Illustrating 1: Visualising a world we can’t see.
Updated: Jul 11
Good day! I am the illustrator of Frederike’s book in progress: “Where the Brave Cells are” and guest writer on her blog. I have had the pleasure of being right there at the start of Frederike’s first writings about our little hero Didi, daring Didi. She is -as you might know- a white blood cell, or better yet a dendritic cell and the hero of Frederike’s stories.
A little over a year ago Frederike let me read the first drafts of Didi’s adventures and very soon I was sucked into the world of immune cells, epithelial cells, macrophages and many more unpronounceable little elements that make up you and me. Things I knew nothing about back then… Although I won’t claim to be an expert now, I did do quite extensive research to come to the understanding I now have of what our bodies look like on a scale that is not easy to comprehend because it is too small to see. To me it was awfully abstract and therefore hard to imagine… let alone visualise!
A little side note might be in order here… I have made drawings and illustrations since I was a child, but I have never had the money, time and opportunity to make a living from it. I almost exclusively draw animals and I am a bit shy about my internet presence. So, on many levels I am way out of my comfort zone drawing human cells and writing about it. I have to thank Frederike for her infectious enthusiasm (pun intended) and her ability to motivate others by empowering them. She inspires me by showing time and time again the power of vulnerability by sharing her creative thoughts with others and welcoming their feedback.
So… back to visualising! Let me ask you:
What happens when you read a good story?
I think you can all confirm we start to imagine things described in the text. Funny thing is, I think we all tend to imagine the things that aren’t described too. That’s is what makes reading fun… for me anyways. The creative part of our brain fills out the blanks in the text. We partially become the creator of the worlds our fictional friends move around in. This is perhaps why it can be hard to see a movie made from a book… Especially your favorite book, right? The world you have imagined might differ too much from the interpretation of the movie directors.
Visualising is easy when the main characters in a story are, say, a little girl in a red hood and a wolf… We don’t have to be told that they meet in a forest because that is where we know the wolf lives and yes we all know a forest is made out of trees… all kinds of trees and there are animals in the background as well, such as the Wood Cock and the Crested Tit (what is it with English bird names?!?)
Why illustrate at all? -I hear you ask! Many childrens books traditionally have illustrations.
As I understand it, in the beginning picture books were basically made for scientific reasons or made for young children.
Probably because the visual medium helps understand what you are reading. Frederike’s book will be both for children and educational. That is part of the reason why I want to make the illustrations close to reality. As an added bonus, illustrations can also add a layer to a story and give the writer room to focus on story lines, plots and prose. And last but not least… it can add beauty, which of course I can only hope my illustrations will do too.
But how do you visualise a world you know next to nothing about? That was my first challenge! What will you see when you look past Didi and her virus fighting family? What does the world of immune cells look like? You will find no trees in your lungs, nor rabbits sitting in front of their holes in your stomach. Very soon I started to look up images of lung and bowel tissue on the internet to give my hard-working mind something to hold on to.
Now here’s the thing… On the one hand there is no greater source of information imaginable than the internet. On the other hand, it is the most chaotic medium you’ll find in which you have no idea what to believe and what to dismiss as nonsense.
Science is not a straight forward story on the internet. There is no “real” starting point, no first page nor any chronological order. We need to find our way through the many truths of many, many people that generously share their knowledge or what they think they know on all kinds of platforms. Loads of texts and images are presented to us in neat little lists by our search engine. These lists are based on the words people use in their texts or the words they use to categorise their pictures.
One of the hardest things, I found, is finding out what the things you are looking for are called, or more accurately: what people generally call them on the internet. Only with succesful search terms will you be able to compile lists with useful information to learn from.
Over the next months I started to understand what our bowels and lungs look like under a very powerful microscope. I found many Light Micrographs. These are images on which you can see inside of tissue or even, to a point, inside of cells. The pictures show how the tissue is build up. They are always clearly 2 dimensional, because they are made of unimaginably thin slices of tissue with light shining through them.
And then I found some Scanning Electron Micrographs (SEM’s) where you can see the tissue 3 dimensionally, but can’t always make out individual cells, especially when you are looking at tissue. For example, when you are looking at a piece of lung, you are looking at the exterior of the cells. It has to do with the image capturing technique of these scans. They look more like landscapes on far away planets. Very cool, though, have a look:
A lot of good quality pictures are much to expensive to show you here, licences and such… To give those of you who would like to know what I mean an idea I will give you a few links at the end of this text. I humbly appologise for the inconvenience!
Immune cells on a SEM are amazing, although it’s very hard to see which ones you are looking at, because from the outside they look very much alike and they change shape sometimes!
Mind you, on this level of “zoom” we are not looking at the images of living cells, or even human cells… I found out much later, we are often looking at mice. To my surprise Frederike confirmed this. Many, if not all of the cells in the pictures are mouse cells and the cells are actually dead. Or in case of the sporadically found video on youtube they are living cells. How ever, most of those are moving around in a petri-dish not in (recognizable) tissue. On top of that these images originally have no colour. The different colours are either added with software by the scientist who took the pictures. Thus, giving an idea of the different things depicted. Or… in case of the light micrograph the actual tissue is prepared beforhand with chemicals that react with specific parts within the cells, giving a more accurate image of what’s what.
Honestly, pictures generally are povided with very little context, if any at all. Most just have the title: “cool science pic” or something similarly meaningless. It does make getting a visual idea of our insides a lengthy endeavour which I will not further bore you with.
So If you weren’t already familiar with these kind of images you have now taken the first steps with me to having a visual understanding of a world that is too small to see with the naked eye, the world your immune cells live in. The different types of pictures each give but parts of different views of the things we are trying to understand. And they do so in different dimensions at that. It still takes a little bit of imagination to put the 2 together. At least for me it did. Call me a nerd, but I wanted to understand it all before I started creating the world in my head. Only then could I draw and paint something to eventually show you.
Sit back and hang tight! We hope to make it easier and more fun for you by making a book for you and your kids. Let the illustrating begin!