ARTIST PAINTS BUTTERFLIES FOR NATIONAL ZOO PROJECT –
By Henry Scarupa.
Long after the summer’s butterflies are felled by cold weather, Biruta Akerbergs Hansen’s images of the
delicate winged creatures alighting on wildflowers will continue captivating visitors to the Smithsonian’s
Museum of Natural History, where they are on view indefinitely. A free-lance natural science illustrator
living in Fells Point with her two young children and tugboat captain husband, Ms. Hansen was
commissioned to paint 10 of the most common North American butterflies for the National Zoo to
stimulate public interest in butterfly gardening. The Smithsonian reproduced the drawings on a poster,
part of its identification series, with information on the kinds of flower that attract certain butterflies.
Included are such familiar types as the tiger swallowtail on garden phlox, the silver-spotted skipper on
globe thistle and the monarch on common milkweed.
Depicted with uncanny fidelity that goes far beyond any photograph, the butterflies and their host
blossoms are a tribute to the artist’s careful research as well as to her ability to capture the essence of her
subject with brush and acrylic paints. Ms. Hansen worked a good part of a year on the project, first
consulting with experts, then observing the butterflies in fields and along roadways. At her drawing board
she used as reference photos and sketches she had made earlier along with preserved specimens. A single
illustration took up to two weeks of painstakingly layering washes to build up color and the subtle
shading for the right effect.
“There’s a softness about butterflies a lot of paintings don’t capture.” Says Ms. Hansen. “They may
reproduce the pattern and the color, everything is there, but it just doesn’t look right. Flowers are also a
challenge because they’re so variable. None of these flowers is exactly as I found it in nature. I combined
the elements I needed for my composition and to make a perfect flower.”