Just this past weekend the land has been covered in a fresh coat of snow. In times like these it is hard to find the right subject (not to mention the motivation) to keep up my practice of nature drawing. But I have finally took some time to draw these dried milkweed pods which I was admiring a couple of months ago in the Thorn preserve (one of my favorite local parks).
So many botanical illustrations try to capture the bounty of Spring and Summer. I think it is interesting to notice what is left in the Winter. Even in these contorted shapes I find great beauty, After all these are the seeds from which new meadows will start to grow soon.
Here are some of the preparatory sketches and the original samples:
My latest illustration depicts Myelin, the insulating layer of fat that wraps around the axons of neurons (here depicted in pink). Just like the plastic tubes around the wires in your house, myelin allows electric signals to travel inside these cells for long distances, without dissipating.
In the brain, myelin sheaths are formed by oligodendrocytes, a type of glial cells that wrap around multiple axons at the same time, forming a complex network on top of an already staggering complex network of neurons.
My goal here was simply to pay tribute to these ‘support’ cells that are too often overlooked. Both neurons and oligodendrocytes are still incredibly simplified in my drawing (neurons don’t have any dendrites for one) but I hope it gives a sense of how intricate – and beautiful! – the brain can be.
This illustration was heavily influenced by the work of William Morris, of course, although mine is not a repeating pattern like his. I have been a big fan of his work and philosophy since visiting the William Morris Gallery, while working on my PhD in London.
I have been working on this for months! It’s my most extensive nature drawing to date (19×24 inches) and the second one that features mushrooms. Please don’t ask me what the species are, I’m not an expert and this is not meant to be scientific (most of these species would probably never grow in the same place). This is just meant as an homage to these beautiful organisms.
As usual, below you can see some of my reference pictures and preparatory sketches.
Since July I have been trying to capture the magic of fireflies on a Summer evening and finally, this month while sitting in my backyard, I came up with this illustration. It’s also the official portrait of my house in Woodstock, NY. I hope you like it!
As usual, here are a few reference sketches, because even when drawing my background I have tried to do keep up my practice of observational drawing and document some of the grasses that grow here. I haven’t bothered identifying them but it made me really appreciate the beauty and biodiversity of an ‘unkept’ yard.
This mineral composition is inspired by some chromolithographs from Meyers Konversations-Lexicon encyclopedia (1893), as seen in the Romance of Books account (a real goldmine of vintage science illustrations – seriously, follow them!)
You may have noticed that I usually prefer to draw living things – maybe that’s my biologist training showing – but in these troubling times, I found copying rocks and minerals very comforting.
Not that I believe minerals have any special powers. I just love the idea of rocks slowly morphing into gems deep within the Earth, untouched by human troubles. They existed for millions of years, long before life even appeared and they will keep going long after we are gone.
I grew up in Bologna, a city where science and art merge in many strange ways. At university, many of my classes took place in old anatomical theaters, next to dusty zoology collections which I often stopped to explore (and sketch). These settings clearly had a lot of influence on my art.
When people ask me for my favorite artist, my hometown naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi is certainly up there in the pantheon of weird science illustrators (next to Maria Sibylla Merian and Ernest Haeckel). The weird creatures collected in his 1642 book Monstrorum Historia are an endless source of inspiration. In particular, I have always been fascinated by this strange ‘deer with numerous antlers’ which looks halfway between a grotesque unicorn and a stag with a party hat.
This month I took some time to retrace it and add a bit of color. It was a really fun process and I’m thinking of doing more of these public domain science ‘remixes’ – let me know if you have any requests!
It was a dark and cold early Spring here in upstate NY. It was hard to find the motivation to sit down and draw something, but I’m trying to keep up my personal practice this year so I decided to finish an old drawing I sketched back in March 2020.
This was early in the pandemic. We had just left the city to stay with my wife’s family up here in the mountains. We were very isolated and my only distraction from the news was taking long walks. One day I snapped a picture of a chipmunk peeking out of a cut-down tree. Back then it struck me as a fitting metaphor for the current mood: we’re all on edge, checking to see if it was safe to come out. Sadly, two years later it still feels very appropriate… I hope this is the Spring we can finally start to regroup and organize.
Here is the black and white drawing and the reference picture:
If you know me, you have probably noticed I’m endlessly fascinated by scientific metaphors. I love to think of how they may shape scientific understanding and public perception of science.
This illustration was inspired by a metaphor I have read in Losing Eden by Lucy Jones (attributed to the environmentalist Paul Shepard):
I found it quite beautiful, and also very useful. It encourages us to stop thinking of human bodies as ‘machines’ that can somehow be maintained independently from the rest of the natural world. Instead, each one of us is a complex ecosystem, populated by hundreds of different species which both rely on us, and on which we rely. As we are learning, our skin is a very porous boundary.
On a technical note: this was done entirely in Procreate, based on an early sketch on paper. Not sure I like this style but I’m trying to work without thick black outlines for once.
I finally finished the forest drawing I started a few weeks back. My goal for this year is to revive my personal practice and make at least one non-commissioned illustration per month. Mostly I would like to do more observational drawings. This was my homework for January:
For those who are interested in such things, I include below a few research sketches collected over the late Summer, early Fall. Most of these scenes are composite drawings. I don’t have the time to sit and draw an actual forest au plein air, but I still want the vegetation to look as ‘realistic’ as possible.
I have also added a few hidden details to make the scene more interesting. Since we’re now in the middle of Winter, I wanted to capture a sense of death, rebirth, and interconnectedness of things. The insect feeding on plants, the salamander feeding on insects, the crow feeding on salamanders, and plants and mushrooms feeding on dead animals of all kinds. Life comes full circle.
I know things are hard sometimes but hang in there! Spring is going to come (eventually) and thanks, as always, for following me.
PS: this seems somehow topical since this is also my 200th post – I can’t believe how far this humble blog has come!
I have a confession to make… For over a year now I have been building an insect-themed sci-fi universe on a secret Instagram account @uniramiaworld.
I haven’t been world-building this hard since I was a teenager, and for some reason, I still find it kind of embarrassing. The truth is that it has been a major source of comfort during this long pandemic. I’m starting to think of world-building as a coping mechanism: when the outside world seems so unpredictable it’s tempting to create one completely under our control – has anyone written about this? I’d love to read about the psychology behind this!
Anyhow, I have no idea where I’m going with this. One day I would love to tell some stories set in this universe but I want them to be filled with science (of course). Not in a pedantic way. I want teens to be able to read them just for the cool costumes and technology, while their entomologist parents nod contently in the back.
For now, you can just follow @uniramiaworld for the occasional insect sci-fi. And of course, any feedback is welcome!