Monday, 29 January 2018

Sculpture with mitochondria

The sculpture of mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum I was working on in my last post is now finished and framed.

Here are some of the mitochondria in close up, with their internal structure visible the way they frequently are in samples prepared using a cryofracture or freeze fracture:

The colour scheme is entirely based around a jar of Egyptian Violet that I couldn't resist buying, but it reminds me of a Terry Pratchett quote about anatomy: 

"I thought I’d show everyone what I’m made of. And now they’ll probably find out: I’m made of lots of tubes and greeny purple wobbly bits."

I have two more of these frames, and eventually I want to complete a series of these sculptures looking at different aspects of cellular biology.  My colleague points out that the mitochondria would look great with EL wire inside them, so that's something to keep in mind for the future.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Beginning another SEM-based sculpture

The world as seen through a scanning electron microscope is a beautiful and fascinating place.  These are mitochondria inside a cell: notice that some of the mitochondria are cut open and their internal structure is visible.  The concertina-like folds inside them are protein membranes inside the mitochondrial wall called cristae.  The mitochondria are shown embedded in endoplasmic reticulum.

That yellow oxide colour is just a base layer.  In the next post I'l show the final paint effect, which will involve a lot of magenta and Egyptian violet.  The yellow oxide contrasts with these and will highlight the interior structure of the mitochondria.  

For comparison, this is a SEM photo of mitochondria inside the endoplasmic reticulum:

Image result for mitochondria sem
Image from Woods Lab

It took me a while to get the mitochondria looking how I wanted them to.  On the left here is my first attempt, and on the right is a second, more successful attempt.  I wanted a feathery effect for the cristae so they would contrast with the crisper edges of the endplasmic reticulum folds.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Sculpture with Knossos floor plans

Continuing the labyrinth theme from the previous post,  but turning now to prehistory rather than palaeontology,  I've been working on a relief using the floor plan of the main palace building at Knossos.

People tend to identify the Knossos buildings with the mythical labyrinth in which Theseus fought the Minotaur.  The idea is that mainland Greeks found Minoan buildings confusing and easy to get lost in, being rather more complex than the buildings they had back home. It sounds plausible, but this idea really came from Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated Knossos in the early 20th century and who, despite his debatable merits as an archaeologist, was a great PR man.  Regardless, it makes for a nice artistic composition.

This is an exploded diagram of sorts, with the main ground floor of the palace building to the right, and the surviving portion of the second floor to the left.  Originally there would have been perhaps five floors, but the upper floors haven't survived.

Close up showing the floor plan for the first floor of the Knossos building.

Plan showing what remains of the second floor.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Labyrinthodont teeth

Finally, I'm getting some new content up on here!   Today's blog post is about palaeoart, though it's really more art than palaeo.  These are sculptural studies showing three cross sections of labyrinthodont teeth.

Labyrinthodonts were a group of carnivorous amphibians common during the late Palaeozoic and early Mesozoic, and their key distinctive feature was their teeth.  These things are fascinating.  What's happening here is that the enamel folds in on itself towards the center of the tooth, creating characteristic channels inside the tooth structure.

 It seems the teeth evolved this way because the infolded enamel made them stronger while the teeth were growing.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Lamina cribrosa sculpture

I finished the lamina cribrosa sculpture ages ago, but didn't post about it until now because I wasn't sure if I liked it, or if I wanted to change the colours completely.  So I left it alone for ages, and now that I come back to it I think it's probably okay as it is.

The more I look at it, the more I see the eye of Sauron.  I'm okay with that, though.

I did want to do some interesting things with colours on this sculpture, because that's half the fun of sculpting something as seen through an electron microscope.  The microscope itself doesn't produce a coloured image, but it's common practice to add colours in post-production.  Strong colour contrasts (such as blue/orange, red/green, yellow/purple) are a popular choice, partly because they look cool and partly because they help viewers identify different parts of the image.

I've stuck to that convention and used magenta and chrome yellow on the lamina cribrosa, with Payne's grey on the surrounding membrane.  Here it is in close up:

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Using hemp fibers in anatomical sculpture

It’s always good to try new things.  This week I’ve been experimenting with using hemp fibers in sculpture.  I wanted something fibrous, and hemp string turned out to be ideal.

This is another episode in my long-running fascination with things that look abstract but aren’t (for another example, see here).  It’s the inside of a human eyeball, as seen under an electron microscope.  The round thing in the middle is the point at which the optic nerve enters the eye.  This is called the lamina cribrosa.  In reality it's about 4mm in diameter, and it's like a little sponge with nerve fibers growing through the holes.  The two large holes in the center allow a vein and an artery to enter the eye.  The lamina cribrosa is surrounded by a membrane.  Note that you cannot see the rod and cone cells, because they are underneath the membrane.  Human eyes are inside out; light has to pass through a membrane layer before it can be picked up by the rod and cone cells.

That's not an optical illusion, the whole thing is slightly concave.  It curves upward at the corners because it represents the back of an eye, as seen from the inside.

The brown parts are hemp fibers incorporated into the membrane around the lamina cribrosa, which is made from thin strips of paper rolled into small cylinders and glued together to mimic the structure of the real thing.

Lamina cribrosa, halfway through construction.

For reference, these are pictures of the real thing, as seen through an electron microscope.

Image found here.

Image found here.

You can see the tissue is very fibrous, and so I needed a fibrous sculpting material to represent it.  The hemp fiber works well and creates an interesting variety of textures.  When the sculpture is painted the hemp will be the same colour as the rest of the membrane, which will highlight the differences in texture.

Monday, 9 January 2017


Happy New Year readers!  Following on from my haootia quadriformis sculpture, I've been sculpting some more Ediacaran life forms.  In this case, rangeomorphs.  These were fern-like organisms that lived on the sea bed 635-542 million years ago and were obviously very successful, because there were a lot of different species.  This one is called avalofractus

Finished sculpture showing three avalofractus specimens.

The interesting thing about rangeomorphs is that their body shape was fractally symmetrical.  Modern animals are usually bilaterally symmetrical, though some plants have fractal growth patterns.  Rangeomorphs, however, had a central column anchored to the sea bed with a round holdfast, with branches growing out on alternate sides of the column.  Each branch grew sub branches, and so on.  Every little branch or frond was a miniature version of the whole animal.

Beothukis mistakensis model og growth:
This diagram shows the rangeomorph's fractal growth pattern.  The image comes from this paper by Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill and Simon Conway Morris.

I think this is just so cool.  I say animal but in fact there's some debate as to exactly what they were, and whether they were related to modern animals at all, or whether they evolved completely separately.  Although they looked like ferns, they weren't a kind of plant.  Plants use photosynthesis, and rangeomorphs did not.  They lived at the bottom of the sea where there's no light, and probably used their fronds to absorb nutrients directly out of the water.  

These sculptures are much larger than life size.  In reality avalofractus was only about 5cm long.

As with the haootia sculpture I used a simple colour scheme where the background is painted indigo and the avalofractus figures are a lighter indigo.  Again, this is my conjecture based on the fact that there's no fossil evidence for animals with eyes at this time, and there was no light at the bottom of the sea where these things lived anyway, so why would they be colourful?  I could be wrong.  There are deep sea creatures today that are colourful, even though they live in a world without light.  However, I like the simple blue colouring.  It gives them a somewhat ghostly look against the dark background, which is appropriate for deep-sea animals.