by Angela Mende
Why do we fear them? Like many, I used to experience the same sense of revulsion when encountering a spider. The way they moved could turn my legs to jelly, and the thought of finding one crawling on me was terrifying! Yet, at the same time, I could never stop staring at them. When I was young, I would patiently sit and watch the spiders in our garden wrap their prey up in their silk, or hungrily pounce on them, before swooping them off to their shelter to dine in.
Neoscona domiciliorum (Spotted Orbweaver), 8"x10"
Art and biology have always held a special place in my heart. In high school, they were easily my favorite subjects. I loved my art teacher, who introduced me to my very first set of Berol Prismacolors, and the all important blending color #914, and I was always very proud of my ability to draw. I also adored biology, and the study of natural world, where I could combine my passions to create large scale illustrations of the cross-section of a leaf, the anatomy of a cell, or the digestive system. At one point, I strongly considered becoming a medical illustrator, but when it came time to choose my study in University, I got scared. I wasn’t sure I could make it as a free-lance artist, and so, I picked architecture as a more “practical” alternative instead. Architecture is an incredible field of study; but the reality of an architect is quite different. As a working professional, I draw very little, and what I do is mostly on a computer.
“I started looking more closely at the spider and its anatomy, seeking out other sources and sites to better understand what I was drawing.”
For many years, I did not pick up my pencils, until one day, I finally got tired of comparing my adult self to the artist I had once been and decided to start drawing again. I quickly found my way back to colored pencils, which I had always loved as a child and in school.
While browsing a free online photo site for inspiration, an image of a spider caught my eye. The way it crouched, and the position of its legs, was strangely beautiful and terrifying at the same time, and I felt an overwhelming desire to draw it.
Araneus diadematus (Cross Orbweaver), 8"x10"
To begin, I started looking more closely at the spider and its anatomy, seeking out other sources and sites to better understand what I was drawing. There was so much to learn! Spiders have 6 or 8 eyes, and while some spiders, such as jumping spiders, have excellent eyesight, others, such as orbweavers, can only distinguish between light and shadow. Their legs are tipped with 2 or 3 claws. The abdomen contains the spider’s organs, and at the tip are the “spinnerets”, which produce the spider’s silk. Spider jaws are called “chelicerae”. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became.
I also started exploring different papers, gravitating towards the darker backgrounds, which helped me better focus on light and values, and working at a larger scale, which permitted me to fully capture as much detail as possible.
I was quite pleased with the technical execution of my earlier drawings But there was still a certain satisfaction missing from them. I remembered back in architecture school, while working on a piece for my thesis project, my professor came over to me, looked at the piece, looked at me, then asked, “so Angie, what’s the story?” And that really got me thinking.
With pencil drawings, for the most part, I draw what I see, relying on a really great reference photo to get the information I need. What I found lacking in my earlier works was this story; a way to describe what I saw and how I felt when observing them. I decided that I needed to start taking my own photos, in order to better convey to other people what I wanted to say in my work. Like many of us, I am no photographer and after a brief trial with manual cameras, I quickly decided that my iPhone would be a better fit.
Waiting (Cross Orbweaver), 15"x8.5"
I started seeking spiders out, around the house, in the garden, hanging outside my office window, and on construction sites. The more photos I took, the more aware I became of how many different kinds of spiders there were, how they behaved, what habitat they preferred, how they hunted, where they hid and how they lived. I even joined a local Facebook group to help identify the spiders I was taking photographs of.
“It seems that, over time, drawing spiders has all but eliminated my fear of them, and have allowed me instead to see them for the beautiful works of art that they are.”
My work became much more personal, and I was able to enjoy the process of drawing them all the more, as I was no longer only illustrating what I saw, but how I saw them. In my backyard, I saw a tiny yellow sac spider, sitting on a giant peony petal, in a forest of flowers. Outside my front window, a cross-orbweaver lay hidden under a hydrangea flower, one tiny claw resting on a line of silk, waiting for a catch.
Today, it seems strange, when I proudly display my spider drawings to others, to understand the negative reaction so many have to them. I just don’t feel it anymore. Where before, I could barely touch on an image of a spider, now, when I see one in my home, I can gently guide it into my hand and place it on one of my houseplants. It seems that, over time, drawing spiders has all but eliminated my fear of them, and have allowed me instead to see them for the beautiful works of art that they are.
ABOUT ANGELA MENDE:
Angela Mende hails from Montreal, Canada, where she works as a full-time architect, while raising a family and producing as many colored pencil works as time will allow. Although she considers spiders to be her spirit animal, she loves and enjoys all animals, putting her feet in the grass, and connecting with the natural world.