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 🙂

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Morning flight

I haven’t posted any art in a while. We’ve been so busy with outdoor things these days, I only draw on rainy days and occasionally in the evenings if I can. I decided to take a quick break from the rather dark and colourless world of soil life and draw something light and airy for a change.

I’m not used to working in these lighter tones and I noticed that I felt calm and meditative while drawing, compared to some of the darker dragons I’ve drawn in the past.

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It’s back to working on soil drawings after this although I admit it’s been difficult to stay motivated with so much else happening.

I’ve opened an Etsy shop, by the way! I haven’t posted my dragon art in there yet, just sticking to soil life for now. If you’re interested in buying prints of any of my other work that hasn’t shown up in the shop just send me a message!

Here’s a link to the shop. It’s very new and occupies a very small niche so it hasn’t had much attention yet. If you’re interested in some unique art that will probably spark some interesting conversations though, take a look! 🙂

The rhizosphere/mycorrhiza drawing is slowly coming along. That one is giving me a real exercise in lighting and perspective. It’s almost like trying to draw a bowl of spaghetti.

Here’s the work in progress as it is right now. I think I like where it’s going, I can’t wait to be finished with it! I’m adding a teeny bit more colour than usual to this one and that has been quite fun 🙂

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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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http://www.protozoaprincess.com

Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

Ciliates

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

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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: artborean@gmail.com.

 

Rotifer Dragon

Introducing the Rotidragon:

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In case you missed this post, basically I was supposed to be working on a rotifer illustration but I had this epic movie type music on and a dragon came out on the screen instead. Sometimes the soil illustrations feel a bit monotonous, and a little too down to earth (literally), so I occasionally have to mix it up by working at the other end of the reality spectrum and drawing something in the fantasy realm. Someone gave me the idea to mix a rotifer and a  dragon together, and this silly beast was the result.

My original plan was to give it a nasty spinning razor mouth but it ended up with a kind of fluffy mustache instead. I’m ok with it.

I did get the rotifer finished eventually, and now I’ve got a nematode (and probably more dragons) in the works 🙂

Published!!

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:

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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: artborean@gmail.com.

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.

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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. 

Pen and Watercolour

Our epic NASA style living room setup had to be dismantled when we were showing our apartment and I haven’t had access to the big Cintiq computer for a few weeks. It’s been too hot to even think about leaning over that warm screeen anyway, and with all the chaos of buying a farm and selling the apartment I haven’t been doing any artwork lately. I’ve been itching to draw something now that the craziness has calmed down and we have a few days left of summer vacation, so I started experimenting with combining pen and watercolour. It’s been nice to take some time and practice with the watercolours, and to have something constructive to do in the apartment that doesn’t involve sitting at a hot computer all day. We’re going a bit crazy now that the apartment has sold and there are just a few more weeks left until we take over the farm. We just want to get started on our chicken coop already!

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The calendar is packed somewhere in another dimension so we made a really crappy one just for the countdown. August 26th is the big day!

I think I’m starting to get the hang of watercolour pencils, but I still feel pretty limited to the colours I have available, despite having 32 pencils to pick from. In the world of realistic painting, 32 colours is nowhere near enough if you can’t blend! Blending watercolour pencils just doesn’t work well at all. It can be unpredictable because some colours are significantly stronger than others, and they just don’t mix very well so it will take some experience with these particular pencils to know which ones do what. It’s almost as if they each have unique personalities. It’s also pretty hard to do trial and error right on the page since the paper can only handle so much water at a time. The perfectionist in me gets antsy about not getting the colours exactly right, but it’s a good opportunity to teach that part of me to chill out and just accept that art is allowed to be sloppy.

Tufted Deer

This deer was meant to be more of a blue-grey/beige colour, not so much pink and tan, but it works well enough. Also yes it has fangs, more on that in a future post 😉

I’m really having a lot of fun doing these combination pen/watercolour drawings. It might be just a lack of skill, but using the watercolours doesn’t seem to offer the contrast I want. The only deep colour I can reliably get is black; the rest of them just get too watered down (go figure). Ink lines give the work a more crisp, finished feel, and the pictures remind me of illustrations from science textbooks or kid’s story books.

Here’s an example of a straight watercolour drawing I did a few weeks ago after we had to dismantle our balcony garden for showings. It sucked to have to rip up perfectly good pea plants, but they were climbing on the railing and there weren’t any other options to save them so I thought I’d artistically commemorate one of the nice big pods before letting it dry out for seeds.Sugar snap pea July 2016.png

The drawing started off ok, but I gave up on it after a while because I got impatient with the colour. I couldn’t quite reach the deep, vibrant green of the healthy plant; instead it looks yellow and weak. The scanner did exaggerate the yellow a bit, but you get the idea. The bright areas just sort of fade into the paper, and it didn’t seem to matter how much I tried to darken the shadowy parts, they just washed away. I tried to darken it with black and a bit of blue but things were just getting muddy at that point so I quit. I don’t love the composition anyway. Now that it’s been sitting for a few weeks I probably could come back to it with a fresh mind and go over it again to get richer colours but I think the paper has had enough (you can see how much it’s buckling!), and my reference specimen is a dried out husk now so I’d just be winging it. I’m saving the peas to plant in the spring as this was a good strong plant until I had to pull it out 🙂

I think this drawing would have been a lot more successful and fun to do if I had used ink first. There is something very satisfying about filling in a line drawing with colour, which is probably why those adult colouring books have become so popular. The pen lines also help me keep the watercolours under control a bit too once I apply the water, which makes that part a lot more relaxing.

I’m starting to get a technique that works well for these. First I do a light pencil sketch to lay down the foundation of what I want to draw. Then I erase the pencil very gently, trying to avoid damaging the paper. I leave just a hint of pencil behind as a guideline for the pen.

Next step is the ink drawing. This needs to be fairly precise so it helps to go slowly and carefully in order to get it right the first time. This step takes the most concentration.

Grasshopper lines

Finished ink drawing waiting to be coloured in

By the time I’m finished with the ink, I’m excited to dive in with the colours. All those empty spaces are irresistible, and just beg to be filled in. I try to do most of the dry colouring at once and minimize the number of times I’ll need to apply water. It doesn’t take much before the paper starts to buckle, even with fairly decent watercolour paper.

I’ve found that I usually need to go over the drawing a few times, especially to get more vibrant colours and deep shading. I forgot to take a picture of the dry coloured bug, but here is the finished product:

Bug with fuzzy antennae

I also drew an anteater, just cause they are cute and strange.

Anteater

There will definitely be more of these coming up. I love trying new things, so any ideas or suggestions for subjects are always welcome! 🙂

Headaches and Charcoal

Panther Charcoal

This drawing was from a few months ago. I had a bad headache for six days straight and decided to try drawing something to take my mind off it. It’s probably no coincidence that this is what I ended up with as it depicts pretty accurately how I was feeling at the time. Surprisingly, the headache actually started to let up after I finished the drawing. Maybe the headache itself was an angry snarling beast that needed to be released onto paper.

This was also my first time using a blending stump with charcoal. I had recently bought a new set of drawing pencils that included one but at the time I had no idea what the white thing was and actually had to google it. For anyone who doesn’t know, this is what I’m talking about:

 

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The white piece on the right is the blending stump. Basically, it’s just a roll of compressed paper that you can hold like a pencil. You use it instead of your fingers to smudge the charcoal and create nice smooth blending effects. When the stump starts to develop a thick layer of charcoal (or graphite) on it, you can use the sandpaper block on the left to freshen it up again and reshape the point if needed.

This thing makes charcoal a little easier and less messy to work with. My parents will probably remember a lot of black fingerprints and smudges on the walls and doors in and around my bedroom when I was a teenager. I didn’t know about these things back then and I always just used my finger to blend. Charcoal is still as messy as ever, but this thing does reduce that quite a bit, and makes it possible to create much more refined effects than you ever could by smudging it with a finger.

Another important tool to use in this kind of work is the good old kneadable eraser. If you’ve ever done any pencil drawing you probably know what this is, but for anyone who doesn’t know, here is a picture of one sitting next to a regular eraser: image1.JPG

The kneadable eraser is very similar to that blue tacky stuff you can use to put pictures up on the wall, and actually I have heard that you can use that stuff as a super cheap kneadable eraser but I’ve never tried that myself.

The kneaded eraser is AMAZING. As far as I’m concerned it’s purely magical. It can be squeezed and shaped into whatever form you need to create precise effects. You can make it round and blunt, and just gently dab or brush over the drawing to create softer highlights, or you can make a fine point for a more defined effect. You can also use it to clean up smudges and refine edges. It’s much more versatile and precise than a regular eraser, but not as effective if you have a lot to erase or need to clean up a large area. I consider both types of erasers to be equally essential to drawing with either pencil or charcoal.

When I get to a point where I start causing more harm than good in a drawing, I call it finished. It’s like when you’re curling your hair.. there comes a point where you just start messing it up the more you try to work with it, and you have to just stop and say you’re done. I find that drawing or painting in any medium is exactly the same. When I’m done with a charcoal drawing, I spray it with a fixative to keep the charcoal where it should be and move on to the next thing.