Little Big Moths: Deborah Davis’ outsized paintings reveal the insects’ striking beauty

When painted by North Haven artist Deborah Davis, the Banded Tussock moth, which is less than an inch long, fills a 30-by-40-inch canvas. Painting: Deborah Davis When painted by North Haven artist Deborah Davis, the Banded Tussock moth, which is less than an inch long, fills a 30-by-40-inch canvas. Painting: Deborah Davis

“I started painting moths eight years ago. Each of the first few took months to complete, but now I can paint one a week. I’ve done 110, including several of the same species; I expect that number to rise steadily, since I paint every day.

“At night, on the side of the shed on my heavily wooded lot, I illuminate a white cotton sheet, and moths flock to it. In glass jars I capture those I want to paint and refrigerate them; this puts them in a torpor so they remain still while I take close-up photographs. After the moths warm up, I release them outdoors. Of the 2,000 to 3,000 species in central Virginia, I have photographed about 500, and painted more than 80.

“Working from a moth’s photo, I render it on a 30-by-40-inch canvas. Scale is a key factor. I want to present an intimate look at their amazing details. I feel that the large size of the paintings inspire awe and wonder.

“Moths are beautiful and mysterious, as well as being important ecosystem players, primarily as pollinators and food for birds. Since moths are mostly nocturnal and rarely noticed, I am on a mission to show them to the world. This brings to mind a Mary Oliver quote: ‘Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.’” —Deborah Davis, as told to Joe Bargmann