We all have pet peeves, even though there’s a lot going on in the world that makes them pretty insignificant. While acknowledging that there are many more important things in life, I write this post about my own personal illustration pet peeve in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, it’ll make a little teeny difference. Here goes:
I love butterflies. They’re one of my favorite subjects to illustrate and one of my favorite sights in nature. To me, they’re a symbol of hope, an embodiment of beauty, and a sign of what’s right in the world. I think that’s why it bothers me when depictions of butterflies often fail to do them justice, whether they are in a work of art, a website, a product, an animation, or in print.
My explanation needs to begin with a description of a dead butterfly. When a butterfly is placed in an insect collection, the person who prepares it positions its wings according to a convention that facilitates identification. In the photo of a dead, pinned butterfly below, note that the trailing edge of the forewings (blue line) is perpendicular to the body’s axis (red line). When the insect has just been killed, it remains flexible for awhile, allowing the collector time to insert a pin and manipulate its wings into this position, where they are held in place until they become dry and stiff. This is an unnatural position for the wings; it’s a pose that may be possible for the insect to assume in life, but not a position that most species typically assume.
In field guides and other butterfly reference materials, one frequently sees images of such pinned butterflies because, I presume, it is easy to photograph a dead butterfly. Also, numerous photos of dead butterflies against the same background is aesthetically consistent, and the pinned position allows the viewer to see as much of the hind wings as possible, aiding identification. It is a useful convention and it makes sense in field guides.
By contrast, butterflies that are alive and going about their business of flying and nectaring do not typically hold their forewings too far forward of their head. In life, the way a butterfly holds its wings is variable, but it is uncommon for most species that I’ve encountered to hold their forewings in the manner of pinned specimen. Here are some photographs I’ve taken over the years that demonstrate this:
As you can see, in most cases, it is the leading edge of the forewings that is nearly perpendicular to the body. One will notice quite a bit of variability in wing positions in living butterflies, but it’s atypical for the trailing edge of the forewings to be perpendicular to the body. This is true not only of butterflies that are perched, but also of butterflies aloft. As an example, view this photo of monarchs in flight. There are exceptions, of course. It seems that some of the smaller butterflies may exhibit wing positions fairly close to that of a dead, pinned specimen:
I suspect that the field guide photos of dead, pinned butterflies are the ultimate (though unwitting) source of my pet peeve: The pervasive phenomenon of butterflies in popular culture being shown as dead, with the trailing edge of their forewings perpendicular to their body. Here are some examples:
You can see at this link that the practice of illustrating dead butterflies goes back a long way, in a painting by a 19th century artist.
A particularly ironic example is this movie poster for a documentary about the flight of monarchs. Some of the flying monarch illustrations are accurate, but the largest and many of the others are clearly dead, even though they’re depicted as if in flight.
Stock photography sites include misleading photos of dead butterflies purporting to be in flight. Here’s one. Here’s another. It’s understandable that customers would accept the description as accurate, even though it isn’t.
This website shows numerous butterfly tattoos. Only a few look alive, despite the tattoo artists’ clever technique of inking cast shadows to give the impression that the butterflies are actually perched on the skin. Had the recipients of dead butterfly tattoos known the difference between a living and a dead butterfly, I have to believe they would have more carefully considered their options. I think a depiction of a living butterfly is the most effective way to convey its positive symbolism.
Dead butterflies are frequently spotted in gift shops. You can rest your head against them, adorn your ears with them, hang them on your wall, enoy them while you sip a beverage, wrap your gifts with them, or wear them:
I have blurred a couple company names in the photos above because I’m not trying to shame anyone. Most people have seen and are influenced by thousands (millions?) of depictions of unintentionally dead butterflies and have never considered the difference between a living and a dead butterfly. That’s why I decided to write this post.
I’m not innocent of committing my own pet peeve. In 2001, I illustrated the endangered Karner Blue butterfly using pinned specimens as a reference:
Had I realized then what I know now, I would have changed the wing and leg positions to be more lifelike. It would have made for a better representation, even though I was not attempting to show the insects in flight or perched on a flower. Nowadays, if you ask me to illustrate a butterfly, I will position its wings as if it is alive:
I realize there are some instances where it isn’t clear that the artist/designer intended to show a living butterfly, and where it may be perfectly acceptable to represent a dead butterfly. Nonetheless, there’s no good reason to depict a dead butterfly in the vast majority of situations. It doesn’t take much effort to be accurate about wing position. My hope is that the multitudes of butterfly images in our culture will gradually shift toward alive, which is how I prefer to think of them, and how I think these beautiful insects should be seen.
If you hadn’t previously noted the difference between a living and a dead butterfly, I’m afraid you will now begin to see dead butterflies EVERYWHERE, as I do.