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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Arctic Tern Painting and Winter Update

This acrylic canvas painting of an Arctic Tern was a Christmas present, so now that the gift has been given I can post it here:

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Tux’s family lives near the coast, and when we visit I enjoy watching terns hover over the water, scouting for fish before they strike. As usual with phone pictures, the colours and lighting have been exaggerated a bit. Sometimes I wish I had a giant scanner just for paintings because taking pictures of them can be quite a challenge if the lighting isn’t ideal, and in my studio it’s far from ideal.

This time of year it’s almost always dark in the house. It’s near the base of  a large hill which is higher than the winter sun, so regardless of windows we can’t see the sun at all in the depth of winter. On nice days we still get blue skies and light of course, and on a sunny day I can determine approximately where behind the hill the sun is, but we can’t see the sun itself. Now I understand why so many holidays were originally based on things like the changing seasons; we are eagerly waiting for those first golden rays to reach over the trees signaling the return of warmth and light. After living in the city for three years, now I finally understand the Norwegian love of sitting in the sunshine, and why the easter holiday is such a big deal here. On one of the first days when I was in Canada this past Christmas, I realized it was sunny outside and I stepped out onto the porch, eager to feel the warmth on my skin, but it was -15C and that didn’t quite go as I expected. I hurried back inside before my feet froze to the deck boards. It was sunny almost every day while I was there, and not every day was that cold (boxing day was +9!), so now I consider going home for Christmas to be my “sunny holiday” for the winter. Norwegians go to Spain, I go to Canada 😉

I still love winter, and we have plenty to keep ourselves busy indoors, we just can’t do much outside these days because the whole landscape is a sheet of ice. 

It’s so slippery even the cat wipes out!

I sit inside painting and planning the coming gardens, waiting. It will be a relief when we can just walk outside and not worry about breaking a wrist or tailbone. I’ve got some lovely new bruises just from walking across the backyard to check on our new wildlife camera.

Speaking of which, here is our first catch from the “critter cam”!

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There have been loads of fox tracks around and we were told that a fox lived under the barn, which is why I’m determined to keep our kitty indoors at night as much as possible. It was fun to finally see the fox itself. I’ve seen lots of moose and deer tracks in this spot too, and we were told there are badgers around too, but so far haven’t had pictures of anything other than this fox and a neighbour’s cat prowling around.

As soon as I arrived back in Norway after Christmas, exhausted and jet lagged, we took a 10 hour drive up to Trondheim to pick up our “new” 40 year old electric garden tractor, which we are very excited about. The tractor came with solar panels for charging, so it’s totally self sufficient and emission free. These were never sold in Norway; it was imported from the states and as far as we know it’s the only one of its kind here, so we are absolutely thrilled to have it. It’s something we can fix ourselves if it breaks down since it was built before everything was so high tech and built to be “disposable”, so things were made to be fixable. The tractor came with all kinds of attachments, and we are super excited to see what it is capable of. I especially love how quiet it is compared to the diesel tractor or the gas lawn mower.

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Now things are starting to feel normal for the first time in what feels like forever. There are no more major life changes on the horizon. We’re settled in, the chaos of the holidays is over and I’m recovered from all the travel and getting back into work mode. I’ve got a contract coming up soon so I have had to push myself a bit to get back into drawing, which is always difficult if I’ve been away from it for a while, especially picking up where I left off on a work in progress. The current project involves a nematode being trapped by a fungus, like this. Nature can be pretty gruesome!

Hope you’re staying cozy and warm this winter 🙂

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Winter from the kitchen window ❤ 

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 🙂

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! 🙂

Vorax

This is one of my earliest digital paintings. I meant to post it earlier but sort of forgot about it, then I realized I haven’t posted in a while because some super exciting things have been happening (I will post more on that in the near future) and life in general has been busy lately. It has also been quite warm in the apartment, and summer heat poses a problem that is unique to digital painting. That big screen gets warm, and when I’m already sweating to my seat the last thing I want to do is to lean over a hot screen for hours at a time. Even on a cool day I paint wearing a glove with the fingers cut off so I can more comfortably slide my hand around on the screen without it sticking.

I don’t love this painting actually, I think the detail is good and I am happy with how the skin texture came out, but overall I think it’s actually a bit boring. The composition is not as interesting as it could have been. The subject is too centered and there is too much dead space in the upper half. The lighting is also a bit off so the creature doesn’t quite merge into the environment. I still have a lot to learn about lighting and shadow, and here I think it really shows that I was just starting out. I was more focused on painting accurately than painting well. I have been trying to learn how to loosen up and consider reference photos as guidelines rather than detailed instructions.

Since this scene took place in a naturally dark environment (underground), I think it would have been cooler if it felt as though the viewer suddenly encountered this monster creeping out of the shadows in a dark tunnel, perhaps with a flashlight or lantern kind of effect. Some pale shafts of light coming down from above, or more of those glowing plants might have been cool too. One thing I do remember from painting this was that after spending many days on the Vorax itself, I was eager to be finished and definitely rushed the background. I am now learning to like painting environments and enjoy the whole process rather than just focusing on the subject and treating the rest of it like a necessary evil.

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The vorax is an aggressive carnivore from Ryzom. This particular one is found near a teleporter in a place called Prime Roots, which is an underground zone with many dangerous, high level predators like this one. The teleporter provides a small safe zone, but I had to go just outside that area to get screenshots of these guys, which means my poor character was killed many times for the sake of this artwork!

One thing I love about Ryzom is how original the creatures are. I don’t play the game anymore, but I still miss exploring it and discovering all these interesting animals. There are no bears or deer in this game, only wildly unique and imaginative new plants and animals with special traits and characteristics.

We are soon putting the apartment up for sale, which means most of our stuff has to come out so we can make it look like we live in Ikea. It means our life will be turned upside down for a while and I probably won’t be posting any new art for at least a few weeks (or I might have a lot since we will have no stuff and I’m bored, who knows). I might dig up some old sketches or something while packing, so there could be posts here and there if I get the time and inspiration 🙂

Thanks for reading!

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 to Create Deep Blacks in Acrylic

This past winter I was hired for my first art commission. The client wanted a cow for her living room wall. I was eager to try something new, but had no idea how I would create the effect of shiny black fur using acrylic. As anyone who has ever painted anything in acrylic knows, using pure black doesn’t give the effect you want it to. Adding more black doesn’t make it darker, and trying to lighten it just makes it flat and grey. For anyone else who has struggled with this, allow me to share with you a little trick I learned while working on two paintings of animals with shiny black coats.

Unfortunately I don’t have a scanner big enough for full sized canvas paintings, so I have to use my iPhone to take pictures of them. It’s pretty much impossible to get a true representation of any painting using an iPhone, even in the best light. The problem is when the phone adjusts the focus it tries to compensate for the brightness/darkness in the focal area, and that can really mess with the contrast and depth of the colours in the photo. If anyone has some advice for dealing with this, please let me know! 

So having said that, here are two examples of paintings I did over the holidays which taught me a lot about painting in black.

The first is Sadie, my mom’s Boston Terrier. I painted this as a Christmas present, and it doubled as a practice run for the calf below, which was the commission project. It was super convenient that both paintings had exactly the same colour palette.

Sadie

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The key, I learned, is to use actual black very sparingly. Only for the deepest darkest pure black areas like a pupil. Often in any kind of painting, I find that it’s the surrounding area that brings out the thing you want to emphasize, rather than the thing itself. It might be difficult to see in the photos, but I used a slightly lighter colour in the iris immediately surrounding the pupil to add life and dimension to the eye, as well as bring out the deep black in the pupil itself. Since the pupil is a small area which is truly black, absorbing all light, it is ok to use just a pure black paint straight from the tube.

To cover large areas, you can actually mix black as needed using ultramarine blue and burnt umber. I had no idea blue and brown would mix black, but it worked perfectly! Thanks Google! Of course what you will make is not really black, but that’s the point. Pure black is flat, but with a mixed “almost black” you can adjust it to add subtle variation and shine, which creates depth. When you want to add life to something like an animal with a shiny black coat, use different ratios of blue and brown to adjust the “temperature”, and play with it to get the effect you want.

For the most part the ratio is flexible. More brown makes it warmer and blue makes it cooler. Experiment to see what works for your painting. A small amount of white helps lighten the mixture enough to bring out the shiniest parts without having it look flat and grey.

Hope that is helpful for anyone who has been struggling with using black in acrylic. It’s easier than you might think 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teg Avatar

This is the final piece in the series of avatars I’ve made for Flypso. That means we have decided, at least tentatively, what all five races will be. I’ve written notes, some history, and many scraps of ideas for each one. My least favourite of them all has to be the Teg.

Teg Avatar

Tegs are the desert race. Hulking, tanky, rhino-like creatures. They are at home among vast expanses of desolate wasteland, where they build their settlements underground. They wear heavy armour and use brute force to prove a point. The word “teg” comes from scientific terminology referring to plates or armour. Natural selection has favoured individuals with hard, bony plates on their faces and mountainous form. The Tegs have a violent history of war and destruction, and nearly wiped themselves out before establishing law and civilized society.

I dislike this race for a number of reasons which I won’t get into now, but Tux requested it, and in order to maintain balance and appeal to a range of players it seemed like a good idea to include a tough heavy armour type, and a race that would specialize in “heavy” crafting using stone and metals. This is not intended to be a combat focused war type game, so rather than drawing a snarling face and threatening pose, I tried to show intelligent looking eyes, and a friendly or neutral expression. Tegs are aggressive by nature, but that doesn’t mean they never calm down. More exciting paintings will probably come later on but for now the point was just to make a basic, neutral avatar.

Painting this rough skin type was very challenging. There is no easy way to do it, as far as I can tell. With things like feathers, fur, and sometimes scales, it’s possible to draw out a pattern and gradually vary that pattern, then finish it with shading etc. It’s tedious, but at least it’s repetitious and not too complicated. With this rhino skin though, that was very different. If you look closely at a rhino or elephant’s skin it doesn’t seem to follow much of a pattern, but at the same time it kind of does, and it’s very difficult to replicate that effect. The cracks tend to be deeper in some areas and more shallow, almost non-existent, in others. If you look closely at your own skin, especially around the knuckles, you can see what I mean. Try to follow some of the lines, then look at the lines that intersect those lines. It seems like a nice easy grid, but it’s actually pretty random.

Coming up with the Teg design was a lot different than the other races. I didn’t have a clear idea of what they should look like until I had sketched out a number of possibilities.

Here are a few sketches of early ideas that lost out in the end:

Originally the only criteria was just “desert/underground/cave dwelling people”. Initially I considered making a reptilian race similar to Argonians, but couldn’t come up with a design that didn’t seem cliche or silly looking. Then I thought more about existing burrowing creatures, and came up with what basically amounts to a weird mutant rat:

EPSON MFP image

This one was never really considered at all, and Tux really wanted it to be tankier so I did something similar, but with some inspiration from ankylosaurus:

 

You can see from the level of detail that I was starting to get somewhere. I liked the plated facial armour, but wasn’t sure about the body type. Since this was going to be a burrowing race, I added shovel hands and some spikes on the forearms that could be used to chop and loosen tough soil. We were talking about special abilities, like the Hy’lox maybe being able to see infrared, so I tossed some movement sensing antennae on the heels. I don’t think those will be included in the final design since the Tegs themselves are pretty big and thundery, it just seems a bit illogical.

Finally, I scrapped the whole rodent idea and looked towards large ungulates like rhinos, and outlined a different body plan:

EPSON MFP image

I’m still undecided on the shovel hands and arm spikes. I kind of like them, but Tux didn’t seem too sure. All he wants to talk about is user accounts and login systems *yawn*.

At this stage I was fairly certain of what I wanted to do, so I did another fairly quick pencil sketch of the face, outlining how the plates would lay, and then moved over to the computer to paint the final image.

EPSON MFP image

It kind of sucked to spend time working on a character I didn’t find interesting or appealing and I had to drag myself through it. I guess that’s just part of being an artist for more than just my own entertainment. However I am still more or less happy with how it came out and the concept started to grow on me as it came to life.

So that’s it for these, for now. Next I will be trying my hand at painting some scenes for Flypso, while also working on the next installment in the soil life series.