When it comes to ecology, there is one field where having illustrations really helps improve accessibility and understanding. That field is Theoretical Ecology. Theoretical ecologists look at complex interactions in nature and transform them into mathematical frameworks. It can be challenging to effectively communicate theory to a broader audience. I know I'm not the only one who glazes over when they see a paper full of equations! This is where an illustration can really work to give biological context to the math.
My husband is a theoretical ecologist, and I've created a number of illustrations for his papers. This latest one took his equation for incorporating mutualisms into coexistence theory, and broke it into parts that I then explained visually using watercolor illustrations of each component of the equation. The figure helps show how each biological interaction is incorporated into the theory.
You can read Christopher Johnson's paper in Ecology here.
I have been working with Professor Karen Kapheim ever since I started working as a scientific illustrator, and I always enjoy working with her because it gives me a chance to paint bees. I have a big appreciation for bees, especially native bees. Often when we think about bees, we picture big hives or honeycomb. But did you know that there are bees that build underground burrows?
Dr. Kapheim's recent work focuses on alkali bees (Nomia melanderi), which create underground tunnel networks in the mud for their eggs. For her lab's latest paper, I created a watercolor illustration to show the nesting bees and explain different aspects of the experimental design. Using artwork to show the experiment in a natural setting gives a better overall understanding of the science than a simple diagram or description would. Congratulations to the bee team on their latest findings!
Kapheim, K.M., Johnson, M.M. & Jolley, M. Composition and acquisition of the microbiome in solitary, ground-nesting alkali bees, Scientific Reports 2021
"Could you paint all of the species? There are about 250 of them."
When I moved to Switzerland in 2016, I didn't expect that I would end up with a job painting all of the African cichlid fish species in Lake Tanganyika! Walter Salzburger's lab in Basel has been studying the evolution and diversification of these fish, and his team was working on a big paper. Cichlids are diverse and beautiful, but it is incredibly difficult to get accurate photos of fish. Some of these species are teeny tiny, others have only been seen rarely or never alive. So it was really important to find a way to portray the species without the use of photographs. That's where I came in.
I worked closely with the experts, read books, and worked with photographs to create watercolor paintings of each species. Often there wasn't much material to work with, but I became skilled at interpreting and filling in the gaps in knowledge.
Late last year, the paper was published in Nature with all of the paintings. I was often asked if I am sick of painting fish, but I think the more fish I paint, the more I love them.
Ronco, et al. Drivers and dynamics of a massive adaptive radiation in cichlid fishes, Nature 2020.
When I first teamed up with marine conservation biologist, Melissa Cronin at UC Santa Cruz, she needed paintings of manta and devil ray species and illustrations showing how rays are caught as bycatch during tuna fishing. The species are challenging to photograph and bycatch photos can be difficult to look at with an objective eye. The illustrations really helped show each species accurately and portray the fishing practices in a scientific way.
As we worked together, she came up with the idea to create a poster for skippers to hang in their ships with information on the species, distribution, life history, and proper ways to handle them. This became part of a workshop that she and her collaborators conducted with the fishermen in order to identify and test methods of reducing bycatch and mortality of these large animals.
Some closeup images of the poster:
Like many organizations this summer, the Guild of Natural Science Illustration held their annual conference virtually this past weekend. While we all wished we could have been together, being virtual means a lot more people can participate in the event and also view the beautiful and varied artwork in this year's exhibit online. I am fortunate to have one of my pieces selected for the juried exhibit. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful scientific illustration: 2020 GNSI MEMBER EXHIBITION
For the last few years, I have been painting all 250+ cichlid fish species in Lake Tanganyika for Walter Salzburger's lab in Switzerland. Through this project, I've learned a few things about how to paint fish, and I thought I would share my process!
Step 1: Transfer the sketch
I use reference photos, specimens, and feedback from working closely with experts to create the sketch. Once the sketch is finished, I then have to transfer it onto watercolor paper. For this step, I tape the sketch on the watercolor block, place a piece of carbon paper underneath, and trace the lines. The pressure from the pencil causes the carbon to deposit onto the watercolor paper.
Step 2: Trace back over the sketch
The carbon sketch ends up being kind of fuzzy and smudgy, so the next step is to use a kneaded eraser to remove some of the carbon so that there is just a light shadow of all of the lines. Then I go back over all of the lines with a very light pencil.
Note: most of these videos will be time-lapse. I don't actually work this fast! Wouldn't it be awesome if I did.
Step 3: Fill in the base colors and shading
Now I can start painting! I add all of the base colors and shading on the body and fins. I like to use a combination of grays and purples to add shadows to the body and give it a three-dimensional shape. (I also paint the eye pretty early in the process because adding an eye makes the fish look more alive, and for whatever reason, I find it easier to paint the fish when it looks like it has some personality.)
STep 4: Paint the lines
Next, I use a small brush to add the lines that make up all of the fins. I always leave the pectoral fin for one of the last steps because any additional painting I do on the body would smear or fade the pectoral fin.
Step 5: Shade the Fins
I now use some darker grays and purples to add shading to the fins and body. This is the step that really brings definition to each of the rays and makes the fins look more realistic.
Step 6: Add in the stripes and spots
Stripes and spots can be tricky. In some species of cichlid, the stripes are very well defined and will have a clean edge. For those, I can just put some paint on my brush and paint the stripes. But other cichlids, like this one, have more subtle markings that don't have a strong edge. For these, I put down a layer of water first, and then add paint on top. The water layer allows the paint to diffuse and give a more faded effect.
Step 7: Put in a few Highlights
After I've painted the stripes, I add the lines to the pectoral fin (oops I forgot to video that part). The next thing to do is add highlights. This is my favorite part. I use white gouache, which is an opaque water-based paint, to add some shiny areas. This really brings the painting to light and makes it look polished and complete.
Step 8: Finishing touches
I'm almost done! The very last thing to do to this painting is add in a few scales. These paintings are going to be reproduced pretty small in publications, and adding every single scale would result in a much more complicated painting that would look messier. So I have chosen to paint most of these fish with a hint of scales by adding some darker or lighter patches. I then scan and edit the painting digitally and submit them to be used in publications and presentations!
How do you communicate your research when photos of your study species are impossible to obtain or contain sensitive material? An illustrator can help create beautiful objective imagery when photos can't be used.
This scenario happened with Ph.D. candidate, Melissa Cronin at UC Santa Cruz. Melissa works with manta and devil rays, and her work focuses on understanding the life history of these giant animals and working with the tuna industry to reduce the impact of by-catch on manta mortality. She needed visuals to use for communicating her research that would also serve to help with species identification.
The first problem: these are massive animals. Manta rays can get to be 23 feet across and 6,600 lbs! Many of the mobulid ray species live in pelagic offshore habitats where they aren't often seen by humans, so photographing something this huge, underwater, in the open ocean, is simply impossible for her to do.
The second problem: many of the photos of these rays are from by-catch. The animals are in distress and the photos cause viewers to bring in an emotional response that distracts from focusing on the details of the research findings.
The Solution: Work with a science illustrator!
Melissa and I talked about what she needed, and she sent me photos, videos, pages from guidebooks, and resources I would need to make her paintings. I then created these ten watercolor and gouache paintings for her. Now, she has illustrations she can use in her talks and to help with species identification and research. The artwork is clearer and more objective than the available photos. I hope my illustrations help her achieve her research goals and help conservation efforts for these magnificent animals. To learn more about Melissa's work, check out https://ccal.ucsc.edu/melissa-cronin/
We are living in strange times now. I am so thankful that I normally work from my home studio and that my clients are all remote anyway. It makes it much easier to continue doing science illustration. I am still open for business, making new products, creating new artwork, and taking on new clients and projects. Life Science Studios has moved locations! I am now operating out of Bellingham, WA, in a new studio room with an inspiring view.
I have added a couple of fun new products to the shop. You may have also noticed that you can now purchase mushroom art products directly from the Life Science Studios website. I am so excited to have my own store on my website now! You can also still purchase through Etsy.
A few of my cichlid fish paintings have been published in research journal articles. I love seeing how the paintings and data work together to communicate the research findings. I have two more papers featuring my artwork coming out soon, and I can't wait to share those!
I also had a great time creating a new logo for The Hungry Forager, a new company out of Kentucky. The client wanted a logo for the website and a circular one for social media, so we came up with two fun versions. The logos show the variety of foraged foods that The Hungry Forager will be selling.
I hope you all are safe and healthy and staying home.
It's March! And March has everybody thinking green, for St. Paddy's Day. So I thought I would profile my favorite green mushroom, Gliophorus psittacinus, known as the Parrot Wax Cap. This tiny mushroom is hard to miss because of its bright BRIGHT green color and super slimy cap! When I lived in California, I used to find these in the redwood forests near Santa Cruz. They are so beautifully bright green against the red-brown background of the redwoods.
This species also comes in bright red-orange and bright yellow too!
Cap: The cap is smooth, convex, and covered in slime. The color ranges from bright green to dark green when young, and changes to shades of pink, yellow, and orange with age.
Hymenium: The gills are adnate to subdecurrent, occasionally seceding. Color is greenish when young, becoming concolorous with the cap in age.
Stipe: The stipe is cylindrical to tapered up. It is greenish when young, becoming yellow, orange, or pink with age.
Spore Print: White
Mushroom playing cards
I am thrilled to announce a new collaboration with MyComestible! We are bringing you playing cards featuring mushroom watercolor paintings. Each deck has 54 wild edible species; one deck for North American mushrooms (in English) and the other for European mushrooms (in French). The pre-sale starts today! Get yours for a discounted price only in the month of March. Visit www.mycomestible.com.