The Rhizosphere

Fall is here, and I have finally finished another soil life illustration. It definitely wasn’t easy to sit indoors and draw this summer, with so much to experience in the first year on our little farm. We finally reached the one year anniversary at the end of August, and are now into our second year here. This means we’ve experienced one full cycle of seasons and we can finally start to establish a kind of rhythm on the farm. We also recently got engaged, which has been a huge (wonderful) distraction! ❤

For this illustration I wanted to give a small glimpse into what I imagine it might be like in the rhizosphere; the area immediately surrounding a plant’s roots in the soil. Far from being a simple feeding tube, the root is very much an active participant and a hub of activity in the soil ecosystem.

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Realistically, there would be significantly more of everything shown and it would be so busy that it would probably be difficult to see anything at all. Just the fungi alone can be so dense they can create a tangled net that completely surrounds the root, and the root hairs and bacteria would be far more abundant. 

The cloudy greenish substance represents exudates that are secreted by the root, which attract and feed multitudes of bacteria and fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi have begun to colonize this root as well, inhabiting both inside and outside the root, forming an important symbiotic relationship with the plant. Mycorrhiza can even link different plants together, and have been referred to as the internet of the soil. A few larger organisms such as flagellates (small protozoa) and ciliates are swimming around too, grazing on the bacteria.

This was one of the most conceptually challenging illustrations I’ve done yet. I went over and over it, trying different perspectives and designs, aiming to give some sense of how much happens in the area around a plant’s roots, without it being so cluttered that it’s hard to look at. I wanted to show the mycorrhizal fungi on both the inside and outside of the root, and I wanted to show how integrated the root is with the soil community and the soil itself. I think towards the end part of me had to just give up, because I had been grinding through it on and off for several months, and I realized I could probably work on it for the rest of my life and never feel like I truly captured what I was reaching for. While I am happy with the result, I did not fully reach the same feeling of satisfaction and “there is nothing more to do here” as I did with my other soil life drawings. I arrived at a point where I just had enough. Sometimes the complexity of nature is just far too great to be captured by a human hand.

Here are a couple of pictures of stained roots I took with my iPhone at the microscope, to give an idea of how some of these things look in real life and where my inspiration came from.

The staining process is harsh and destroys the root cell contents along with any bacteria or protozoa, and highlights mycorrhizal fungi (the dark threads and balloons), so this is not at all an accurate representation of the living rhizosphere. This method is used specifically to look at mycorrhizal fungi in roots, and nothing else. The living rhizosphere can’t be seen very effectively in a microscope due to physical and technological limitations, and that is the main reason I do these artistic imaginations of these underground scenes in the first place. Incidentally, the picture on the left also gives an idea of how many root hairs can actually be present in a real root. They are those small, tangled, clear tubes running along the main root surface. I only included a few in my illustration to try and reduce the visual clutter. Without staining, mycorrhizal fungal threads do not look distinctly different from plant roots unless the viewer is very well trained at telling them apart. Even then, it is not easy.

I’m taking a short break now from doing the soil life illustrations, while we decide what the next subject will be. In the meantime I’ll be working on other things like harvesting and processing the mountains of produce coming out of the garden, getting ready for winter, and planning our wedding!

By the way, this drawing is now available in my etsy shop, which you can find here 🙂


Speed painting

I finally finished a new soil life illustration, which feels like a major accomplishment with a puppy and ten chickens in the house!

Here is the latest drawing: Difflugia Finished small.png

This one features testate amoebae in the genus Difflugia. They live in beautiful shells built from particles collected by the amoeba living inside, much like the Caddisfly larva that people use to make unique jewelry.

I did something different when I was drawing this time, well two things actually. The first is I changed the dimension of the canvas I usually use, so it should more easily fit onto A series paper. We usually print A4 paper here, so my illustrations normally need to be cropped for printing or the paper has to be trimmed afterwards, which isn’t ideal. I realized this about halfway through drawing and decided to widen the canvas, which wasn’t too difficult, but did add quite a bit of extra work. I think it worked out okay though, and it was worth the effort to make the illustration more useful.

The other thing I did differently this time was record the screen while I was drawing. I took 19 hours of recorded drawing time and sped it up to about 40 minutes of video. The first few minutes are a bit slower so you can see the process, then it speeds up so you can watch it all come together.

Here’s a link to the video!

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I also decided to start a Facebook page! You can find that here 🙂

Is this drawing or painting?

I never know whether to say I’m drawing or painting when using the digital medium. It feels like painting when I use a bigger brush, but it feels like drawing when I use a smaller one. The stylus is basically a pen, so then it’s more like drawing with ink, but the result feels more like a very smooth painting. In a way it’s like drawing with paint, if that makes any sense. There isn’t really a unique word for the action of drawing/painting digitally at this point, so I typically use the words interchangeably because it really feels like both at the same time.



New Gallery Website!

I’m so excited! I now have a dedicated website to showcase my soil life illustrations. It will be great to have a professional looking gallery to direct people to when they ask about my artwork. The website will focus on microbiology illustrations for now, but later on it will probably include more categories as my portfolio develops.

There won’t be any changes to my blog; I’ll continue to post here as usual and the website includes a link back here too. Eventually I’d like to add a shop page for ordering prints and stuff like that, but for now it’s just a gallery with some basic info about me and my artwork. It feels so great to have it published!

Please check out my new website and let me know what you think! I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions; I still have so much to learn about starting a career as a professional artist. If you have any feedback, advice, or just a story to share, I’d love to hear it!

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Thanks for stopping by! 🙂


The fifth installment of my soil life illustration series is finished!


The two large protozoa pictured here are of the genus Euplotes, which are common in aquatic and terrestrial habitats. I used to see them frequently in freshwater biofilms (algae slime layers) in university, and I still see them every now and then in my agricultural soil samples too. They have a long ridge along the underside with a fringe of fine cilia to help filter and draw food in. Longer cilia (the things that look like tentacles) around the cell help them to swim and control movement in the water. I still find it incredible that so much can be accomplished by one single cell, and that something this tiny can be so complex. Watching them navigate through samples searching for food is truly fascinating.

The three smaller green protozoa on the left side of the picture are of the genus Euglena. They are flagellates, unlike Euplotes which are ciliates. Another flagellate of the genus Anisonema can also be seen working its way through the soil just below the ciliates. Flagellates are also single-celled organisms, but they are typically smaller than ciliates and travel by only one or two long whip like tails, as opposed to ciliates which travel using larger numbers of shorter “hairs” called cilia. Unlike most protozoa which are heterotrophs, Euglenids often contain chloroplasts like plants, which means they can also photosynthesize and create their own food, in addition to eating food from outside sources. So does this make Euglena a plant or an animal? Euglena is not the only protozoan to give early taxonomists a unique challenge, and this lead to protozoa being given their own kingdom in taxonomy, instead of simply being included in the animal or plant kingdom.  

For the next illustration I’ll be featuring testate amoebae again, this time focusing on the genus Difflugia. This time I’m using a screen recording program to try and create a time lapse video of the entire process from start to finish. I’ve noticed that people often look a bit bewildered when I try to explain how I make these drawings, so I thought it would be interesting, and maybe even helpful, to make a video showing exactly how I do it.

It’ll probably take some time to get it done, I’m in school four days a week now and we have a new puppy in the house plus it’s time to start really getting into planning the spring gardens, so there really isn’t much time leftover for drawing. There has also been quite a bit of logging in the area for the past few weeks, and I have to say I don’t find the sound of chainsaws very inspiring to my art process, much less when it’s falling on top of general exhaustion and a tight schedule… but I’m doing what I can.

On the bright side the days are getting longer and the sun has finally started rising high enough to shine into the windows once again, and that has been a very welcome change.

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Here’s a picture of our newest addition, Phoebe ❤


Predatory Fungus in Soil

This is a gruesome example of how nutrients can move through the soil food web. Drawing this scene was complicated and very challenging, but I learned a lot in the process. The other soil life illustrations took about 10-15 hours each, this one took 32 hours over the course of several weeks. I had to leave and come back to it a few times, and I’m still not sure if it’s really finished. It might be one of those pieces that never really feels finished because there is so much to look at, but I had to draw the line (no pun intended) somewhere.

This drawing requires a bit of explanation, unless you’re a soil biologist or just know a lot about the soil food web.

The main subject of this illustration is the big worm, which looks kind of like an earthworm but is actually a nematode. Nematodes are roundworms are usually very small and are unsegmented, unlike earthworms. There are over 25,000 known species of nematodes, but they are so ubiquitous that scientists estimate there are actually about a million different species of them. If you’re an avid gardener or maintain a lawn you might have heard of nematodes before, either to help fight pests or as pests themselves. I’ve seen packages of parasitic nematodes in garden centers that people can buy as a biological pest control against grubs in their lawn.

Soil nematodes are very small; you usually need a decent microscope to see them. There are a few main types of soil nematodes that gardeners are interested in: fungal feeding, bacteria feeding, predatory, and root feeding nematodes. They have specialized mouthparts according to their diet. The nematode pictured here is a root feeding nematode, with a needle-like mouthpiece called a stylet used for piercing through plant roots to feed on them. This can cause bulges or lesions in the roots, which are not good for the plant.

The fungus pictured is Arthrobotrys dactyloides. You can find a very good video demonstrating how it traps nematodes here. I used this video as a reference to get a better idea of how the fungus should look, since I’ve never seen one in the microscope myself.

Nematodes don’t have any eyes, so they find their food by sensing chemicals in the area, kind of like our sense of smell. The fungus emits something to attract the nematodes into the rings, and when the nematode swims through the ring it senses the heat and the ring cells rapidly swell up like balloons, trapping the nematode and killing it. Then, fungal hyphae (like roots) grow into the nematode’s body and begin to digest it from the inside.

In the illustration, all this is happening on the surface of a plant root. A plant which is probably very happy to have the fungus around protecting its roots from hungry nematodes.

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As usual, if you look closely you can also see some other small critters in the picture. There are two small flagellates just above the plant root between two root hairs on the left side, and a ciliate just below and to the left of the nematode’s head. There are also scattered bacteria, demonstrating just how ridiculously small bacteria are, so small that even at this scale they just look like little specks of debris.

I kept the soil background relatively simple in this drawing because it was already busy enough with all the scraggly root hairs and fungal hyphae. I wanted to make sure it was easy to focus on the nematode and the fact that it’s trapped.

I hope this drawing, along with the others in the soil life series, will help demonstrate how complex, fascinating, and alive the soil ecosystem really is. It is essential that we as gardeners or farmers take care of our soil by protecting and encouraging a diverse and thriving soil ecosystem. Just being a bit more aware of what goes on down there is the first step towards more sustainable food production on any scale.

There are still more drawings to come in this series. I’ve already started the next one, which features some of my favourite protozoa. Here is a sneak preview of the work in progress:

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If you would like to use my existing artwork in a publication or display, or if you want to discuss commissions of any kind, feel free to contact me using the contact button above, or you can email me directly:



I have exciting news! My first two soil life illustrations have just been printed in a very cool Norwegian garden book called “Hageboka” written by Morten Bragdø. This is a big milestone for me as an artist and I’m super excited!

The illustrations are featured in a section that introduces the soil ecosystem, which most gardeners are unaware of, since most of it is on a microscopic scale. When I drew these, my intention was to try to make the microscopic soil world a little less abstract and easier for non-biology nerds to grasp. I think they serve that purpose nicely combined with Morten’s writing! The book itself is beautiful all around and I’m very proud to be a part of it.

I recently received a copy of my own. I haven’t had time to read it all yet, but I’ve flipped through it and it looks like it has a lot of info that will be helpful for us as we get started with our new gardens this coming spring so that’s an added bonus. Here’s a picture of the page with my artwork:


The title, in case you don’t read Norwegian, is something like “The most important thing is often invisible to the eye”.

Here are the drawings up close, in case you didn’t see my previous posts about them (here and here).

This has been a very motivating experience that has really built up my confidence as an artist. I hope I can find more opportunities to share my work in this way. I think I might have found myself a little niche; having a passion for both biology and drawing.

If you’re interested in buying the book (and you read Norwegian), you can find it here.

If you would like to use my existing artwork in a publication or display, or if you want to discuss commissions of any kind, feel free to contact me using the contact button above, or you can email me directly:

The animal with two wheels on its face

Sometimes it seems like evolution has a sense of humour. Can you imagine a creature with wheels on its face, or anywhere for that matter?

The Rotifer doesn’t actually have wheels on its face. There is a reason animals don’t have wheels, in case you were wondering. Basically, it has to do with the way evolution works and the way wheels work. Evolution happens through trial and error (a wheel must be perfect in order to function), and a wheel cannot be attached to the axis it’s rotating on, so the body wouldn’t be able to supply it with nutrients. The rotifer’s spinning effect is actually created by tiny hairs called cilia that move around rapidly, creating a vortex in the water where the rotifer lives. Think of one of those signs with rows of lights where it looks like the lights are moving or chasing each other around the edge, but they are actually just flashing in a sequence. Here’s a video I took with my iPhone at the microscope last year to show a rotifer’s mouth in action.

Much more is known about aquatic rotifers than terrestrial (soil) ones, but I am more familiar with the soil ones since my work is in soil biology. Having said that, the soil rotifers (and other microorganisms in soil) are not much different than those that live in water. They are still aquatic creatures, since they make their home in the super thin layer of water surrounding moist soil particles. The soil doesn’t have to be saturated for these animals to function, but when it does get too dry they will simply go dormant until things improve. Rotifers are actually studied quite a lot and have been noted for their unique ability to survive radiation. Here is a fascinating article about rotifer survival.

What role do rotifers play in your garden?

Rotifers are filter feeders, preying on bacteria, protozoa, and detritus, aka decaying organic material. That means they help recycle nutrients in the soil and it’s good to have them in your garden.

And here is my drawing of a rotifer; the third piece in my soil life illustration series:

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The cilia (hairs) on the rotifer’s face move so fast in reality that I couldn’t produce or find any good imagery showing how they actually work in detail. It’s kind of like when you try to take a video of a propeller or a fan and it looks like the blades just vibrate in place or are slowly moving backwards. The videos make it seem like the rotifer literally has a wheel with small hooks that kind of looks like a knitting loom, but I’m not sure that’s how it really is.


Knitting loom

I’m also not clear on how exactly the cilia are arranged so there was a bit of guesswork involved. There are over two thousand different species of rotifers to complicate things even further. In some images it looks like a dense mop, in others it looks like sets of tiny rows that run perpendicularly around the ring, and in other cases it looks like single cilia in a simple row. I chose to draw a generalized bdelloid rotifer and used the simplest cilia concept that looks the most like how I’m used to seeing them. I’m still not convinced that this visualization is exactly correct, though.

In the microscope I usually notice a distinct movement of debris caused by the rotifer’s spinning before I find the animal itself, so I added some bits flowing around the mouthparts to try to demonstrate that a bit. I also included an amoeba (looks like a piece of translucent gum) to the right of the rotifer, and a small flagellate in the top left corner. The soil itself is the most tedious part of these drawings so I like to try and add some little details here and there to break the monotony.

Now I just need to decide what the next subject will be for this series. I’m thinking either a nematode trapped by a fungus or an amoeba swallowing something up. 

The Amoeba With a Home

At4.pngThe testate amoeba (“test” means shell) is one of the single celled creatures we commonly find while looking at soil in the microscope. It’s a type of protozoa, just like regular amoebae, but it lives in a shell like a snail. Some eat bacteria, algae, or other protozoa, and some live on decaying organic material. As with all soil protozoa, they live in the thin film of water that surrounds soil particles.

We normally see them like this (photos from my phone):

They can come in many different shapes and sizes. Some have beautiful scale patterns on the shell, some have spiked shells, some are just smooth and simple. As with any soil creatures, people who aren’t used to looking at things in a microscope often have difficult putting them into perspective. I purposely painted this one looking and moving like a snail to hopefully make it easier to relate to.

It’s extremely rare for us to see the actual body of the amoeba, which is why I painted the shell to be more prominent than the amoeba itself. I’ve been looking at soil and water samples in microscopes since 2011. In that time I’ve seen literally thousands of testate amoebae and I think I’ve seen them coming out maybe three times.

There was exactly one time that I actually saw a very small one moving around in a soil sample, and I was super lucky to catch  a video of it with my phone. Here is a link to the video. This is the only time I’ve ever seen one like this. Normally the ones we see are like the photos above, and they are sitting still.

The amoeba extends what are called “pseudopods” (pseudo=fake, pod=feet). You might already know that amoebae are shapeless creatures that move by flowing and changing form. They can stretch their bodies out to form pseudopods and use them to move, anchor themselves, or catch food. They can create many of these fake feet at once, and they can be thick and globby or thin filaments like hairs. Watching an amoeba move around is one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen. It looks exactly like a glass of milk or some liquid soap that spilled on the floor, then started crawling around. Sort of a creepy image but that’s really how it looks. They move slowly and watching them can be mesmerizing.

Naked amoebae are difficult to spot because they are usually completely clear with only a faint outline and some inner contents of the cell visible, and the distinct movement giving us a clue to its presence. If disturbed I imagine they would squeeze themselves into the nearest crevice like a clump of soil to hide, which is why it’s rare for us to see them at all. Testate amoebae are easy to spot because of the shell, but since they can withdraw and hide inside their shell it’s extremely difficult to see the amoeba itself. That makes it hard to tell if anyone is home or if it’s just an empty shell.

We see these creatures in the highest numbers in forest soils and some composts, but they can be common in garden and agricultural soils as well. It is very rare for us to have a soil sample that doesn’t have at least one testate amoeba in it.

This is the second piece in my soil life series of paintings which try to show microscopic animals in a way that is more familiar.







How do you paint an invisible animal?

The soil under your feet is crawling with invisible life forms. Well, not exactly invisible, but you can’t see them without the help of a microscope. Most people I’ve met don’t know what a protozoa is, or if they do they often have vague associations with things like water contamination and diseases. Protozoa, like bacteria, are not all bad, and there are many species of them that have different functions. I work in a lab where we take soil samples from farms and look for protozoa and other microscopic life in them. Soil protozoa are an important part of the food web that recycles nutrients into forms plants need to grow.

We often host or participate in events that involve teaching the general public about soil life. Every now and then we catch someone’s interest and they hang around asking many questions, which for us is very rewarding. Most people though, find this topic to be quite abstract and distant, possibly even boring but I personally can’t see how that’s possible.

Here is what soil looks like in the microscope, magnified 400x:

On the left is a ciliate, a type of free living protozoa that swims around and catches food using tiny hairs. It’s super cute and fun to watch. On the right is a testate amoeba, just an amoeba, which is another kind of protozoa, that lives in a shell, or “test”. It’s the round thing that looks kind of like a little basket.

Here’s a video I took of my favourite (yes I said favourite) protozoa, called Vorticella, at work in a soil sample. The quality of the video isn’t great but it’s about as good as it gets when you’re holding an iPhone up against a microscope.

Isn’t it cool though? This creature is made up of ONE single cell, yet it is so complex! In the video you can see little bits flowing towards the mouth. It has all these tiny hairs around the opening which flow in a way that creates a vortex and draws material towards it. These are super fun to watch and after five years I still get excited every time I see one. In a water sample I once saw a colony of over 300 and yes, I went around telling everyone in the biology department to come look at it.

Anyway, you can see that these microscope images have a bright white background. The organisms are clear. There are big blobby things and weird abstract shapes, and basically nobody knows what any of this stuff is when they look at it for the first time. I can see why it’s hard to connect what you see in the microscope with what you imagine it looks like in the soil. For most people, soil is just dirt. It’s just dirt and worms. These images are bright white, lively, clean looking, and rather abstract. People can easily dig in the soil and find earthworms, mites, and beetles, but since these other creatures are invisible to the naked eye, it can be hard to wrap your head around the fact that they are in there too.

So I’ve decided to start a series of paintings that attempt to visualize microscopic soil life in context. How might a protozoa look from the perspective of a fellow protozoa? How might these animals look if they could be captured with a regular camera in their natural habitat, rather than isolated under blinding white lights in the microscope?

Here is the first painting in the series and I am very curious to find out how people will react to these. It was very difficult to avoid making the picture look dark and muddy, since that is exactly the environment I’m trying to depict… and many of these creatures appear transparent in the microscope, so adding solidness and colour was quite challenging as well.


I’m hoping that this series will help people connect what they see in the microscope with what they are used to seeing as soil, and give them a better appreciation of these important and fascinating creatures.