Illustrating Soil Life

Image by: Katelyn Weel

By Katelyn Weel, artist, Gransherad, Norway



I first discovered the beauty and elegance of microscopic creatures as a student of Environmental Sustainability at Lakehead University in Orillia, Ontario.  During my studies,  I  worked as a research assistant analyzing protozoa and diatoms in natural freshwater biofilms.

In 2013 I left Canada and started working at VitalAnalyse in Norway, where I observed soil in the microscope and started learning about soil life as it applies to agriculture. Despite having studied environmental sustainability for four years, until I started this work I really had no idea about what was going on in the soil. Once I started to learn just how complex and intricate below ground ecosystems are and how little we really know about them, I developed a much greater appreciation for soil, and I started to see the need for a very different approach to agriculture.

In my role at VitalAnalyse, I occasionally help lead public workshops, seminars, and demonstrations about life in the soil. During these events, I have noticed that the smallest things most people can easily relate to are usually mites or springtails that can be seen with the naked eye. If it requires a microscope, it starts to feel abstract. Even solid and detailed images taken from scanning electron microscopes are clinical looking, alien, out of context, or simply too “sciency” for most non-academics to connect with. If only we could take pictures of rotifers, protozoa, and bacteria in their natural habitat with regular cameras, to simply observe them as we would any other animal with our own eyes.

I decided to try using my imagination and my experience with the microscope to illustrate what it might look like if we could simply shrink down and observe rotifers, flagellates, ciliates, and other soil organisms face to face in their natural habitat.

In each drawing, I aim to demonstrate some of the complexity and diversity of soil ecosystems, including small details you might not notice at first glance, such as tiny flagellates, bacteria, or threads of fungi in the background. I want to illustrate the organisms in a way that they are both realistic and beautiful, and to draw the viewer into the mysterious world beneath us.

Image by: Katelyn Weel

Testate amoeba
Image by: Katelyn Weel

The drawings have been well received here in Norway. I’ve realized that there is a lack of illustrations like this in our field, so I am reaching out to let more people know that these drawings exist, and I’d love to do more.

My gallery of soil life illustrations can be found here. There are more drawings in progress, and the site will be updated as I continue adding to the collection. I hope that my artwork can help more people connect with soil biology, and bring them a little closer to the invisible and underappreciated world of microbiology that is so important to our everyday lives.