The Brighton-based freelance artist Richard Wilkinson‘s science-based illustrations have been featured in New Scientist, Time, and Life magazine. But he recently had the wonderful idea to combine the science of entomology with the world of Star Wars. He merges these two worlds in one of the cleverest design exercises in recent pop culture memory, Arthropoda Iconicus, a series of brilliant fictional specimens that reference Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Chewbacca, and even Han Solo entrapped in amber.
“I have always loved natural history,” Wilkinson tells me via email. “There is something about the way scientists categorized and classified the chaotic and vast world of nature that really resonates with me [. . .] We understand the chaos of the universe by naming and classifying things.” The impulse to classify things, he thinks, also exists in all of us, not only scientists–evident in the fandom around films, TV, movies, books, vehicles, toys, and anything that people are passionate about.
Wilkinson says that mashing up his passion for painting nature’s forms and colors with his obsession with modern pop culture felt like a logical step. “[T]he incredible variety of color and form and surface found in nature, its incredible and beautiful diversity was something worth celebrating,” he explains. And the best way to do so was to “link the world of natural history classification and the world of modern obsessions.”
His creative process combined inspiration from real-life insects and the original film icons. “I guess more often I look at the icon as a starting point and try to figure what makes it unmistakable,” he explains. “Then I sketch a few ideas and then go to my entomology books and online collections for ideas of how they might translate into features of an insect.” At times, he will find an insect that is the obvious solution but more often than not it is “a process of pushing and pulling the design until it looks still unmistakably an insect but also contains enough visual cues that it is also just about recognizable as the [pop culture] icon.”
In a way Wilkinson is a demiurge, simulating the natural phenomenon that evolutionary biology calls mimicry. But instead of insects that disguise themselves as leaves or poop to survive in the wild, he disguises them as iconic characters from a galaxy far, far away. He even managed to turn an AT-AT assault transport into a flea that perfectly captures the original vehicle design.
His favorite insect so far? That would be Chaetebarbatus bonamicii:
“I’d tried lots of different hairy bugs but they just didn’t seem to work,” he says. “Then I came up with the negative space solution and it just seemed to get that balance of recognition just right.” Wilkinson says that he wants people’s first impressions of the illustrations to be of insects, not characters–but when the pop icon reveals itself, you can’t unsee it. “I love that some people can look and look and just see a beetle, almost to the point of frustration!” he adds. “It’s so satisfying to me to see that moment when they finally ‘get it’!”