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Grasshopper illustrator focuses on tiny features

Grasshopper illustrator focuses on tiny features

The Lewis and Clark Expedition was a “pictorial failure” in the eyes of science illustrator Ralph Scott.

The intrepid explorers made just a few drawings in their exhaustive journals, and they didn’t hire an artist to travel with them.

Words failed Meriwether Lewis as he attempted to describe the Great Falls of the Missouri River. On June 12, 1805, the explorer wrote that he regretted not lugging along a camera obscura, a device known for projecting an image so that it could be traced.

Scott, who lives in the Blue Creek area, will trace the history of scientific illustration and photography on Saturday at the Audubon Conservation Education Center, across from the entrance to Riverfront Park.

His history starts with cave paints and tells the story of great painters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer, who rendered the natural world with stunning clarity.

“Scientific illustrators have an obsession, an excessive obsession and deep appreciation for detailed work,” he said.

His own illustrations are primarily of grasshoppers.

“Everything is measured out when we do this,” he said.

Da Vinci’s drawings of the structure of human muscles and bones look as if they could have been pulled from a medical textbook. Durer, the famed German painter, was a master of precise proportion and perspective.

“I don’t think any of these people thought of themselves as scientific illustrators, but they did scientific stuff. They looked at the natural world, and they portrayed what was there,” Scott said.

Thomas Moffett, a London doctor with a passion for insects, assembled the first entomology text. The work languished without a publisher during his lifetime, but was published posthumously in 1634.

Robert Hooke, an English scientist, coined the word “cell” in 1633, after viewing cells in a piece of cork under a primitive microscope.

In 1705, Maria Sibylla Merian, a German painter, took off with her daughter to South America to survey the tropical world of Suriname. She produced vibrant artwork of living creatures in their natural habitats.

Beatrix Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit, is far less well-known for her drawings of insects and fungi. Her detailed drawings of the natural world were never published during her lifetime because of Victorian sensibilities on the role of women.

Scott, who was drawn to nature as a child, takes his history of illustration through the Digital Age. Although he has undergraduate degrees in zoology and arts/photography, he never found much time to pursue his talent for scientific illustration until he took early retirement in 1990, at the age of 55. He spent seven years working on the illustrations for a field guide to grasshoppers in the United States published in 2005 by Cornell University Press.

Scott usually starts with a pencil drawing, then creates an outline using Rapidograph pens.

“It’s done in ink with a dash of watercolor,” he said.

At the moment, he’s revising a field guide to Montana grasshoppers, a book useful to scientists, extension agents and ranchers who need to identify specific species.

Montana has 123 species of grasshoppers, katydids and crickets. Scott can step outside the door of his home and find 60 species, he said.

Few guides have been published because grasshoppers are not generally considered among the “charismatic” insects, like butterflies or beetles.

“People hate ’em, but they’re just as beautiful and they’re everywhere,” he said. “People don’t understand them. They think they’re all pests, and they’re not. The agricultural pests really are very few.”

In his field guide, grasshoppers labeled agricultural pests have stars by their write-ups.

“They’re fascinating in how tough they really are,” he said.

On Montana’s prairies, the spring grasshoppers come out in early to mid-April. People often mistakenly think those grasshoppers perish during spring snowstorms.

“People think they’ve really gotten wiped out,” Scott said. “But they’re just quiet right now. The cold weather doesn’t faze them.

“They have a tremendous way of slowing down their metabolism, purging their gut of food so there’s nothing in them to freeze and they just lay there under that snow.”

Scott, who is expecting grasshoppers to be plentiful this year, travels 2,000 or 3,000 miles of Montana’s backroads during a summer. He scours the state for grasshoppers while driving his Honda Element with a license plate that reads “Insecta,” the scientific name for a class that includes all insects.

On his three- to five-day treks, he often stays in cheap motels that have refrigerators in the rooms. After a day spent collecting, he cools the grasshoppers down in the refrigerator to slow their movement, then photographs them.

At home, he shares his studio space with his wife, Donna, a quilter. His half of the room is lined with bookshelves with field guides and texts on insects, animals and plants of Montana and the rest of the country.

Contact Donna Healy at or 657-1292.

Ralph Scott, a science illustrator and author, will talk about “Picturing Nature: A Journey through Scientific Illustration and Photography” on Saturday at the Audubon Conservation Education Center, across from the entrance to Riverfront Park.

The free talk, from 1:30 to 3 p.m., is followed by a self-guided nature walk and is listed as one of dozens of Bike to Work Week activities.

The week kicks off May 16 with activities to entice commuters to walk, bike or take the bus. Riders and walkers can take advantage of freebies and store discounts. Activities include:

• Tuesday: Rim Runners meet at 6 a.m. at Dehler Park for a run on Black Otter Trail, and Walk ’n’ Talk with the Doc at 5:30 p.m. at St. Vincent Healthcare’s Fortin lobby.

• Wednesday: An evening walk along the Rimrocks through Swords Park includes commentary on Billings’ history and the natural landscape. Meet at 6:45 p.m. at the parking lot in Swords Park off Airport Road across from Rimtop Drive. The Rim Runners meet at 5:30 p.m. for a run at Pioneer Park by the picnic tables on Third Street.

• Thursday: Beartooth Hiking Club meets at 5:30 p.m. at 2134 Fairview for a hike up the Rims; the Velo Bella Mountain Biking group meets at Diamond X at 6 p.m. for a women’s ride; and the Rim Runners meet at 6 a.m. at Dehler Stadium to run Black Otter Trail.

• Friday: National Bike to Work Day.

• Saturday: The Rim Runners meet at the YMCA at 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. for runs. Pet owners are encouraged to get out and walk with their pets during the Petapalooza pet parade in downtown Billings.

More information on all events is available at or


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