top of page

About Plankton Portraits

Ellen Karin Mæhlum

The underlying theme of this series of prints is the extraordinary, single-celled plankton organisms that are to be found in the waters close to the surface of the ocean. The visual material, upon which these prints are based, consists of photographs and observations made by microbiologists from the Department of biology at the University of Bergen, using light and electron microscopy. The water samples were taken from the sea around Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard. The initial contact with the group was made in 2007, where they were part of an international research project called PAME (Polar Aquatic Microbial Ecology). The project took place during the International Polar Year 2007 - 2008. Our collaboration was based upon a common interest and fascination for the patterns and forms that are evident in the microbial, marine universe. This is the third series of prints I have produced, based upon material from the world of natural science from Svalbard.

Art and science often begin with visual observations followed by mental adaptation and subsequent interpretation. My aim was to make visible something that is normally both invisible and inaccessible. One of the things that interested me was what happens to the motif when the original photographs taken under the microscope are enlarged, adapted and reproduced using a printmaking process.

The Plankton Portraits are based upon four different groups of organisms that have very special architectural structures. They are invisible to the naked eye, and have a life cycle of only a few days. For example  a coccolithophorid is only a few microns long. A micron (µm) is one thousandth of a millimeter. Despite their size, these organisms are extremely important in a number of ways. Plant plankton is the meadow grass of the sea; these organisms use carbon dioxide and produce just as much oxygen as the plants that grow on land. Because of this, all larger forms of life in the sea are dependent upon plankton, and this cycle is an important factor in regulating the earth’s climate.


The last decades there have been dramatic climate changes in the Arctic. The water temperature along the western coast of Svalbard has risen dramatically. The fiords have been ice-free during winters. The micro-organisms in the sea are affected by the warmer water that is moving in a northerly direction. Plankton that is tolerant of warmer water are on the increase, whilst those that prefer colder water are disappearing.

The Exhibition- Plankton Portraits consists of a series of silkscreen/ serigraph prints. This method gives the images the photographic and pointillist quality I was looking for. The microscopic photographs are processed using a computer – selected segments and backgrounds are combined in order to enhance the shapes and structures of each image. I have also drawn and painted on a number of the photographic films. The series entitled Choano combines silk- screen printing with drypoint. The digital images are transferred to films which are then applied to large, silk screen printing frames. Each image requires three to four frames, depending upon how many colors are used. The images were printed at The Royal University College of Fine Arts in Stockholm (KKH) I 2008-2009, where I was doing project research. The sizes of the prints vary - the smallest prints are 61 x 63 cm, and the largest are 450 x 600 cm. The largest prints are mounted on aluminium sheets and MDF.

Many thanks to the researcher Mikal Heldal and the engineer Egil Severin Erichsen, who took the majority of the SEM - micrography. They showed me an amazing universe through the lens of special microscope at the University of Bergen. 

About the research group:


Watch the series Plankton Portraits here.


bottom of page