The research that goes into John Dawson’s illustrations can be exhaustive. He spent two years studying and sketching ants before undertaking the twenty illustrations he did for a National Geographic story on the insects: His investigations involved manipulating dead ants under a microscope to understand how they’re put together and several trips to the Harvard University laboratory of renowned myrmecologist (ant expert) E.O. Wilson to observe living ant colonies in action. For a National Geographic story on mummies, he spent a month in Peru watching archaeologists painstakingly unwrap an Incan mummy encased in a gigantic cotton ball. For a National Park Service trailside sign marking an ancient Hawaiian agricultural site, he grew sweet potatoes in his backyard to see how the vines crawl on lava rock walls.
Most of the illustrations he’s done for the Postal Service are based on photographs or on insect and plant specimens sent to him by researchers. But for the Hawaiian Rain Forest scene (left) he worked with the living, breathing thing. “For Hawai‘i I got to go into the field and do sketches. I love doing that,” he says. He was already thoroughly grounded in the subject, having lived on the Big Island since 1989 and having tackled all nine ecosystems within Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park for a set of educational paintings at the visitor center. Still, he made many return trips, often accompanied by park staff who guided him to some of the more than two dozen species seen in the painting, which include the flowering purple hähä and the Kamehameha butterfly, or pulelehua.