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Sketching another world: Stephen Thackeray’s aquatic art/science drawings

November 7, 2017

An ostracod – a tiny crustacean with a bean-like shell. Image: Stephen Thackeray

At the start of last month, a succession of drawings of curious organic forms began appearing on our twitter feed. Penned by CEH and MARS freshwater scientist Stephen Thackeray as part of ‘Inktober‘, the images revealed a fascinating underwater world of often-microscopic aquatic life.

Keen to find out more about his interdisciplinary talents, we spoke to Stephen about his art/science practice.

Freshwater Blog: What is Inktober, and why did you decide to take part this year?

Stephen Thackeray: Inktober is an annual artistic challenge hosted on Twitter (see @inktober). Anyone can join in, and the goal is to do one ink drawing every day during the month of October. However, it is fine if you only want to commit to a drawing every other day, or a drawing per week. It’s all good! I joined in for the first time in 2016, having spotted references to the challenge via people who I follow.

I must admit, it took some courage to join in, but I ultimately found Inktober a great way of connecting with creative people, and feeling part of something bigger, collaborative and joyous. For someone who greatly admires creativity as a trait in others, this was very exciting. There are some amazing talents out there; check out the bold and exciting pieces by @bernoid, for instance. After enjoying 2016 so much, I was very keen to join in again in 2017 even though, at the time, I wasn’t sure I had 31 ideas in my head!

Water boatman

Water boatman. Image: Stephen Thackeray

How long have you had a creative drawing practice, and how has it influenced (or been influenced by) your interest in the natural world?

Drawing was one of my favourite things to do as a child, and I have happy memories of scribbling away with felt tips with my cousins at that time. I took that interest through to a GCSE in Art, but I felt a little unnerved by the level of skill being shown by those students intending to take higher qualifications in the subject, and I decided not to follow that path.

Over time, much as I enjoy art, I simply fell out of the habit. I got back into drawing just a couple of years ago. I think this was partly triggered by hunting out natural history books, in second-hand bookshops, to look at the plates and images in them. I have always loved wildlife and it seemed a pretty straightforward decision that, if I was going to get back into drawing, I would do so by drawing wildlife.


Zander and roach. Image: Stephen Thackeray

Tell us a little about your creative process: what do you choose to draw, how do you get a reference image, where do you draw, and what materials do you use?

So far, I have indulged my interest in freshwater wildlife. I’m especially drawn to the tiny and obscure, occupying little hidden worlds that many people may be totally unaware of. All the dramas and excitement of the Serengeti play out in miniature every day in your local lake, pond, canal or bird bath. I like the idea of bringing these tiny creatures, and their lives, into focus for others.

Usually, I search on the web and in books for reference images taken from lots of different angles. I then use these to draw my subject from a different perspective. I usually work by lamplight in the evenings, and have fairly basic kit: some inexpensive black fine liners and pencils (and my daughter’s felt tips, occasionally). I used to get frustrated that my style wasn’t precise or life-like enough – a bit “cartoony”- but now I think I’ve realised that this is how my work comes out, and that there is nothing wrong with that.


Daphnia and microplastics. Image: Stephen Thackeray

One of my favourite images from your Inktober series is the daphnia surrounded by an array of microplastics. Can drawing – and creative practices more generally – provide ways of visualising such emerging environmental issues, do you think? Can they be useful in supporting conservation and environmental policy, as a result?

I’d like to think so. As researchers, we use certain tried-and-tested media for communicating with each other about our science, such as published academic papers, reports and presentations. However, these outputs only reach our own academic network much of the time, and people can differ greatly in their learning and thinking styles (mine is very visual). Given all of this, I think that imagery and artistic interpretation of science has the potential to reach a much wider audience, and to resonate with more people. Perhaps artistic interpretation provides us with a powerful way of engaging people with science and emerging environmental issues.

There is some excellent science communication (#scicomm) on Twitter, with @HanaAyoob illustrating endangered species, @JuliaFpaintsbio drawing freshwater mussels on request for Inktober 2017, @ConnectedWaters and @murray_taryn introducing us to a multitude of fish species, and @jvcdelaney creating a scientific colouring book about microscopic life. I’ve found their efforts really imaginative and inspiring.

Tadpole shrimp

The tadpole shrimp. Image: Stephen Thackeray

Interdisciplinary art/science collaborations are springing up all over the world – can you imagine bringing your creative practice into your ‘day job’ as an ecologist, or bringing ‘artists in residence’ to CEH?

I can see the potential synergies between art and science as, fundamentally, I believe that the latter has a strong creative element. Science is so often about using creativity to think about problems in new ways, or about how to combine existing knowledge in new ways. I would love to have a thread of creativity running through my own research career.

As a small start, I have set myself a new challenge; to draw a sketch for each new paper that I publish (#sketchmypaper on Twitter). I would love others to try this out too, to see how it might affect the visibility of our work. I’m intrigued by the idea of having an “artist in residence”, to help us find new ways of reaching out. In fact, I would love to see a workshop attended by scientists and artists, to see what interpretations of the latest research might fall out as a result.

Sketch paper

#sketchmypaper for a Nature Ecology & Evolution article on ecological resilience in lake ecosystems. Image: Stephen Thackeray

Follow Stephen on Twitter, and find out more about his research here.

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