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Sep. 06, 2012

Glamour Pin-Ups from the USDA

by Annette Heist

Click to enlarge images
Artist Taina Litwak makes insects look beautiful. Or at least better looking. 
 
Litwak is a scientific illustrator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Systematic Entomology Lab, where she paints type specimens of newly described insects. When USDA scientists come across a new species--collected in the field or at a port of entry, or found in preserved material--the tiny bug bodies make their way to Litwak's desk at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
 
"They never die beautifully," Litwak says. "Their wings might be bent, or a part might be missing. A lot of times I am making a specimen look much better than the dead guy they give me. "
 
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But while the insects might look better, the goal is scientifically accurate illustrations. Litwak says she starts with a line drawing (made while looking through a microscope) to get the basic features in place. From there, and always in
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consultation with the collecting scientist, she uses photographs and scanning electron micrographs to add the tiniest details to the image, which is created using Photoshop.
 
Litwak paints a few dozen "new-to-science" specimens a year, in addition to the many line drawings of "tiny parts" she does for scientific manuscripts. You can see more of her work here and below.
 
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About Annette Heist

Annette Heist is a former senior producer for Science Friday.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

Science Friday® is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

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