Artist’s Incredibly Detailed Biodiversity Illustrations Merge Art With Science

Whether it’s large-scale works of land art, smaller-scaled works of nature-inspired art, or even artworks done in close collaboration with wildlife, environmental art can be quite diverse and plays a huge role in raising awareness about the importance of preserving the wild beauty of this planet. Dry statistics about the dire state of things are often difficult to digest, while art with a green message often connects with people on an emotional level.

Based out of South Portland, Maine, Zoe Keller is one of these artists who aims to highlight the fragile beauty and biodiversity of wildlife in the oceans, forests, and other threatened ecosystems. Detailed and meticulous, Keller’s work is the result of careful scientific research on her subjects and exceptional skill with both traditional and digital media.

Zoe Keller

Keller’s latest work is the Ocean Biodiversity Print Series, which depicts a wide range of marine wildlife in stunning anatomical detail, from octopi and seahorses to jellyfish. The work aims to inspire wonder at the incredible array of life that exists in our oceans, even if we land-bound creatures might not be so familiar with them. Thankfully, each of her artworks is also paired with a key to help viewers easily identify different species.

Zoe Keller

Keller grew up in a rural part of New York’s Hudson Valley and has always been fascinated with the forests surrounding her childhood home, often observing animals like toads, herons, and salamanders. Keller’s parents encouraged her artistic talents, she eventually graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art, but she says she only got interested in scientific illustration a few years after finishing art school. As she explains to Treehugger:

“I have found that drawing is one of the best ways to get to know a species. The slow practices of graphite drawing and digital drawing demand that you pay attention to even the smallest details.”

Keller spent about six years focusing on graphite as her choice of medium, and one can really see the time and energy that has been put into these remarkably detailed works, down to the individual scales of snakeskin or bird feathers.

Zoe Keller

However, recently Keller has shifted to focusing more on adding color to her pieces, through the use of digital painting tools like Procreate, resulting in this latest series on the ocean’s biodiversity. She says the 2020 wildfires in Oregon were a “startling wake-up call” that hit home personally, prompting her to evolve her work further and to continue collaborating with scientific organizations and nonprofits alike. As Keller points out, we still don’t know much about the marine life that lives in the vast depths of the ocean and how they are threatened by plastic and chemical pollution stemming from human over-consumption. She writes,

“The majority of these creatures have yet to be seen by human eyes; estimates from the late aughts placed the number of yet-to-be-discovered deep-sea species between 10 and 30 million. [..] It would be an unbelievable tragedy to lose the magic of the deep sea and its unmatched, unknown biodiversity. Hope can be found in the passionate work of the scientific community [through the] innovative research and compelling education work by MBARI, the Schmidt Ocean Institute, the Ocean Exploration Trust’s Nautilus Exploration Program, and the PangeaSeed Foundation are all helping to connect the public with the wonders of the deep sea.”

Zoe Keller

Keller tells Treehugger that her creative process typically involves a lot of active investigation, usually starting with a period of research where she teases out potential visual ideas by combing through scientific articles or non-fiction books. Whenever possible, Keller combines this research with actual visits to the ecosystems that she will be drawing. When all these elements are more or less decided, she then does preliminary work to tighten up the composition and will render the artwork with either mechanical pencils or her iPad, with some works taking hundreds of hours to complete.

Zoe Keller

As Keller explains, those hundreds of hours of intensely focused creative energy are spent to inspire others to take notice and to care:

“By spending so much time and care drawing every species in my pieces, I hope to inspire the viewer to see that all organisms—charismatic megafauna, and smaller, often overlooked or even maligned species—have a unique beauty that is worth preserving. I also hope to inspire folks who view my work to slow down and look for the details in the natural world around them, to seek out small moments of delight that might be missed if you are moving too quickly.”

Zoe Keller

Ultimately, Keller says that finding our personal role in tackling the climate crisis and mass extinctions comes from balancing out what we are good at, what we are passionate about, and the problems that we might be uniquely positioned to solve:

“I have been thinking a great deal over the past year about Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson’s Climate Action Venn Diagram tool. To fill out your own Climate Action Venn Diagram, you draw three overlapping circles, and fill them with answers to three questions: ‘What brings you joy?’, ‘What is the work that needs doing?’ and ‘What are you good at?’. The intersection of those three circles answers the question ‘What should you do?’ My Venn Diagram has led me to brainstorm a few projects that I am excited to begin in the coming months. I would love to see other artists use this tool as well. [As an artist], I still believe that people will protect what they know, and what they have come to love. I hope that perhaps my drawings played a role in that realm—albeit a very, very small one.”

Keller has some upcoming exhibitions this year, from Portland’s Antler Gallery in June, to the National Museum of Wildlife Art, and the Nahcotta Gallery in Portsmouth, New York, in September. You can follow her work on Facebook, Instagram, or her website. Prints for the Ocean Biodiversity Series at PangeaSeed Foundation are unfortunately sold out for now, but there will be new prints in the series that will be released later this fall.

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