Lesson 4: Drawing Insects and Arachnids

As of October 8th 2016, after roughly two years of offering free critiques, I will now be limiting my own critiques to patreon supporters ($7 or more for this lesson specifically). But don't fret - you are still welcome to freely submit your work and questions directly to the /r/ArtFundamentals subreddit to be reviewed by the community.

Before we start, I assume you've completed Lesson 3 (which in turn requires that you complete lessons 1 and 2). Each lesson builds upon the last, so while you think you may know enough to jump in half way, or that the previous topics are of little interest to you, you'll be missing out on quite a bit. Start from the beginning, and you'll be glad you did.

Analytical and Constructive Drawing from Observation: Drawing Insects and Arachnids

This time we are graduating from plants to actual critters - insects and arachnids. Creepy-crawlies. I'll be honest, while doing the demos for this lesson, I had to look at all sorts of unsettling reference images, and now I feel all kinds of dirty. Insects make a great next step because they are a great way to ease into capturing form. They are almost all full of natural contour lines (due to how their bodies contain a lot of segmentation), which helps us establish landmarks and convey volume.

Just as the previous lesson, this one will emphasize a variety of demonstrations.

Components of an Insect

Insects (and arachnids) are composed of three major components:

  • Head
  • Thorax
  • Abdomen

This holds true for the majority, though in some cases - like in beetles, spiders, and so on - you'll find that the head and thorax are fused. Still, you can visually separate those elements.

The other significant point to notice is that insects (and some arachnids) display a shape language focused around the triangle. This can be seen in the general shapes of their heads, the way their legs bend, etc. Triangles naturally tend to be more sinister and unsettling as shapes (while squares are solid and circles are cuddly).

Black Widow Spider

We're going to start this off with a particularly disturbing creature - the notorious black widow spider. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get reference with a pose I liked that had the iconic red hour glass on it. Oh well.

Here is video recording of this demo (no audio):

Establish Your Major Forms

So you want to start out by fleshing out your three major forms - head, thorax and abdomen. Even in the case of spiders, with their cephalothorax (fused head/thorax), I'll usually still block them out as separate masses very close together, but in this particular situation the reference doesn't really show me much of the head. So, we've got the thorax and abdomen.

Find Thorax-Leg Joints

Next I want to try and find out roughly where and how the legs connect to the body. It can be helpful to look up other images of your subject matter, especially ones that show how the underside of its body is arranged. It also helps to block in those joints (as circles) for the opposite side of the body as well, at least for the legs that are going to be visible. Of course, being on the opposite side of the body, we are likely going to take steps later to flatten them out and make them less dominant, but for now we want to make sure we can largely understand how the whole object exists in three dimensions.

Block Out the Legs

At first glance this may seem like a huge jump, but it's absolutely not. Each leg is segmented, and so while carefully observing my reference image, I built each segment out one at a time. I find the most success from drawing the same segment for all of the legs before moving onto the next, rather than building out each leg one at a time. This helps keep the arrangement balanced, rather than finding later on that you've accidentally run out of space to include the last leg in any reasonable way. You will make mistakes in your arrangement of things, but at least this way you can compensate and shift things around together, evenly spreading out the impact of your blunder over all of the legs rather than having it focused on one.

Line Weight, Organizing Shapes and Detail

The most important thing I've done here is just adding line weight (and blacking out a few small sections to help clarify my leg-forms and reduce a lot of the clutter going on). At this stage in the drawing, you're going to have a lot of overlapping lines vying for your viewer's attention. You want to set these out in a sort of hierarchy of importance, so your viewer ultimately knows what to look at first. As we covered in the last lesson, your first tool for achieving this is simple line weight to clarify what exists in front of what. Second is filling in areas with solid black to help another area of white to really pop into view.

You'll also notice that for the back legs, I added some very simple, straight hatching. Straight hatching on a rounded object is usually a no-no, because it'll flatten your form out completely. In this case, that's what I want. It's a design choice to help push those legs back in terms of importance. I want the viewer's eye to glaze over those details in favour of the legs closer to them.

Reinforce the Illusion of Form (Contour Lines)

My last step is limited to just a few minor touches - adding a cast shadow (just a quick outline of the shape with no fill whatsoever) and little details to suggest what kind of ground this creature is resting upon. It's not that important, but it does help in terms of presentation to ground the object and offer hints regarding the world beyond this very focused snapshot.

Common House Fly

The last of these three new critiques will be a common pest - a house fly. This one's actually quite similar to the wasp from the old set of demos.

Here is video recording of this demo (no audio):

Basic Structure

Start off by fleshing out your major forms - head, thorax, abdomen.


With your major forms laid out, you next want to add in some legs. In the reference image, we can't see where the legs attach to the body, so with some additional research and a bit of critical thinking, you'll find that they connect underneath the thorax like every other insect and arachnid we've dealt with today. Remember that insects have three pairs of legs, and pay special attention to how they spread out from the body. The front pair always faces forwards, but the other pairs tend to point more towards the back.

Break Down and Reinforce Forms

Here I've added some contour curves to help reinforce my more ball-like forms, and I've started breaking down the more complex elements of the head.


When drawing wings, don't just tack them on thoughtlessly. Consider how they attach to the body. The more accurately and thoughtfully you deal with these problems of connectivity, the more believable and solid your drawing will appear at the end. Think of every object in existence as series of problems, whose design was tailored (be it through craftsmanship, evolution or whatever else) to solve these problems. In this case, how do we attach these wings to this little bastard so he can fly around and buzz in everyone's faces while they're trying to work.

Organize your Shapes

Now that the construction is done, all that's left is to sort through the mess, bring the important shapes and lines to the forefront and push the others back. As always, use line weight to clarify which forms and shapes are in front, and which ones are behind.

Cast Shadow and Ground Detail

Same as all of the other demos - add a quick cast shadow that roughly matches the object and throw in some appropriate ground details. In this case, I was actually thinking about little bits of human hair and skin, but it looks a lot more like grass and dirt. That's definitely something to keep in mind - if that reads as grass, it tells the viewer that this fly is massive and that they should run away immediately. Or that they should try to saddle it and use it as a steed... Either way, not what I was after.

As I do homework critiques, I create new hand-written demos/notes that likely are valuable to others, so I'll be including them here.

These exercises should be done traditionally, using a felt tip pen (0.5mm is ideal). I use the Staedtler Pigment Liners, and sometimes the Faber Castell PITT artist pens (more expensive and higher quality), though there are plenty of other brands that work just as well.

Felt Tip Pens

In previous exercises, I allowed ballpoint pens to be used. For these, I insist you use a felt tip pen, as it will force you to deal with your pressure control - an issue that will help across various other drawing media.

As homework, I recommend doing at least:

  • 2 filled pages of lay-ins; this means looking at your subject and breaking down their general forms. If you look at my demos, the lay-ins stop just before I start adding heavy detail.
  • 8 filled pages of insect and arachnid drawings, including the study diagrams and notes. Show me that you understand the creepy-crawlies you drew, and that you took the time to really study them. You may want to devote each page to a given creature.

Take your time, and take as many breaks as you need. No need to rush. I expect this to take you at least eight hours, likely more.

Either draw from life, or use high-resolution reference images. These albums contain plenty of insects, though Google images (be sure to set the size to large under search tools) and pinterest tend to be good sources of reference.

If you want a critique and some direction, you can submit your homework for review as a comment on this lesson's post on /r/ArtFundamentals. If you do choose to submit, please be sure to complete the homework in its entirety in the required medium/media. While I am happy to help out, it does take a lot of time, and I'd greatly appreciate it if the time is taken to fully read and digest the material.

The demos below are outdated, but still have some relevant information so I've decided to leave them up. Keep in mind that when I wrote and recorded these, I was putting much less focus on the importance of dealing in solid forms and construction than I do now.


Our reference, the yellowjacket. I had a hive of one of these underneath my kitchen window this summer, and somehow they were flying into the house right above where my computer was. Luckily they'd only wander in one at a time, and I'd gotten rather efficient at killing them.

Patreon-only Video Demo (20min, no audio)

Examine the Structure

Here we can easily see the three major components of the insect - the head, the thorax and the abdomen. These are 3D forms, so think back to your organic forms with contour lines. As I mentioned before, insects tend to come quite naturally segmented, resulting in a lot of natural contour lines you can take advantage of.

Lay in your Forms

Here I've laid in all of my structure. I've established that segmentation on the abdomen, blocked in the legs (which are strangely annoying - always remember to draw them with volume through the use of a subtle contour line here or there, rather than flat, especially closer to the body).

When you have to draw details like wings, it can be at times difficult to determine where they should end and how long they should be. On your reference, try to look at where they end relative to other parts of the body.

You'll also notice that I've laid a very simple outline of a shadow underneath the subject. This is important as it helps to ground the wasp, and gives us a sense of context. Using an outline instead of a proper shadow helps keep it from becoming distracting or increasing the contrast in those various areas.


Now, just as in the previous lesson, it is just a matter of adding detail. Draw a circle to mark your focal point and start carefully observing the surface quality of your subject.

While there are all sorts of ways to convey texture through the use of hatching, stippling, and a whole assortment of patterns, always remember that you should avoid randomness at all costs. Even hair, though one might think it random, has a rhythm to it.

Furthermore, in areas where you cannot add heavy detailing (for example, outside of the focal point), you can still convey subtle information by manipulating the silhouette of a given form. Little hairs spurting from the edge of a form will immediately convey the impression of a hairy texture covering its entirety.

Ground Beetle

Now, a beetle. You'll notice that unlike the wasp, its head and thorax are fused - though they're still quite discernable from one another. The two front pairs of legs come off the thorax, and the rear pair of legs come off the abdomen. The positioning of the legs will vary, so be sure to pay special attention to that when studying your insects.

Patreon-only Video Demo (18min, no audio)

Lay in your Forms

Once again, laying in my forms. At this stage I like to drop in the legs as simple gestural lines. I'm notoriously bad at the legs, so this helps me drop them in and check before wholly committing with entire forms.

Continue the Lay-in

When you start off, your major forms are the head, thorax and abdomen. As you break down those forms, however, you notice that the beetle has an exoskeleton composed of pieces that have a bit of thickness to them. They themselves have forms that should be blocked in as well. Remember to layer them on top of the underlying structure, curving to hug those forms. I always see it as armour.

Also notice that I've marked in thickness for each piece, because very few things in this world are paper thin.

I've also added in the outline of a cast shadow, just as with the wasp, to ground the beetle.


The details really aren't that important at this point, but as always, define focal point and look closely at the divets, bumps and dents on the shell.

Wolf Spider

All of you should feel really bad for making me look at all of these spiders. I hate spiders. They just suck. To hell with spider bro.

Okay, on to the actual teaching bit. So with arachnids, they have a head, thorax and abdomen just as the others, but their heads and thoraxes are fused to the point where it is rather difficult to tell them apart. For all intents and purposes, you can consider them to be more or less the same form.

Patreon-only Video Demo (18min, no audio)

Lay in your Forms

So, I've blocked in the two major forms and loosely marked in the legs. I'm just exploring the layout of things at this point, but I have added the mandibles and the palpus (the arm-things sticking out from its head).

Break Down into the Smaller Forms

Based on my previous loose construction, I fill in the remaining forms and start loosely reinforcing my volumes with a few well placed contour lines. Spiders tend to have really bulbous abdomens (frankly that bit creeps the hell out of me) so I want to be absolutely sure to capture that.


Now it's just a matter of picking a focal point, looking closely at the surface textures in my reference and filling them in.