OC Carlisle Artist Extraordinaire


C. Olivia Carlisle was introduced to the drawing and painting of plants, insects and other natural subjects at an early age. “God gave me the creative talent and my Mother and her mother nurtured my interest in art by giving me art supplies every Christmas, and more as the needs arose. In addition to public schools, Mother sent me to summer and after school art classes. At the Nina Scudder School of Art in Athens, GA, at age seven, I was awarded several blue and red ribbons by Lamar Dodd at our juried shows; Dodd taught art at the University of Georgia (UGA). Teachers and then professors taught me the many skills for which I am so grateful and from which I drew, painted, and explored the plant world through our flower and vegetable gardens in our backyard. Oh my! The joy of closely looking at the intricacies of these beautiful plants, and the ‘ladybugs’ as well!”-Avian Humerus Grayscale

Throughout my Athens, GA school years, teachers and professors taught me the many skills for which I am so grateful and from which I still draw and paint. I had first explored the plant world through our flower and vegetable gardens in our backyard and other wildlife areas. Oh my! The joy of closely looking at the intricacies of these beautiful plants, and the ‘ladybugs’ as well!
Creative works played primary roles during these school years and with encouragement from Mother, and my high school art teacher, I won a scholarship to the University of Georgia Art School. A single lens reflex camera in addition to an earlier gift of a Brownie Hawkeye camera were added to my creative toolbox. A UGA graphic design class, using photography as a medium, further sparked a passion for photography by exploring close-ups of plants, architectural details, rock formations, and even a photographic study of the family “banged-up” garbage cans. This 10 print study was accomplished with my plant-based designed and constructed pinhole camera, still used from time to time.
I embraced and seized every creative opportunity with renewed energy. In addition to entering juried art shows from grade school to the present day, I competed for and won several scholarships to colleges and universities. One of the most exciting was a work-study scholarship to American University in Washington, DC which allowed me to design my own, and first of its kind, Bachelor of Arts, Interdisciplinary Studies degree program.
The areas of study in graphic design, photography and journalism led to the visual information positions in a federal government career spanning over 33 plus years within those disciplines. These visual information positions were held at the National Institutes of Health, US Department of Agriculture and Headquarters Air Force, Pentagon. Many of my photographic, graphic design works, illustrations and journal articles are on display, reproduced in magazines and books, and/or included in permanent archives within these agencies.
After I retired from my federal career, I moved to New Mexico which presented another creative opportunity: photographic fine art. This art form bloomed with additional opportunities to enter juried shows. Inspired by the works of Ansel Adams, Josouf Karsh as well as the guidance from Albuquerque photographers, I received several awards from the Professional Photographers of America and Image Professionals of the Southwest, New Mexico. A number of works were included in several exhibit venues including the Digital Fine Arts Society of New Mexico juried exhibition; a painterly composition from a photograph of a competition race car engine.
Upon returning to Athens, another creative opportunity opened: a return to the Lamar Dodd School of Art for drawing and painting studies. This allowed me to finish what I had started many years before, a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. After seeing the works in the scientific illustration annual juried competition, the detailed drawings and paintings fascinated me to no end and enthusiastically exclaiming to a friend, “…that’s what I want to do when I grow up…” The scientific illustration had caught my attention, igniting another passion of now combining art and science. I set my sights on this field of study, taught by Professor Gene Wright, Chair, also a veterinary medical illustrator.

Asclepia Leaf Details Comp CMYKj


Sequoia Cone Grayscale



The Scientific Illustration course of studies at the University of Georgia enables students to produce illustrations of measured accuracy, conceptualized as diagrammatic illustrations which enable communication between scientist and author, teacher and student, or physician and patient. The artist must, therefore, be aware of a potential viewer’s level of knowledge and structure illustrations in a manner that will not confuse the viewer with too much or too little information. Because illustrations communicate subtleties and eliminate ambiguities of language, they are important, often necessary, elements of precise communication in scientific education.
Because I was fascinated with the detailed drawing and painting, especially using the microscopes with cameras lucida, I completed each assignment with renewed enthusiasm. Often, because I was so engrossed in drawing, several hours would pass before I realized the time. On occasions, “all nighters” with classmates would help in meeting the strict deadlines, as well as provide fabulous chances for additional critiques – treasured sources of knowledge!
During the first lessons of scientific illustration techniques, we drew the basic forms found in nature: cone, cylinder, cube, and sphere, using a conventional upper-left quadrant light source. This produces highlight, core dark, reflected light and cast shadow, thus giving volume and texture. Every illustration starts with basic thumbnail sketches, then after an intensive critique, the final detailed rendering takes form on the paper.
The color studies came next with mixing primary and secondary colors. We observed and reproduced the effects of this lighting on cubes of natural subjects. Mastering these building block assignments of botanical, animal bone, and insects provide the skills in creating more complex renderings.
Detailed research becomes the normal procedure for every illustration. During the color studies, color matching to the science specimens present additional techniques to master. Within this exciting venture into scientific illustration, one of my first detailed graphite drawings emerged, a Sequoia cone, Sequoiadendron giganteum. Professor Wright, suggested that I should enter this drawing into a competition.
The cone was accepted in the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (GNSI) annual juried exhibition. Later, during another series of detailed research and illustration studies, the Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, nectaring a cone flower, Echinacea purpurea, as well as the Eastern Hercules beetle, Dynastes tityus, were accepted into another GNSI juried exhibition. The carbon pencil/dust illustration of the beetle won a “People’s Choice” award.
With the GNSI network, in addition to my professors, classmates, the UGA Science Library, the UGA Museum of Natural History, and the scientists/researchers on campus, I have an incredible array of resources. Additionally, the support and encouragement that I have received from GNSI members has been fabulous. Responses to questions and critiques are almost instantaneous: an awesome world-wide network!
For an animal assignment, my photograph of an Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis, provided the resource for that illustration. After the thumbnail sketches, the resulting graphite bird rendering was incorporated into a promotional page, highlighting additional techniques showing the bird’s anatomical parts. To illustrate the bird’s wing humerus, I bought some chicken wings, ate the meat, cleaned the bones in boiling water, and then sawed the bone in half. An incredible labyrinth of curved supports and spaces were within the bone, reminding me of the structure of the Wright Brother’s first airplane. Hmmm, I wonder if… Another research project?Monarch Egg & Instar One CMYK
Monarch Instar Five CMYK







More challenges surfaced after studying the bone halves under the microscope, and then viewing them in a macro photograph with the two pieces side by side. With guidance from Professor Wright, elements from both sides of the cut were included in the final drawing. For comparison, an additional anatomical detail of a cross section of a human humerus was rendered for the promotional page; drawn after Frank H. Netter, surgeon and medical illustrator.
As the intensity of the illustration projects grew, the amount of time spent in the studio, in the field, and of course in other required classes increased in proportion. For another illustration project, I sketched several four by five inch thumbnail drawings of a Monarch butterfly nectaring a flower, for Gene Wright’s approval.
“Do you know anything about butterfly anatomy?” I asked Gene.
“No,” he responded.
Hmmm…guess that gets me a “flight ticket” to the science library for book research, log on to the internet, then to find a specialist in Monarch anatomy and behavior. I found Chip Taylor, Monarch Watch, University of Kansas, and asked for his guidance on Monarch anatomy. Taylor sent the detailed Lepidoptera drawings from Dr. Paul Ehrlich’s doctoral research and several SEM (scanning electron microscope) photos of a butterfly’s head, all of which were extraordinarily helpful.
With these images, a specimen from an entomologist and a session using the microscope with camera lucida, I made basic drawings. The detail, the colors, the setae on the Monarch’s legs, the eyes composed of numerous ocilli – amazing! Another world opened up as when I had previously dissected a Camellia sasanqua and discovered the intricate details of the different views of the anthers attached to their filaments.
I needed to consult with a nearby Monarch specialist. A classmate referred me to Dr. Sonia Altizer, Professor and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, Odum School of Ecology. Dr. Altizer studies and teaches infectious disease ecology which also includes the effects of habitat and climate changes on Monarch butterflies. 

Monarch Nectaring Liatris Spicata CMYKMonarch Chrysalis CMYK









She and her senior researcher, Mike Maudsley, guided me further through the basic form and structure of the Monarch, the size of the palps, proboscis position on the flower, antennae positioning, leg proportions and wing venation. Raising Monarchs in the Altizer Lab, greatly helps in observing the Monarch’s complete four stage metamorphosis (egg, caterpillar, pupa, butterfly), growth and mating behavior. The lab staff also connects with many worldwide research groups and citizen scientists, in the study of insect ecology, evolution, health and conservation, especially through their work with Monarch butterflies. Another Ah-ha moment, the senior exit show!
Through these illustration courses, the realization that art and science are intimately related became quite evident. Science additionally becomes an art form, such as the SEM images of pollen. The physics of color mixing can be seen in the visible color spectrum. This physics application plays an important role for the monarch’s sight since they view the world in an expanded color spectrum that includes ultraviolet, a color invisible to the human eye. This valuable asset helps the monarch find flowers with nectar and helps to detect the patterns on flowers.
For the botanical portion of this project with the Monarch, two potted coneflowers were added to the specimen collection in the studio. This allowed study of the plant taxonomy, such as leaf shape, its position on the stem, the florets that form the protruding conical shape and the disc corollas. Individual detailed drawings of the plant were made, then the graphite rendering of the plant and the Monarch; this is where any errors are detected, and corrected for the final color illustration.
The approved and corrected graphite rendering was then transferred to the illustration board, for a graphite outline, watercolor wash and colored pencil application, measuring 16 x 18 inches; some daunting “real estate” to cover. Colored pencil was the medium of choice because this produced a better reproduction of the butterfly’s wing and body scales, hairs and leg setae.
In addition to the butterfly morphology details, illustration colors had to be matched to the specimens and what a surprise to see the pollen drifting from the coneflower florets, gathering on the petals. And naturally, there was pollen on the Monarch specimen’s legs. Colored pencil recipes were made, holding the colored square next to the specimens, checking for the correct color on the Monarch: light orange of the ventral side of the hindwing and forewing, a small exposed portion of the deeper orange of the dorsal side, eye and leg color. Then the botanical colors: green, pink, red and yellow.

Monarch Dorsal View CMYKMonarchColor Pencil Test CMYK









Watercolor washes were then mixed, matching the colored pencil squares. Many hours of painting and drawing passed, and so did the deadline. The initial grade was high from Professor Wright, however a number of points were subtracted since deadlines must be met!
This Monarch illustration landed in the next class juried exhibition. Once the illustration was hung, a final inspection was made; and to my horror, there was no pollen on the Monarch’s legs! Every creature has work to do and part of the Monarch’s work is to pollinate the flowers during nectaring visits; although it’s the bees who perform the greater pollination duties.
I grabbed the framed illustration, hurried back to the studio, removed the frame, pulled out the color recipe cards and the colored pencils for the pollen. Carefully using a scalpel to scrape off pollen sized areas of the Monarch’s legs, the pollen colors were drawn onto the slender legs, copying the pollen grains on the flower. Now, we have credibility here! I then reframed the illustration, quickly returned to the gallery and rehung the work before letting out a huge sigh of relief.
During the awards reception, several awards of merit were given to classmates. Then Professor Wright started talking about the Joshua Laerme Award for Excellence in Scientific Illustration. Joshua Laerme, former Director, UGA Natural History Museum, was particularly remembered for his outstanding instructional role at UGA. His vision, leadership, energy and his own commitment to natural history research, service, and education inspire many students and faculty to this day.
Gene further described Laerme’s work ethics, attention to detail and research, and then announced that this prestigious award; “…is presented to “OC” Carlisle for her Danaus plexippus nectaring an Echinacea purpurea. It’s all about the research,” Gene further explained. What a wonderful surprise! I had always remembered and greatly appreciated my Mother’s early encouragement emphasizing the research, for high school term papers, art projects, anything that I needed or wanted to explore. Increased fascination in the details of creativity has ever since encouraged me to complete the research.
More studies, research, detailed assignments in carbon dust, ink, watercolor and of course, pushing and shoving pixels around in the studio computers, perfecting the advanced techniques of digital drawing, painting and page layout. Then there were the murals, collaborating with other classmates designing and painting a seascape depicting ocean flora and fauna. Another collaborative mural involving three different ecosystems was designed and is still in progress in the UGA Biological Science building. Watch for a huge Monarch on the wall.
Time was getting short; plans had to be made for the senior exit show, a comprehensive exhibition that proved my expertise gained through the scientific illustration program. After approval of the Monarch metamorphosis, the information gathering went into high gear; books, articles, collecting and referencing appropriate web sites…
In addition to this final exhibition for a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Scientific Illustration, a bound “Thesis” book had to be completed. This included text: the who, what, when, where, why, how, of each of the 14 illustrations along with reproductions of all of the paintings. Additionally 20 best works with written objectives, a resume, responses to the syllabus inquiries and more were included in this book. Everything had to be designed, printed and presented by the end of the semester.
Dr. Altizer had agreed to serve as Monarch advisor for this exit show project. I knew that my illustrations would have further use in classrooms, books, posters and web sites, especially after discovering the many “Monarch Watch” related groups. Additionally our neighbors and their children, all potential citizen scientists, can be caretakers of this iconic insect that is such a valuable member of our many ecosystems. With concepts percolating in my grey matter, waiting to escape onto paper, I sought a botanical advisor. Dr. Paul Thomas, Horticulture, College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, agreed to advise on the native Swamp milkweed, Asclepia incarnata, the host plant for the Monarch. After mating, the female will lay her eggs on these plants, the caterpillars will emerge, eat and grow, pupate on this plant or on another secluded higher place, then eclose into a beautiful Monarch butterfly.

Falling Leaves CMYK


With syllabus in hand, the intense note taking, writing, and visiting Dr. Altizer’s lab to observe the Monarch caterpillar stages of development accelerated, including, taking pictures, making sketches, and then borrowing specimens to observe and sketch under the microscope. Even with the warm microscope light, the caterpillars were still quite active. I visited the UGA greenhouses to photograph Dr. Altizer’s collection of Asclepias with their complex pink blooms. A butterfly’s slender leg can get caught in one of the pollenia slot openings, and if weak from long flights, the Monarch could die on this plant.
After receiving critique and guidance from Dr. Altizer, and taking more notes detailing the most relevant views, she suggested additional flowers on which Monarchs nectar, the Blazing star, Liatris spicata (known as a “Monarch magnet”), and Goldenrod solidago. I borrowed classroom flash cards, more books and a list of additional web resources. Notes and illustrations were organized. Color recipes evolved as specimens were gathered and studied. Using the planned layout for the thirteen five by six inch watercolor paintings and the one larger botanical painting, the exit show project was taking shape.
The painting of the Asclepia incarnata, including the root system, became the background with 11 of the metamorphosis stages arranged around the plant with text indicating the days in each stage, all integrated into a 24 x 30 inch poster using Adobe Photoshop. This was the focal point of my exhibition. The two additional small paintings, the Monarchs nectaring the spring and fall flowers completed the small illustration series. These, along with Asclepia leaves’ details showing the caterpillars’ eating patterns through their multiple instar stages, would be included on the descriptive text exhibition print describing the metamorphosis process. The exhibition would be complete.
More energetic research followed: checking facts, edits, rewrites, including bibliographic details, taking more photographs. Visiting the caterpillars to check tubercle lengths, spiracles, ocilli, pro-legs, reviewing caterpillar, butterfly and botanical morphology were next on the agenda. All of these details were drawn, and painted using the color recipes, then text written, describing each illustration.
This completed the senior exit exhibition as well as paving the way for my future scientific illustrations. It’s all in the details, all in the research. There are still aspects of the Monarch’s metamorphosis and migration to study and illustrate, such as the incredible chemical changes that take place in the chrysalis (pupa), when the caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. As a physicist once remarked: “Energy does not die, it is transformed…”
Flying has fascinated me since working for the Air Force. I naturally became fascinated by the Monarch’s flight techniques. Flying methodology requires: Aviate (fly), Navigate (choose direction both distance to destination and height for optimal efficiency) and Communicate (sending and receiving information). The Monarch’s wings with the resilient venation, resembling a kite’s ribs, assists in efficient flying. The scales, which aid in lift, enhances riding the thermals that decreases the amount of energy used in wing flapping. And Leonardo Da Vinci, whose work I greatly admire, studied flight and anatomy as well as other scientific phenomena and created so many scientific prototypes.
During the autumn, Eastern/northeastern Monarchs fly over 2500 miles to overwinter in Central Mexico, the longest repeat multigenerational insect migration in the world. The butterflies then return through four generations back to their original home. Some scientists believe that the Monarchs navigate by means of the sun and the earth’s magnetic field in addition to their expanded sight in the ultraviolet spectrum.
Communications take place through aposematism; warning predators with their brilliant orange coloration. The orange color is produced by the caterpillar’s’ diet of the milkweed leaves. While clutching to the Mexican Oyamel trees, the Monarchs open and close their wings to show off that bright orange color to discourage predators. Communication during mating is also accomplished by the pheromones disseminated by the male to attract the female. The courtship and mating process can get quite aggressive, a lot of flying over short distances. The males dive bomb the females as well as fight off other males for the female’s attention. Aviate, navigate, communicate…and the journey continues. Take Flight and Soar With Your Dreams…

All images © C Olivia (“OC”) Carlisle. All Rights Reserved


Monarch Life Cycle Poster CMYK


  • Jimmy Carter (no, not the former POTUS) says:

    “O.C.” ‘s closing “Take Flight and Soar With Your Dreams…” brought instantly to mind my beloved WWII Liaison Pilot Father’s favorite poem “High Flight”, with which I know “O.C.” is very familiar but with which others reading this might not be, therefore:


    “Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
    Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
    of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
    You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
    High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
    I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
    My eager craft through footless halls of air….

    Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
    I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
    Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
    And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
    The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
    – Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
    John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
    Royal Canadian Air Force
    9 June 1922 – 11 December 1941

    God put out his hand, touched “O.C.”, and blessed her with the ambition and talent to take flight and soar with her dreams.

    God Bless You dear friend “O.C.”,


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