Slow and steady wins the race

Early this summer I was asked to paint a black-and-white illustration of an Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina). I was pretty excited about this assignment. I remember the box turtles from my childhood – they lived in the woods around my Connecticut home, and a few times I escorted one across the road, out of harm’s way. But it occurred to me I really didn’t know much about the species, so this project would be a valuable learning experience.

First I called the local nature centers to find a live specimen I could study, and I found “Lady” at Emma Treadwell Nature Center at Thacher State Park. I spent an afternoon drawing her – I watched the way her legs and toes moved as she walked, the way she held her head and how her skin folded on her neck, the way the light reflected off her domed carapace. The nature center also had part of a skeleton I could inspect. Taking reference photos helped me document Lady’s markings and colors. At home I consulted my field guides and researched the species online.


Back in my studio I developed some of my sketches further and emailed them to my client. Originally he had wanted an overhead view of the turtle, but he really liked the 3/4 view I had started (above, right), so we went with that.

To create a preliminary drawing in Photoshop, I used custom brushes to simulate pencil marks. This drawing would be my guide for the final illustration, so I spent more than 60% of the entire project time making it as accurate and lifelike as possible. Using digital media, it was easy to test various techniques and get the desired textures for skin, scales, and stones.  Working in grayscale is a good way to sharpen observational skills. I had to look for subtle differences in value that would help differentiate between things in front and things behind. Sometimes I had to edit what was there in reality so the illustration could best communicate the turtle’s 3-dimensional form.


Using a light box, I transferred the preliminary drawing to 300-lb Arches hot-press watercolor paper. Next, with 3 dilutions of Bombay black India ink and #1 and #8 round brushes, I began building layers of gray (above, right), essentially copying my preliminary. I have learned to take lots of breaks during this process to stay relaxed, rest my eyes, and avoid horrible posture. Slow and steady wins the race. ….three days later, Lady was finished!

Eastern Box Turtle, India ink on watercolor paper
Eastern Box Turtle, ink on watercolor paper

About the species

► Eastern box turtles are terrestrial turtles that live in deciduous forests throughout the eastern US.
► They have highly domed carapaces with ridges, bumps, and a brown/yellow radiating pattern.
► They average 5-7 inches in length.
► Males have red eyes and females have brown eyes.

More natural history info:
Wikipedia 
BoxTurtles.com (This website includes information about keeping and feeding captive box turtles. Laws about keeping box turtles vary depending on the location (state) and species.)

The conservation status of the Eastern box turtle in the Northeast:
CT, MA, NH, NJ, NY, PA – Listed as a Species of Special Concern
RI – Protected
ME – Endangered
What about Eastern box turtles in Vermont?

What to do if you come across a box turtle in the wild

► These animals can live longer than we can, so be respectful, admire it, and give it space.

► Although, if you see a box turtle in the middle of the road, kindly and gently move her to the side of the road where she is headed.

► If you find a box turtle nesting in your yard or garden (May-July), I’m pretty sure it’s good luck. Do not disturb her, and keep your pets away. She will leave after a few days and the eggs will incubate for 3 months.

► It is a terrible idea to relocate a box turtle or remove it from its natural environment because they are strongly connected with their home turf – they will suffer from stress and likely die.

► If you find an injured turtle, contact a state certified wildlife rehabilitator.

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