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 🙂

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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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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.