Disciplined Observation by Kate Themel

Who would have thought a Cicada Killer Wasp could be so beautiful? You may not think so when one surprises you flying out of your mailbox… but put the little guy under a microscope and a new world is revealed. This world is complicated, layered, iridescent and almost endless in its variety. This is the world observed by Dinah Wells, a watercolorist and entomologist living in Guilford, Connecticut.

Green Stink Bug, 2008 Dinah Wells

Green Stink Bug, 2008 Dinah Wells

I had the pleasure of meeting Dinah and seeing her work first hand at a recent Art League meeting. I also enjoyed seeing her favorite specimens. And yes, by specimens I mean actual dry, dead bugs. But after listening to Dinah talk about her inspiration and passion for insects, I couldn’t wait to take a closer look at them. She showed us a Stag Beetle, a local Cicada and a North American Horse Fly. Up close, they were like fine jewelry – delicately filigreed wings; eyes textured in dots and swirls like expert engraving; and the colors…!

Ice Water, 2008 Kate Themel

Ice Water, 2008 Kate Themel

Recently I had the idea to create an art quilt based on a glass of water with an ice cube in it. It was a simple tumbler sitting on a flat table. What’s so complicated, right? However, once I started drawing it, I began to get that “oh geez, why did I start this?” feeling. The closer I looked, the more colors appeared. There were so many reflections, shadows, layers… it was a little universe in there! I cut and tried combinations of fabric, pulled my hair, pulled out threads, started over, cut and moved around chunks of finished pieces until I was able to step back and see that world again. The end result is one of the most complicated quilts I’ve ever finished, and one of the most satisfying. I loved the experience of observing this image so closely that it transformed into something other than glass, water and ice. Without the physical object to observe, my art quilt would never have come to life as it did.

Ice Water detail 2008 Kate Themel

Ice Water detail 2008 Kate Themel

Although no artist can work without using their imagination and taking leaps and liberties with ‘reality’, we can’t let ourselves become isolated from the world. If we live only in our minds we risk losing the life force behind our work… which is life itself.

I’m not suggesting everyone should go out to their backyards with a jar and start collecting bugs, or stare at their dinnerware until their eyes are bloodshot. But I was inspired and energized by Dinah Wells’ integrity and disciplined observation. And I understand how her fascination with these usually-hidden treasures serves as an engine for her creativity. She not only studies these insects from photos, but also researches their anatomy and if she can’t locate a specimen locally, she goes to the Peabody Museum to look at their collection. She knows her subject inside and out – literally. By the way, the Cicada Killer Wasp sounds ominous they kill Cicadas, not people.

Picasso once said “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.

As artists, it is our job to observe and reflect the world around us. Not every artist works in a representational style. But every artist can benefit from the practice of keen observation and investigation. To take an object and study it down to the smallest detail, until the subject becomes part of the artist, takes discipline and focus. From there, we can go anywhere we want… we may even discover a whole new world that fits in the palm of one hand.


10 Responses to “Disciplined Observation by Kate Themel”

  1. 1 Ben June 7, 2009 at 1:14 am


    Just wanted to let you know that I’ve used the “Ice Water” image for a post on one of my blogs (w/credit and link, of course).


    I hope that this is all right with you, if not, please let me know and I’ll remove it immidiately.

  2. 2 kathy April 10, 2009 at 7:44 am

    “You must always start with something”

    Hmm…this must be why I always feel the need to have a composition, or a photograph as a jumping off place. Thanks so much for sharing this Kate. Your experience and process are inspiring and your quilt idea and the finished product are wonderful. In this busyness we call “life”, stop and smell the coffee (or the roses) and SEE them too is a discipline I want to embrace. I think that must be what is called “living”.

  3. 3 suburbanlife February 23, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Living almost completely in the senses, as i do, I see the complexity of a pot of stew’s surface design and am delighted and enchanted beyond almost reason. As my eyesight is failing, instead of bemoaning the loss, i have embraced the novel appearance of things and spaces i see. The mundane holds much fascination if one remembers to apperceive with infant eyes, or as close to unverbalized seeing as one is able to attain. Become like a child and the world reopens its marvels to you! G

  4. 4 Olga February 15, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    You are so right. The world is wild with wonders – a new focus every day would still not cover them all. I have always wondered why folks bother taking drugs to heighten their perception when there is so much fascination surrounding us everywhere.

    Enthusiasts in any topic are such a boon, and so often they encourage enthusiasm in us. I love the idea of focusing on a glorious subject like ice in a glass of water in what might be regarded as an alien medium. That enthusiasm also must have communicated itself to others.

    Don’t forget that the noticing can and should be experienced with touch and sound and taste etc. as well as visually.

  5. 5 Sheila February 12, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    This is something I’ve been noticing in the last year or so: I see, but I don’t see. When I realize I am seeing something within the surface seeing, I can’t believe I didn’t notice it before. Then, the more I look, study, see, the more there is TO see. You’ve used such a good example to get this idea across.

    Of course, when we start picking up on the nuances and can transfer them to our art, regardless of medium, that is when our work takes on depth and interest. Others may not note all those details separately, but as a whole, they change the overall impression of what they see.

  6. 6 Marg in Mirror, AB February 12, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Kate, I had that familiar feeling when I read your words about interpreting realistic objects in art, whatever the medium. My watercolour teacher spoke and spoke and spoke about really ‘seeing’ the subject of our painting. Timie and time again, I find myself overwhelmed by colour and detail; it becomes easy at that point to either give up on trying to express what I see. My particular delight (and frustration) is plant life — especially flowers.

    I don’t generally work representationally, but I would like to be a better observer, and your words inspire me to practice. Thanks!

  7. 7 Clairan February 11, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    Yes, Kate, you’re so exactly spot on! Observe, observe and observe and then express. And we should all observe what catches our attention, so that our passion will carry us through the difficulties, as you and June have so aptly described.

  8. 8 eileen February 11, 2009 at 5:17 am

    One excellent piece of advice I received when starting out was “make art about what you know.” There is plenty of opportunity and inspiration in our own back yards.

  9. 9 Jonathan Polkest February 11, 2009 at 2:55 am

    Insect species are so incredibly specific to their environment, they make formidable metaphor about the fragility as well as the unique genius of our lives both in society and in the “wilderness” of the entire universe. I recently finished a series of pieces featuring The Drums being played, the title Double Drummer is the name of one of the loudest Australian Cicada’s and there are several exotically or by contrast rather domestic sounding Australian Cicada’s all of them calling for further discovery. Disciplined Observation of the visible aesthetic in insects can be overshadowed by knowledge of their “purpose” or their part in the infrastructure of the environment.
    The fears attached to insects or arachnia commonly relate to their mechanical or functional appearance and yet these are often thought to be attractive attributes. Curious affectations and anamorphic variations of the more “cuddly” popularized insect have been used by advertising campaigns and other seemingly commerce biased situations, one of my favourite tourist pieces is Le Cigale The Cicada of Southern France, where the benign qualities of this most “super furry” bug extol the virtues of an easy going nature by being represented in little pottery souvineers.
    The quote from Picasso is particularly applicable to the way insects are seen, and their actual function. Lots of potential in these fascinating observations.

  10. 10 June February 10, 2009 at 10:49 pm


    I don’t know of any thrill that I feel that’s much greater than that of observing and painting what I observe. Not that I’m good at it — and certainly not that what I paint looks like a camera did it — but the utter joy of getting it together is beyond words. It took me a couple of years of painting representationally to start to think about the other attributes — the paint itself, the frame, all those formalist matters — for some time, just the observation and the intensity of being that turning that observation into something tangible like a drawing or painting was sufficient.

    It’s an astonishing process. And anyone can do it. If I could, anyone can.

    “You must always start with something” — I love it and believe it. My abstracts are the result of the tension release, the exhaustion and exhilaration, that the representational work provides. However remote and weird they seem, they are a direct result of that “thing” I started with.

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