I have eight watercolor paintings of antique microscopes up at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland through January 4, 2024!
I was captured by the contrast between these playful shapes and their serious purpose. I drew the microscopes from life at the Golub Collection, housed at the University of California, Berkeley. The two non-microscopes, the Tangent Galvanometer and Heliostat Sextant, are from the early 20th century, and I caught sight of them in an exhibit at the San Francisco International Airport as I was traveling through.
I painted these instruments on Yupo, a plastic surface. Watercolor and plastic? What was I thinking? I chose Yupo because watercolor paint beads up and dries slowly on it, creating unusual color mixes and shapes. The precision of the instruments and the unpredictability of the paint give these watercolors a special energy.
Microscopes of the past took on fanciful shapes as their makers tried to maximize light and magnification. All of the microscopes in this exhibit, so-called “transmitted light” microscopes, were lit by sunlight, or candles, or both.
Later, microscope makers learned to use bullseye lenses and mirrors to reflect light into the microscope tube. The discovery of electricity in the late 1800s soon eliminated candle power illumination. And advances in lens grinding and glass making soon eliminated the need for fanciful shapes.
Antique microscopes often had exaggerated proportions or unusual curves that reflected the regional culture of the maker. For example, wooden toymaking of the 18th century in Germany and Italy influenced the designs of the Nuremburg Three-pillar Microscope, and the Top Hat magnifier. I loved painting the materials of the past: this wood, the ivory, and the reflective metals of the past.
Thanks to the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County for their support of this project and to Dr. Steven Ruzin, curator of the Golub Collection at the University of California, Berkeley.