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Drawn from the depths

Cropped illustration of a phaeodarian colony
Illustrated phaeodarian colony. Image: Emily C. Mitchell © 2024 MBARI

Drawn from the depths

Written by: Emily Mitchell (Scientific Illustration Intern)

Emily Mitchell standing in her office space, including a computer screen with illustration editing software open and poster of phaeodarian illustration hanging behind her.
Science Illustrator Emily Mitchell at her MBARI workspace. Image: Andrew Mitchell © 2024 MBARI

On the third day of my internship at MBARI, I woke up at 4:00 a.m. and was loaded up on ginger, acupressure wristbands, and various pills to combat seasickness. I’m not a morning person, but I was excited and nervous to begin the 10-hour research cruise aboard the R/V Rachel Carson. I had just joined the Carbon Flux Ecology Lab (CFE) as their Scientific Illustration Intern. This 10-week internship was the final requirement for my certification from CSUMB’s Science Illustration Program. I worked with Natalia Llopis Monferrer to create an ‘in situ’ illustration of a phaeodarian, a scientifically accurate rendering of what a phaeodarian looks like in its natural environment.  Phaeodarians are giant single-celled protists that build intricate glass structures out of silica. Natalia is at the forefront of this research, and I was so excited to be along for the ride of discovery.

ROV Ventana loaded with 8 "detritus" samplers
ROV Ventana with eight “detritus” samplers attached and the main science camera at center. Image: Natalia Llopis Monferrer © 2024 MBARI

I was welcomed aboard as a member of the team, where I attended and participated in lab meetings and research cruises and got to work alongside Natalia in the lab, where I observed these fascinating organisms through a variety of microscopy techniques. Each experience provided a compelling perspective of phaeodarians that played a vital role in my illustration. Our objective at sea was to observe and collect as many phaeodarians as possible using the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Ventana. We would be searching at depths around 550 meters (1,804 feet) through the constant flurry of marine snow to try and spot these centimeters-size cells. Unfortunately, very quickly, during the hour-and-a-half ride to the collection location, all of my plans to curb seasickness failed me. To say I was seasick is an understatement. I was pretty devastated that I couldn’t watch the Ventana’s exploration and collections but was reassured that everything captured through its lens is recorded and can be reviewed later. Honestly, I don’t understand how anybody could not get sick looking at the giant monitors below deck in the control room. It looks like piloting a spaceship through a constantly shifting alien environment while inside a drunken washing machine. I could only endure a few moments, enough to snap some pictures and flee.

Scientists inside the ROV control room on the R/V Rachel Carson, looking at video monitors.
Natalia Llopis Moferrer, Rob Sherlock, and Colleen Durkin in the ROV control room, searching for phaeodarian colonies. Image: Munehiro Takami © 2024 MBARI

Eventually, the Ventana was hauled up, streaming ocean water and holding what the CFE and ROV team had found in the near-freezing depths half a mile down. On deck, I could help unload the ROV’s sampler tanks, watch the fragile glass phaeodarians get moved to transport jars, collect deep sea water, and scrub everything clean. It was cold, wet work getting these delicate cells ready for transport while on the boat, in constant motion from the waves, but it was worth it. Holding these specimens in hand, looking at a fresh-from-the-deep phaeodarian cell with your naked eye is captivating. The long day was far from over after the Rachel Carson had returned to shore. While Natalia processed and photographed the phaeodarians collected on the cruise, I got to observe and gain a real sense of their shape and different components. Sitting at the microscope and making direct observations was my favorite part of the day.

Emily in the lab onboard the R/V Rachel Carson watching postdoc Natalia Llopis Monferrer open a detritus sampler recovered from ROV Ventana.
Emily watches as Natalia Llopis Monferrer opens a detritus sampler containing a phaeodarian, recovered from ROV Ventana. Image: Colleen Durkin © 2024 MBARI

When the cruise footage became available, I spent hours on my computer from the comfort of my ocean-view office, watching these tiny creatures sparkle to the sound of crashing waves. Their small size makes them almost indistinguishable from the marine snow they passively collect as they float with neutral buoyancy. I will be forever amazed by the ROV pilots, scientists, and crew members who make finding, observing, and collecting these phaeodarians look deceptively easy. A few valuable minutes of observation are spent noticing features that often disappear once the phaeodarian is collected and brought half a mile up to the surface.

The ROV footage and microscopy images provided me with the information I needed to make my illustration; a colony of Tuscarantha luciae, eight capsules oriented around a geodesic sphere with one spine on the top of each capsule and three facing inward. My study and research included sketches, drawings, and painting studies trying to figure out the best process to accurately balance the phaeodarian’s microscopic details and capture how those details would look, clarified, in their natural environment. I decided to illustrate this piece digitally because it gave me the flexibility to manage the complexity and detail of this phaeodarian with endless editability.

Animated GIF showing the various stages of illustrating a phaeodarian colony living in the mesopelagic.
Stages of illustrating the phaeodarian colony utilizing ROV footage and microscopy images. Image: Emily C. Mitchell © 2024 MBARI
illustration of phaeodarians in a sketchbook
Page from Emily’s sketch book. Image: Emily Mitchell © 2024 MBARI

Collecting the reference images for my piece was an adventure. My favorite part of creating a scientific illustration is the deep dive into a new subject. Not only did I have to become reacquainted with words like ‘protist’ and learn the specialized vocabulary for these organisms, but I also had to figure out how to visually represent those features correctly. I started with sketches and tests with colored pencils to get sharp details and discover interesting color interactions. The gentle textures, hard lines, and soft edges that can be achieved with this medium are something I wanted to capture in my digital piece. These studies helped me set parameters and stay grounded in the digital realm, where I have unlimited access to any brush, color, or medium. With digital tools, it’s easy to get lost in a piece or overwhelmed with options. Creating these pencil tests also helped me define what the final piece would look like, and once that was decided, I started the digital painting. First, I created a sketch on my first gen iPad using the Procreate app. The Apple pencil helped me get the sharp details I wanted and, to me, feels the most like working with a regular pen on paper. The large size and layer organization of my final illustration necessitated moving my piece from the iPad app to the desktop version of Photoshop. Photoshop is where I’m at home painting and it was here I created the final piece. I’m still using the Wacom tablet I bought in 2014 and a 2017 MacBook Pro. In Photoshop, I mainly used Photoshop’s standard “soft round pressure size” brush and occasionally a soft pastel brush or Smudge Tool when I needed just a little bit of texture to mimic the colored pencil effect I explored in my studies. This process was fluid, and I bounced back and forth between tools. I literally went “back to the drawing board” many times when something wasn’t turning out just right. There was a lot of experimentation for me with this piece; it’s the first time I’ve illustrated something this big and the first time I’ve illustrated glass, cells, and marine snow. It was so helpful to have scientists on hand to offer feedback on its accuracy. I also researched ways phaeodarians have been illustrated in the past. It is important, as an artist, to understand in what context your subject has been previously shared and to decide what things should be perpetuated, discontinued, or expanded on. Most existing illustrations of phaeodarians were done by Ernst Haeckel, a famous and prolific illustrator from the 1800’s. I also looked at more modern illustrations from various textbooks and papers. It was helpful to be able to refer to other’s work as I was learning what a phaeodarian was and how they worked. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to illustrate this phaeodarian in situ, something that has not been illustrated before. This is only possible thanks to the new ways we can see and study their way of life. There is a lot more I look forward to sharing about phaeodarians after spending so much time observing and learning about them.

Animated GIF showing a detailed portion of the overal image progressing through stages of illustration.
Detail of a phaeodarian capsule and the process of illustrating it. Image: Emily C. Mitchell © 2024 MBARI

This internship was a crash course in deep-sea oceanography and microscopy. I can’t think of a better place to have my eyes opened to the complexity, beauty, and depth of the ocean than with the Carbon Flux Ecology Lab. It was a truly transformative experience for me and changed my understanding of the ocean and the scope of its importance. I would have been overwhelmed by the amount I learned here without their help. This piece would not have been possible without the team’s knowledge and expertise so generously and kindly shared. I also want to mention my appreciation for the Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation and their support funding my position. My time as the Carbon Flux Ecology Lab’s Science Illustration Intern was the perfect balance of art and science, support and freedom. I got to put my observation and artistic skills to the test and watch myself become a better artist. My first experience as a scientific illustrator was a dream come true.

Note from the Carbon Flux Ecology Team: Emily C. Mitchell is a professional Science Illustrator whose portfolio and contact information can be found at