Natalie McIntyre is a Cambridge-based artist who specialises in drawing insects. Her work is influenced by her interest in museum collections and her meticulous life-sized drawings of butterflies and beetles look as if they could be studies done by naturalists from earlier centuries. She also works in a more contemporary style; her recent work is larger-than-life ink drawings of close-ups of insects.
I asked Natalie some questions about her practice and ideas.
Julie: Tell us a little bit about your artistic background/education.
Natalie: I went to the Kent Institute of Art and Design in Canterbury for both my foundation course and first degree. There were so many opportunities to work in a diverse range of media within numerous specialities that it took me a while to settle on Graphic Fine Art.
After my degree, I went onto study for my Masters at the Slade School, UCL, specialising in Fine Art Media. Both qualifications enabled me to work in drawing, printmaking, bookbinding, photography and installation. It was this combination of flexibility and craftsmanship that I most enjoyed.
Julie: How would you describe your practice? What interests you about drawing insects?
Natalie: My art practice is mainly concerned with the symbolic and aesthetic value of insects. They have limitless diversity in terms of their appearance and when studying their physiognomy at close range, there can appear both monstrous and beautiful. To execute these studies I employ the tradition of natural history illustration and the scientific depiction of insects and I am fascinated with the way in which museums classify and display their historical finds.
Julie: Where do you get the specimens that you draw? Do you draw from life or photographs?
Natalie: I started collecting insects whilst at the Slade and there was a constant source of cockroaches to collect whilst living in London! Once I began this modest collection, people started adding to it, with little donations arriving in my work space. Living in the countryside, I often find the odd specimen here and there but I do not actively trap anything as I prefer to let them live their fascinating little lives. I mostly draw from life or my own photographs but I have also used the Cambridge Zoology Museum’s collection for the more exotic specimens.
Julie: Your large-scale work is made using a microscope and gold. Can you describe your process?
Natalie: Whilst at the Slade I got permission to use the University’s Electron Microscope to photograph my specimens. The process involved dehydrating the insects and coating them in a fine layer of real gold after which they are mounted into the microscope and can be photographed in great detail from all angles. The medium format negatives allowed me to produce large scale photographs. Now that I no longer have the luxury of using such an expensive piece of equipment I reproduce these photographs using fine drawing pens and paper. I recently discovered that I could use hot foils to emulate the gold used in the electron micrograph process.
Julie: You no longer draw on old book pages. Can you tell us why?
Natalie: Up until fairly recently I would sometimes mount my drawings onto old book pages which gave the work an antiquarian feel but after I while I noticed that other artists were doing something similar and I felt it was important to evolve my artistic process. I managed to get a lovely old typewriter and I sometimes use that if I want to add text and I enjoy finding references to insects in mythology and literature.
Julie: I am always interested in materials. Your work is ink on paper. Which inks and papers are your favourites?
Natalie: I tried out a lot of pens in the early stages because it is important that they dry really quickly and therefore don’t smudge. I now prefer using Pilot drawing pens in a range of sizes from 01 for the tiny details to 08 for large black areas. I use a Winsor and Newton heavyweight cartridge paper with a smooth surface and together they make a good combination.
Julie: How would you describe a good day in the studio?
Natalie: When the kids are at school/ nursery and I’m not teaching or examining I occasionally get a good day when without distraction I can draw all day. I lose track of time, forget to take breaks and I have been late to pick up the children because the time seems to fly. These are the days when I feel caught up in the process, like a trance and even though I might only draw a small section, I feel fulfilled.
Julie: You are exhibiting in the group show ‘Discovery: Reimagining Darwin’s world’ in May. What will you be showing?
Natalie: The exhibition is tailor-made for my work so I have tried to show a good selection of specimens using the various techniques I employ. I have been working on an insect portrait series which depicts the close-up faces of insects in minute detail. They appear to be posing, almost smiling as we anthropomorphise the images. I have also recently acquired some old entomology boxes from the Natural History Museum which have great provenance as they used to house their insect collection. I have re-appropriated them by using them as frames for my own insect drawings of trays of Darwin’s beetles.
Julie: What is your favourite artwork that you have ever done?
Natalie: I think my Master’s show in 1999 was a highlight as it was a culmination of many different threads of my work coming together in a faux scientific installation. I also really enjoyed recreating a British Journal of Genetic Entomology which was a fake document containing insects I had drawn alongside fabricated scientific information.
Julie: Who/what are your influences?
Natalie: I am influenced by old fashioned museums like the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which rely on the quality of their specimens rather than trying to make history and science fun by adding unnecessary interactive touches. The displays are mesmerising and beautiful. I am in awe of the explorers who went to such great lengths to find and illustrate new specimens such as Maria Sibylla Merian in the late 17th century. She was an amazing and talented woman and one of the most significant contributors to the field of entomology.
Julie: Who are your favourite contemporary artists?
Natalie: I am inspired by Mark Dion, a contemporary artist who constructs installations appropriating the scientific methods of collecting, ordering and exhibiting objects. I also love the detailed watercolour paintings of Cornelia Hesse-Honegger who documents the mutated insects found around Chernobyl and the beautiful pencil drawings of oceans, star fields and spider webs produced by Vija Celmins.
Julie: What is coming up next for you and where can we see more of your art in the flesh and on-line?
Natalie: As my second child gets older I will have more free time to draw. There is still so much more to document. I have been thinking more about mythology and Pandora’s box in particular and would like to explore the symbolic thread in my work. I would like to continue to exhibit in group shows as it makes me constantly re-examine my own work. I have set up a Facebook page ‘Bugs etc’ and my email address is email@example.com
Natalie is one of 12 artists in the upcoming exhibition Discovery: Reimagining Darwin’s World at Espacio Gallery in East London, 3-15 May 2016.