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.

Mycorrhiza small.png

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 🙂

Advertisements

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!

Screen Shot 2017-04-13 at 09.28.57.png

Facebook

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.

 

 

Ciliates

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

ciliates-final-small

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.

FullSizeRender (1).jpg

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.

Nematode brightened, smaller.png

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:

Ciliate WIP smaller.png

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.

 

Mycorrhiza and.. more dragons

I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at plant roots and fungi in the microscope, and I have to admit it’s a little dull. That’s not to say I don’t like it, I mean the whole concept of mycorrhiza is super fascinating. If you’ve never heard of it, I’d highly recommend listening to the Radiolab podcast episode called “From Tree to Shining Tree“. Basically, plants and fungi actually form complex partnerships to help each other out. Nature never ceases to amaze, and it’s just another example of how little we really know about the world we’re stomping around on every day. Here’s a picture of an infected root that I took from the microscope:

img_8459

We treated the root sample (from our experimental wheat field) in the lab with a process that removes the pigments from the plant cells but stains the fungi with a dye so that they become visible to us. Sometimes environmental science is not so environmentally friendly.. and this bothers me.. but we can leave that discussion for another day. In this case the plant cells took on a bit too much colour but the fungi are still easy to spot as very dark, thin, gnarled looking threads. The samples are interesting, and beautiful, to look at and I don’t have to worry about my specimens swimming away or eating each other, but it’s just not as much fun as soil samples with living critters. These samples are very dead and analyzing them gets a bit boring after a while.

So, sometimes I feel a need to stretch my imagination at the end of a microscope session and draw some quick fantasy art, just to balance things out a little bit. I put on some music and just let loose with whatever comes out. I’m particularly fond of dragons lately. I think it’s because they are a loosely defined creature with a basic generalized form that anyone can modify to suit their own imagination. They can be mindless destroyers or keepers of ancient wisdom, depending on your mood or whatever books you’re into. There is no right or wrong with dragons, so as a perfectionist it’s a good exercise in letting go of the need to be accurate. Having said that, I have strong preferences about how to picture dragons, and I almost never see dragon art that really fits my idea of what they should look like, so I just make my own according to what feels right.

Here is the one from today:

dragon deer smaller with birds.png

I only spent about two hours on this, so it’s not as “finished” as it could be but the point was just to get the idea out of my head and not spend too much time on it.

I legitimately felt bad painting the little deer there. But then I made myself feel better by saying that this dragon is so big it wouldn’t bother with the deer.. it would be like taking time to stop and eat a sesame seed. The deer obviously doesn’t know that so just imagine its relief when the dragon just passes right over it and continues on its way 🙂

Here’s one I did a couple of weeks ago. There have been a few more in between now and then but I haven’t finished those yet so they aren’t “postable” at this point. They’ll be done soon™.

fire dragon smaller.png

That one is way too dark. Maybe one day I’ll go in and add some flames or something to brighten it up but I wasn’t really feeling it at the time so I just left it. I mostly just wanted to experiment with a profile view since I’ve been doing a lot of front view dragons lately. This one was just quickly sketched out in maybe an hour or so, at the most.

If the speed seems surprising, it’s not because I’m crazy skilled or anything like that. Imagine painting with real paint, but you don’t have to spend all that time mixing colours. If you notice something that needs changing, you can just fix it in a few seconds without having to carefully mix up all the colours again and try to get it just right. That’s basically why digital paintings like these can be done so much faster than with real paint. I could do the same thing on a canvas in about the same amount of time if I had an infinite selection of premixed paint colours available. I’ve been working on some canvas paintings lately, and I find that while I do enjoy working with real paint, it really is a different experience and it can be more frustrating at times, but also more rewarding in some ways. I could go on all day comparing digital and physical painting but I’ve done that before in a previous post and I won’t go into it again. I like them both, we can leave it at that 🙂

 

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:

Hageboka.jpg

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.