with each stage of the drawing (Artist)

Some participants chose to draw the whole body, drawing characteristics in a more ‘artistic’ way – and then zooming in on particular features that claimed their attention, conveying the delicacy or geometry of the wings or experimenting in transforming wings into delicate leaves through drawing.

In the afternoon session of the workshop, I presented my own investigation into the use of drawing in contemporary zoology. I reported on the qualities that make drawing valuable as an epistemological tool in species identification and presented my own Isomorphology study as an example of an artistic approach to classification.

The participants were invited to consider this alternative and visual system for the continuation of their drawing practice. Looking for ‘species’ of form in different specimens helped to distinguish different structures in the wings and bodies of the wasp specimens. One participant drew the wings as a composite of hexagons, pentagons, squares and triangles based on the Isomorphology form set and said: ‘applying the Isomorphology forms and symmetries was very helpful in suggesting aspects to consider and encouraged thorough observation’ (Photographer).


Drawing helped participants to observe morphological features, to investigate the specimen as a complex creature, and to ask questions about the function of features. Drawing also helped to sustain and develop the observation of specimens.

In hindsight, Broad commented that the workshop had helped him to understand the role and value of drawing as a way of engaging people with taxonomy. Drawing helped the participants to eventually pick up on taxonomically important features, even if they did not know that they were the sort of features that a taxonomist might use.

It is encouraging that a keen eye can discern meaningful characteristics and differences without a background in detailed morphology and terminology. However, it was also notable that attempts to draw wings, of pinned specimens were not as scientifically accurate as those drawn from microscope slides because the wings of a pinned insect are generally folded and bent to some degree, so interpreting the veins and cells is very difficult without a background knowledge of what a wasp wing looks like (Broad, 2015, personal communication).

Drawings of wings and the postures of specimens emphasised that the specimens were being depicted, not species.

There were clearly different ideas about what it means to compare specimens of the same or different species. The separation of specimen-level (intra-specific) from species-level (inter-specific) variation is usually difficult for the taxonomist, especially when working with small numbers of specimens. The closer the examination of fine details, such as eyes and faces then the better chance of distinguishing similar species. But differences and similarities are manifest at the micro- and macro-scale. The drawings produced gave rise to a diverse range of ‘extra-scientific’ interpretations, several participants sketched the specimens from different angles and perspectives, imparting a liveliness to the specimen and portraying its general shape and nature very effectively. Broad felt that some participants were better than he is at discerning and describing (in non-technical language) differences in overall form, or morphology.

Applying Isomorphological principles to the drawing exercise helped participants to understand that there is a pattern and geometry to the cells of an insect wing. The workshop allowed artistic and scientific questioning of specimens through observational drawing that can be developed for artistic or scientific work.

From the viewpoint of engaging people with science, drawing workshops such as this are useful in introducing potentially difficult and arcane practices of taxonomy to people who would never usually have an opportunity to delimit species and describe the differences between previously unknown organisms. Invaluable, given the huge task ahead of us in describing the world’s fauna and flora (Broad, 2015, personal communication).

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