Illustrating the Insects of NZ Playing Cards

This page was written by Emma Scheltema, the illustrator and designer for the Insects of New Zealand playing card project

Today I have been asked to talk about the process taken to design and create the illustrations for the Insects of New Zealand Playing cards. I have been illustrating natural science and medical subject matter for a couple of years now, following my BSc in Biology at the University of Auckland, and more recently completing an Honours project based on medical illustration. This past year, I was thrilled to be able to work on this project, which is the biggest I have been involved in to date, both in number of illustrations (over 52) and time taken (just over a year). It has been an amazing experience and I hope that these cards help to achieve the goal of raising greater awareness about some of the most important (but often hidden) wildlife in our environment.

Each of the final illustrations are intended to embody the most distinctive of each insects appearance, behaviour and habitat, within a compact space.  Illustration allows you to “manipulate” what you show and what you hide in an illustration, which gives it the potential to be a far more malleable medium for the communication of specific information than many photos may be. By illustrating something, you also can exaggerate certain things to make them more visible or recognisable than they might normally be, all with the purpose of education.

This post gives a bit more detail about how these images come about, from initial research through to the painting of watercolour and touch up stages. Keep on reading to find out how each illustration was made!

The Insect Playing Card Aesthetic

This project began with Leilani and I deciding on a general aesthetic for the card set. Over a few months we passed back and forth ideas, and collected inspiration of styles and themes we liked.

Images collected from various sources (view originals here)

We eventually decided to craft the set of cards based on the idea of Victorian ‘cabinets of curiosity’ and the circus and fair ephemera of the time. The design aesthetic of this period was used as a starting point to develop the lettering and illustrations for the card cover, logo and card backs, as well as influencing the decision to use handlettering of the individual species names on the faces of the cards. I was really inspired by the work of Tony Diterlizzi on the Spiderwick chronicles, Rien Poortfliet’s Gnomes and also vintage copies of NZ’s iconic Native Animals of New Zealand by Dr Arthur William Baden Powell, as I felt they all gave off a sense of wonder and curiosity of discovery that comes with learning something new or unusual about nature, and which I hope comes across in our set of cards.


Sketch version of the tuck box cover

Final image
The card back portrays several habitats that insects inhabit in New Zealand, amongst them (from the centre outwards): soil, forest, water and alpine regions.

By contrast, the individual insect illustrations needed to be more realistic. However, while they were all intended to be scientifically accurate, we decided to go for a more illustrative semi-realistic style, rather than pure scientific illustration so that they would be more appealing to a wide range of audiences, and also inject a bit more life and character into the insects being depicted.

Creating the Insect Illustrations

The largest part of the illustration process was creating the individual species illustrations for the faces of the cards. The process used for each card is outlined below.


  1. Research

In early discussions we decided that each insect should be featured with a small amount of background in order to indicate what their habitat and behaviour was like. Because of the small reproduction size of the illustrations however, the amount of space available to show habitat and insect behaviour clearly was very limited. As a result, we decided that all insects would inhabit the majority of the illustration, with some indication of background.

For example, the Canterbury Knobbled Weevil is pictured with a background of speargrass. As its host plant, speargrass provides both habitat and food source

In order to accurately depict each insect, the process of each illustration begins with research. This means searching not only for images but also some description of their habitat and behaviour. This description of behaviour is particularly useful for creating a lifelike pose for the insect as normally the reference photos (if not the actual specimen) are of pinned specimens, so their natural poses are not usually apparent.

Some very valuable resources for anyone interested in exploring further information about NZ Insects are listed below, but the main ones I used on this project were NatureWatch, LandCare’s ‘What is this bug?’ and Which New Zealand Insect? By Andrew Crowe. The photos uploaded by users on NatureWatch were particularly useful, as they are usually of New Zealand insects taken in the field.

Some of the materials consulted during the research process for each insect.

A few of the insects featured are not well known, or are quite rare- some of the reasons they were included in this card set! However, this made researching information about some of them difficult, as sometimes even photos were scarce. An example of this was Sabatinca aurella, a member of the New Zealand Jaw Moths. This endemic species is the most primitive surviving example of Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths), which has survived relatively unchanged since the Jurassic period[1]. It has ‘jaws’ instead of the coiled tongue that most butterflies and moths use to feed. Its most defining feature however is perhaps its colourful, metallic wing colouration.

I accessed photos of a specimen through Te Papa’s online catalog and found a photo of a living individual through the FNZ guide. Along with images of other Jaw Moths (a worldwide group of Moths in the genus Micropardalis), I was able to get a sense of the metallic iridescence of the moth’s wings as well as its general behaviour and habitat.

  1. Sketching

I normally start by doing some observational sketches from a specimen, or if that’s not possible, photos. This is a great way to learn the shapes and features that make up an insect (if you ever want to learn more about something- try drawing it!).

A stack of research sketches completed for all the insects in the playing card set.

Once this knowledge is gathered, I’ll start to pull it together into some sketches for ideas of what the illustration could look like. I usually do a few thumbnails to try out different poses, using col-erase pencils – which are blue and red pencils that are semi-erasable, and can be worked over easily with normal pencil. Youtube videos can be a valuable resource to give an idea of movement and behaviour (see this video of a native squeaking longhorn beetle!).

At this stage it’s about getting the basic pose right. Once I find a pose that might work, the form is shaped through a more refined sketch, and I add important details which help make it more identifiable as a particular species. Getting these details right was of particular importance here as we wanted the illustrations to be largely scientifically accurate. At this stage, I may check what the key features for identifying certain species are through scientific publications (such as Landcare Research’s Fauna of New Zealand Publications) to ensure things are looking correct. These guides often have microscope photos and scientific illustrations that clarify details you may not be able to see with the naked eye on individual specimens, such as hairs and wing venation patterns. Adding these details gives some authenticity to the final illustrations.

In this set of cards, because there was such a large number of illustrations and a limited space for each insect, it was inevitable that some insects would be in the same sorts of poses. To counter this, we decided to vary the poses as much as possible within a taxonomic group.

The poses of winged insects (such as these Hymenopterans and Dipterans) were varied so that they did not look too similar.
  1. Revision

Once the sketch is complete- I send it off to Leilani to check over and ensure its looking ok. At this point we’ll check any anomalies or things we aren’t sure of, with the experts in individual species or genera.

  1. Refined sketch

Any changes suggested through revision are made at this stage and the sketch may be further refined if need be. Then it’s time for the final painting!

From initial research notes, to rough sketch, and a finalised photocopy of the sketch, ready for transfer to watercolour paper.
  1. Final illustration.

It may seem like the painting of the illustration would be the most time consuming part of an illustration (and sometimes it is!)- but many people don’t realise how much time is actually taken up researching, checking facts and sketching ideas before it gets to this stage, particularly with a project like this where the individual illustrations need to be scientifically sound. I would estimate that of approx 10-15 hours per illustration, only about 3-5 were spent painting.

The final paintings were done at approximately 2- 2.5x the final reproduction size. This means there was enough space to add all the details to the illustration that would not necessarily be possible at the size of the cards.


Watercolours were used to create these illustrations, with a limited palette… I used mainly 2 colours (Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna) to create almost all the illustrations in this series! These two colours give a wide range of browns through to greys and blacks. With the addition of a yellow, you can get most of the colours needed for all the insects featured.


Supplies for watercolour painting: 1) White Gouache (for highlights), 2) watercolour palette, 3) Watercolour Brushes, 4) Col-erase pencil- double ended, 5) Graphite pencil, 6) Automatic Eraser
The colour on each illustration is built up through applying a number of layers of watercolour, until the desired effect is achieved. White gouache was used as a final touch to add highlighted details.
Illustration of a Manuka Beetle (Pyronota festiva) in progress.
The final illustration of the jaw moth, Sabatinca aurella.
  1. Scanning

All the paintings are then scanned into the computer at a high resolution, and small edits are made to remove dust (and any accidental splatters) on the background. Once they are on the computer it means they can be added into the layout of the final cards.

Laying out the illustrations into the card template.

Once this process is completed for all the illustrations and they have been colour checked and are placed into the final files, we send them away to the printer. Now we wait for the final product!!


img_5556I hope you enjoyed this brief insight into the process of creating an illustration for the Insects of New Zealand playing cards. All up this has been a huge project, but a very fun one.  I now know much more about New Zealand insects, and it shows the value of learning through drawing.

If anyone is interested in drawing nature or scientific illustration, it is a valuable skill to have. Check out the following resources for kids and adults listed below. Feel free to send me an email if you have any questions or would like to chat about science + drawing!

You can contact me through my website or Instagram.


List of resources for anyone interested in getting started drawing nature:

John Muir Laws ‘The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling’

Sandra Morris ‘A New Zealand Nature Journal’

Elaine R. S. Hodges ‘The Guild Handbook of Natural Science Illustration’

Drawing Techniques for Publication

 Resources used for Insect information:

Which New Zealand Insect by Andrew Crowe

Landcare Research ‘What is this bug?’

Naturewatch (search for any NZ species and most have loads of valuable info- you can even download the iNaturalist app which will allow you to easily start uploading your own observations of nature)

Landcare Research Fauna of New Zealand Series

[1] Gibbs, G. W. 2014. Micropterigidae (Insecta: Lepidoptera). Fauna of New Zealand 72: 127 pp.