In The Nature Of

An illustrator’s eye

It’s fascinating how much more you see when paying the close attention needed for drawing.

I once took a group of scientists to the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, where they spent an hour or so drawing various creatures. They were amazed by what they noticed, even in fish they had spent years studying but never ‘seen’ so fully before.

I feel that illustration has always been been the most engaging way to explain and understand the natural world. Scientific writing is just as important, but I suspect you are looking at my pictures now more than this text.

Marc Dando drawing of moon jellyfish lifecycle
Lifecycle of the moon jellyfish (from top-left, moving anti-clockwise): A jellyfish medusa releases a fertilised egg. The egg grows into a small larva called a planula, which resembles a microscopic flatworm covered in tiny hairs. The planula swims about seeking a place on the seabed. Once attached, it turns into a polyp. When conditions are right, the polyp becomes a scyphistoma and begins to clone itself. It creates a stack of tiny juvenile jellyfish clones, which are released into the ocean to grow on and become adult medusas. In July and August, the adults are often seen drifting in UK harbours and on beaches.

In the past, before photographs, illustration was the only way to visually represent the natural world. Some antiquarian prints show some rather strange interpretations of the living world, especially the rare and bizarre, and can lead to us wonder how they misinterpreted creatures we are now familiar with. Dead, often decaying, specimens were often drawn, and not having seen the living specimens, a bit of guesswork was added to complement the exaggerated descriptions of travellers’ tales, hearsay and myth.

Today there is much more visual information to hand, but even so, it is still up to the illustrator to interpret this information. Illustrators need to observe not only the visual shapes that make up the whole, but how they layer up and fit together. A photograph, no matter how good, can’t always show everything in one view, which is what an illustrator aims to do.

Collation of correct descriptions, correct photographic material and in person descriptions, as well as a meticulous observation and understanding, is key to any scientific illustrator’s work.

Marc Dando illustrator

Marc Dando is a scientific illustrator who made his name with Sharks of the World, working with Leonard Compagno and Sarah Fowler. Alongside more traditional watercolour, pencil, and pen-and-ink work, Marc uses computer-based illustration. His work has been exhibited at the Musée Océanographique de Monaco, The Mall Galleries in London and the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale.


The life-cycle of the moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) is from The Marine World by Frances Dipper, Wild Nature Press.

The colour illustration at the top of the page is of a wild rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), drawn for WildFish.

Images copyright © Marc Dando 2023.

Spring Thoughts

Standing in a pool of daylight

I am to be found outside, where I love to be. Half of my life is spent as a carpenter, working with hand tools on timber I have felled, cut and seasoned. I fell trees in the winter and mill in the spring, so that the sap is down in the roots when the tree comes down and the wood dries in the gentle warmth, avoiding damp winter moulds or harsh summer heat. It’s a seasonal activity, driven by the reality of biology. In this way the weather, the landscape and life are all bound together in rural craftwork.

The Turning Year

She, the giant,
limbs deep-set in geology,
folded in landscapes ridge-wooded,
cranes her neck unmovable, 
turns her mind unknowable
to catch the view.
He, the golden sun,
tugs the earth
and slowly,
they turn the year round.

I do most of my woodwork outside in the open air, rather than inside a workshop. I don’t like headphones or ear defenders. I don’t listen to the radio or podcasts and I avoid power tools, cordless or otherwise. Instead, I let my hands get on with the job (they know what to do) and allow my eyes and ears to take note of the world. Birds abound now after the dark and stillness of winter: birdsong and bird chatter are everywhere at this time of year. There’s a lone song thrush atop the tallest oak, facing west in afternoon sunshine, and blue tits darting among the shrubs, busy with nest-making.


Some small 
aimlessly circling feather,
picked up by a bird, 
transferred to its legs,
held fast in its nest, 
with an eye to the weather,
cheery chit-chatting,
thinking of eggs.

My experiences are powered by natural light; for working, but also emotionally. The quality of daylight and the colour of sunlight changes in so many ways during a day. With it, animals and plants come and go in as if in beautifully rehearsed choreography. Heraclitus said: ‘You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on.’ The same could be said of standing in a pool of daylight. When Imbolc arrived a few weeks ago, I began to feel the warmth of the sunshine on my hands and cheeks. Very gentle, very subtle. It’s not like June, September, or any other time of the year. I love the soft, milky light of late February and early March. It is beguiling and fragile – and then the wind picks up and everything changes.

March by Robert Somerville
‘March’, watercolour by Robert Somerville.

March is a month that sometimes goes backwards,
It’s in with a flurry, then flat as a flan. 
Seedlings are bursting as hard as they can, 
then buffeting winds, reversing the plan.
The sun’s gentle warmth like milk in the pan,
yet late frosts nip off the high hopes of man.
If it’s in like a lion, it’s out like a lamb.

Working closely with natural materials, aware of other forms of life all around me and being governed by the weather is tough at times. But this sort of co-existence is a visceral participation with the living world. I feel not so much connected to nature as participating in it. There are so many moments in the day when something catches my eye as I work, like the brilliance of light on a tree on an early winter morning, or the discovery of a wren’s nest in spring. So much is fleeting, on the move, sometimes funny. You just need to be there, outside, observing.

Robert Somerville

Robert Somerville lives with his wife Lydia and their daughter in a self-built eco-house on a smallholding in Hertfordshire.

After studying engineering and architecture at Cambridge University, Somerville ran a design and building business, utilizing local wood, stone and earth. He now works with local woodland owners and foresters to source local elm timber and hand-build timber frames with the help of a group of volunteers known as the Barn Club, dedicated to rural crafts. You can watch a video of them raising a traditional elm framed barn here.


Words and images copyright © Robert Somerville, 2023. Header image is ‘February’ by Robert Somerville, watercolour on paper.

In The Nature Of

Making a psychic flak jacket

Stories and myths have the power to bestow or reveal meaning. The heroine sets out on a journey from the known and ordinary into the unknown and extraordinary, meeting a cast of characters along the way who hasten or hinder her quest. There is peril in this – our heroine may encounter enemy or ally – but the trail is well-trodden and the narrative finds resolution.

Standing on the precipice of environmental oblivion, it is not so easy for us to navigate our future path. The ordinary world is the extraordinary world. There is no map and no destination. The wild woods are long gone, along with the wolves and bears. Our threats are existential. And we need all the help we can get. Instead of waiting for a guardian to guide us on our way, we need to set off well-equipped for the horrors that might lie ahead.

Body armour has been worn for thousands of years by fighters and enforcers, from chainmail and lamellar, to iron and steel plate, to modern ceramic plate and Kevlar. Part bulletproof vest, part apotropaic object, my psychic flak jacket brings together an assemblage of universal archetypes, internal helpers and childhood imaginary friends to protect me on this perilous journey.

Psychic flak jacket - Bear

The Bear panel from the front of the jacket.

The front panel includes the huge and reassuring Bear, with his ferocious teeth and claws, and the bold and inquisitive Monkey, scampering on ahead and urging me forwards; the Fairy Godmother, kind-hearted and supportive, and her counterpart, the formidable and unruly Witch. From my coterie of imaginary friends, there is the soft and comforting Pookie and the wild and disobedient Deedor. From own my life, there is a primary school teacher and a wise friend who both saw me, praised me, emboldened me.

The back panel features just one character: Medusa. Medusa was raped by Poseidon in a temple dedicated to Athena, and then punished by the goddess for this violation. Forever cursed with living snakes for hair and a stony stare, she is later beheaded by Perseus. Truly, the stuff of nightmares. Medusa’s decapitated head features on the Gorgoneion, both as a protective icon to avert evil and a symbol of female fury. Medusa literally has my back, terrifying adversaries with her petrifying gaze.

Psychic flak jacket - Back

The back of the jacket with the Medusa panels.

Despite mimicking the steel plates of brigandine armour, my embossed air-dried clay tiles are intrinsically fragile. The potency of the work does not reside in its physicality, but in its manifestation as ritual object, in making the invisible visible, the inner outer. As such, it is a performance piece, although I am no performance artist. The prospect of wearing it in public is mortifying because of how exposing it would be: ‘Why are you wearing that?’

And, yet, here I am trying to answer the question, ‘Why are you not wearing that?’ The compromise would be to conceal it under my clothes as a hidden talisman. This would be to defeat the primary purpose of an artwork – to be seen – which is not to imply that unseen art is not art. But, as psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott observed: ‘It is a joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found.’

Like a Möbius strip twisting endlessly inside and out, writhing like Medusa’s snakes, it seems impossible to unpick these contradictions. By exposing our vulnerabilities, do we invite injury or empathy? By revealing our strengths, do we elicit attack or admiration?

There is no easy road back from the ordeals of the extraordinary world we have so destroyed and depleted, and there are plenty of villains en route. We will need more than a good luck charm.

Listen to Emma read this short essay aloud.

Emma Tuck is an editor and artist. Her work is informed by the natural world, inevitably refracted through the psychological and the political. She grew up in, and has since returned to, the West Country after spending many years living and working on an organic smallholding/nature reserve in the west of Wales.

Her psychic flak jacket is on show until 26 November at Illminster Arts Centre in Somerset as part of a group exhibition of artworks produced during the Covid lockdowns.

Artist Emma Tuck

Emma Tuck (photograph by Dan Hopkins).