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 🙂


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


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.



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.