Painting by Insects

For a unique artistic style, there’s nothing like an insect’s feet to get the job done.

"11. Eleven Steps." Hissing cockroach. © Steven R. Kutcher
“11. Eleven Steps.” Hissing cockroach. Courtesy of Steven R. Kutcher

When creativity strikes, artist and entomology expert Steven R. Kutcher might reach for some favorite paintbrushes—insects. To him, the delicate feet of a creepy-crawly spread pigment in a style that no traditional tool can replicate. And with more than a million described six-legged species to choose from, the compositional possibilities are endless. “It’s the variability and the diversity of insects that [makes one] a good paintbrush,” says Kutcher.

For 10 years, Kutcher has been enlisting various hexapods to create colorful, abstract paintings. After dabbing a non-toxic gouache on an insect’s tootsies, he sets it down to patter across a piece of paper that’s been primed by a watercolor wash and positioned on a lazy Susan. Because a light source can attract his arthropod artists in one direction in a phenomenon called positive phototropism, Kutcher spins the lazy Susan to change the creature’s course and manipulate the unfolding design. “This is fine art, where you’re using line and color and shapes,” he says.

A darkling beetle shows how it's done. Courtesy of Steven R. Kutcher
A darkling beetle shows how it’s done. Courtesy of Steven R. Kutcher

The idea to use insects in artistry grew out of an advertising project Kutcher did for Steven Spielberg’s series Amazing Stories. Kutcher, who has a background in insect behavior, had already made a name for himself as a “bug whisperer,” wrangling insects for various commercials and T.V. shows (he’s also worked on more than 100 feature films). For the Spielberg project, Kutcher coaxed a fly into leaving footprints in what appeared to be ink. Years later, he related the feat to an acquaintance who suggested he try doing insect artwork. The concept stuck.

Each piece is a collaborative effort, dependent both on the bug’s trajectory and Kutcher’s own aesthetic. Sometimes his pieces follow a preconceived color scheme or are inspired by another artist’s work—Wassily Kandinsky’s Unequal, for example, or Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Other times, Kutcher works free-form. Only one outcome is certain: “You can never do the exact same painting twice,” he says.

"110. Unequal." Darkling beetle. This image was inspired by Kandinsky's painting by the same name. Courtesy of Steven R. Kutcher.
“110. Unequal.” Darkling beetle. This image was inspired by Kandinsky’s painting by the same name. Courtesy of Steven R. Kutcher.

Though Kutcher has used a wide range of arthropods in his work, including non-insects such as spiders and scorpions, he prefers “sturdy” species like darkling beetles and hissing cockroaches. He catches them locally or uses members of his “bug zoo”—about 50 containers he keeps under his own roof, each housing at least one arthropod. Once an insect has tread in paint across a page, Kutcher typically cleans its feet in the sink with a fine-tipped water bottle.

As abstract art, Kutcher’s work evokes the movement of a Jackson Pollock painting and the colors found in German Expressionism. But each piece is also a record of sorts: Insects are the most abundant animals on earth; it’s about time their footprints got noticed.

Meet the Writer

About Julie Leibach

Julie Leibach is a freelance science journalist and the former managing editor of online content for Science Friday.