Aldrovandi stag (capreolus polyceros)

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!

If you like this you can buy a print on cartoonscience.org

Hibernation

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:

Skin as armor. Skin as soil.


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):

“We imagine our skin and our bodies to be an armor, or a shell, impenetrable to the outdoors. But the human epidermis is more like a pond surface, or a forest soil.”

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.

FOREST

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!

Uniramia World

(to stay on the topic of personal work)

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!

Thanks for following me 🐞

Personal Work

After a long hiatus, I want to share some of my plans/dreams for Cartoon Science and my personal work. TL;DR version: I have opened a Shop and launched a Patreon to sustain this website and other passion projects. Thank you for your support!

I was reticent at first. Asking for money is always awkward. There are so many other talented artists and important initiatives to support (BTW do you already subscribe to Science for the People?) – WHY should anyone choose to support Cartoon Science?

I’m incredibly LUCKY to have made a career in illustration. Having a creative job – of any kind – is a great privilege and for me in particular, trained as a neuroscientist, to have found a job that literally pays me to draw neurons is beyond my wildest dreams (in case you don’t know, I’m currently a Scientific Multimedia Producer at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute).

BUT sometimes I do miss the freedom that both my academic job and my freelance career have afforded me (in different ways). The freedom of choosing my own projects, pursuing ideas that don’t always work out, without having to worry about clients or publishers. It’s unfortunate that those freedoms come with so many other barriers (paywalls, job insecurity, unsustainable work/life balance). So, I have decided to create my own space of ‘freedom’. In 2022 I’m planning to slow down on commissions and embrace the magic of personal work, as described in a recent blog by Rebecca Green.

I have started cartoonscience.org as part of my scholarship in Society in Neuroscience (2016-2019). Since then I have kept it updated in my own (scarce) free time, at my own expense. It allowed me to connect with science illustrators and cartoonists all over the world and for that I’m very grateful. However, I want to do more with this platform. I have sketchbooks filled with ideas for science comics on topics ranging from vaccines to psychedelics research, graphic essays about the politics of science, a series of microbiology-inspired landscapes and much, much more…

Creating a sustainable income for Cartoon Science would allow me to dedicate some real time to these projects. Making this website not just an archive, but a testing ground for what science visualization can look like. I know times are hard, and supporting artists may not be your priority right now, but if you like my work, and you can afford it, please consider becoming a supporter or buying a print.

Thanks a lot,

Matteo

Spring 2021

My latest observational drawing. I started this back in May, when these flowers were blooming all over my backyard but I didn’t get a chance to color it until now.

Of course, the flowers are long gone by now but luckily I took some reference pictures. I didn’t even bother looking up the species but I just thought the colors and shapes went so well together.

Hope you like it!

Cervello a Fumetti

This month a project I have been working for a few month was finally published. It’s a series of ‘animated’ illustrations commissioned by the Scuola IMT Alti Study di Lucca for a series of introductory videos about the brain called Il Cervello a Fumetti (Brain in Comics).

I know, it’s not technically a ‘comic’ but still I’m really happy with the result. Especially considering I made all these before seeing any of the footage. I was involved from the very beginning and worked on a script written by professor Emiliano Ricciardi in collaboration with AD Chiara Palmerini.

If you’re curious about how these were actually done: they are time-lapse video made straight from an iPad by ProCreate. It’s deceptively simple but it means that every single line I draw went straight into the final video, so I had to be very careful not to make any mistakes. I was tracing from (invisible) sketches previously agreed with the team, but even then I ended up redrawing some of them multiple times.

PS: on my website you can find stills of some of my favorite scenes!

Entangled Life

To continue my exercises in observational drawings, I have started working on this mushrooms illustration a few weeks ago. It was partly inspired by Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life (which I have reading over the Winter) and also by my wife’s ongoing passion for mycology (she’s has been making some pretty amazing mushroom-inspired art herself).

This one is less researched than previous drawings. Nothing is at scale and these are not meant to depict real mushroom species (and even if they were, they would probably never grow together). Rather than doing realistic portraits of mushrooms, my goal was to capture some the amazing facts I’m learning about them: how the mushroom caps we normally see are just the tip of the iceberg of a vast underground network of interconnected hyphae. How fungi blurs our definition of ‘organism’, constantly growing and merging with each other. How they close the cycle of growth: feeding off dead trees and animals, but at the same time helping to feed the forest around them.

I think mushrooms may become my second favorite subject, after brains!

Here are some process pictures and details: