Drawing from Tinbergen

Margaret Minsky 2018

At Dinacon I did some drawing. I chose to copy drawings by the great ethologist Niko Tinbergen, from one of his lesser-known books: Kleew, a book for children about a gull.

Here are two illustrations from that book, and my rendering of the illustrations on the cover and page 23. I use the only drawing tool I can control yet, the PaperMate SharpWriter #2 mechanical pencil. I hope to learn how to draw with technical pens.

I learned so much from copying these drawings. One technical thing I love is Tinbergen’s construction of shadows and use of them to establish planes and surfaces.

My renderings:

My original Dinacon application proposed creating wearables based on “the drawing style of Tinbergen”. I wrote that from an intuition or memory that Tinbergen had any drawing style at all. I knew that his ethology books were illustrated, and I knew that my father carefully prepared slides of, and showed, a series of Tinbergen animal drawings in all his talks during 1973-85 or so. Tinbergen’s ability to make a theory of animals’ minds was one of the keys to my father’s “Society of Mind” theory.

Another intuitive basis for my proposal was Andy’s Digital Naturalism tenet of “seeing or sensing” from creatures’ perspectives in their natural environment, an idea that permeated the invitation to apply to Dinacon. I’d probably subconsciously absorbed that Andy himself was strongly influenced by Tinbergen, as mentioned in his Hacking the Wild book.

A few weeks later, preparing for Dinacon, I thought it best to check whether Tinbergen did indeed do his own drawings! Yes, he did, and in fact was an artist before he became a scientist. In a lovely piece of scholarship on Tinbergen’s life in art, Robert Root-Bernstein tells of Tinbergen’s teenage magazine cover sales, and later during his faculty years of his tutelage by a master artist while imprisoned in an internment camp for his non-cooperation with the Nazi regime.

During the internment, Tinbergen created illustrations for his own children that he later turned into children’s books. One of those books, Kleew, is findable on the used market. I haven’t been able to find the other one about sticklebacks. Tinbergen published many other books for the public and for children, some including his photos as well as writings.

Before I set out for Dinacon, I collected all my existing Tinbergen books, and ordered the others that I learned about during this research. Here’s the whole collection, all are recommended. Tinbergen’s drawings and photos, are integral to his work.

Copying these drawings is sweet and hard work. It is window into a great mind. Learning the techniques to use in illustration and drawing, is a meditative work in progress, difficult and rewarding. To work on that surrounded by the people of Dinacon 2018, on the Andaman Diva and in the main house, was a joy.


Minsky, Marvin, Society of Mind, Simon & Schuster, 1986

Quitmeyer, Andy, Hacking the Wild https://www.scribd.com/document/267993491/Hacking-the-Wild-Making-Sense-of-Nature-in-the-Madagascar-Jungle

Root-Bernstein, Robert, “Niko Tinbergen’s Visual Arts”, Leonardo, Volume 37, Issue 2, April 2004

Tinbergen, Niko, (you can see citation info on the spines above. The orange one is Tracks, Ennion and Tinbergen)

Ants Fabric

Margaret Minsky June to Sept 2018

Anticipation was a great aspect of Dinacon. I had stated, and thought, that my main project would have a large component of wearability and perhaps eTextile construction. (For those who wonder, it didn’t, although I sewed some wearable wrist holders for bbc:microbits which I decided not to use.) The anticipated wearable aspect of my project was so open-ended that selecting and packing a stash of fabrics and sewing supplies to bring was fun. I also did not know how much of a textile corner/workspace would be set up (it was amazing, folks!) though I knew that I was arriving in the same week as several of my heroes in the wearables and E-Textiles communities.


While assembling fabrics and supplies, I had one of those lightning realizations that Dinacon would be a great forcing function for me to learn a paper-based fabric print repeat technique that I had been meaning to practice. I was inspired by this block print of an ant, created by my son Miles Steele a long time ago in 7th grade:

and the Spoonflower tutorial for creating a repeating print design:

Spoonflower Fabric Repeat from Drawing

I used colored pencils and a favorite printer paper as art materials. After some web research on ant species in Thailand I reinterpreted my son’s design concept to match three species, the Ghost Ant, the Carpenter Ant, and a leafcutter which I fortunately colored bright orange, so that I can now claim I knew about the famous Weaver ants of Koh Lon. I also decided that for Dinacon, the artistic interpretation of an ant needed a distinct gastor. The web research did not get me to the point of narrowing down to species that might be likely in Southern Thailand particularly; I figured I’d learn that when I arrived and the next design can incorporate local ants only.

I followed the instructions, cleaned up the paper joints and a few stray pencil outlines in Photoshop, before uploading to Spoonflower. I was so busy collecting more general-purpose fabrics that I hadn’t yet thought of printing and bringing it. A couple of weeks before Dinacon, I realized that the printing process would deliver fabric to me just before our departure date for Thailand, so I went ahead and ordered enough Sport Lycra (Spandex) knit to enjoy bringing to Dinacon with a vague idea that it might be useful somehow in the maker supplies, and also made a tentative plan to sew a rashguard at Dinacon. The tactile qualities of a real textile are so much nicer to experience than a picture of the print design, and I wanted to bring this fabric as a tangible object.

The rashguard project became one of my two side projects, as well as a way to enjoy sewing and sharing sewing knowledge back and forth with others. It would have been great to finish the garment there…with no guarantee of time and facilities for that, I brought my regular rashguard for snorkeling. Good thing I did, because I copied it to make the pattern pieces on the pattern paper I brought. It was much more complicated that I had thought, it has nine pieces! At Dinacon I cut all the pieces, sewed about half the seams, and then packed it up to finish back home. The pattern paper, still pinned to the pieces had gone from crisp to the texture of a thin damp washing cloth, in the Koh Lon humidity, so it was very supple and easy to pack.

Thank you and admiration to the many folks who had already hauled supplies for the textiles station, and thank you for intriguing thinking about found and re-use textile crafts supplies as seen in projects from Tribenet, Pom, Dennis, Kitty, Plusea, Mika, and Dani.

Textile stuff I brought (not knowing what would be there.)

• Fabrics: basic purchased black and tan spandex and powermesh that I thought would be foundational for wearables/E-Textile projects, large pieces of quality bed sheets that I found at the thrift, weird and wonderful green jungle-spangly fabric bought on impluse at Joanne’s, some denim from wrecked jeans, Ants Fabric, and assorted scraps.

• Elastics: soft elastic black and white, cord elastic, thin bungee in a couple of colors

• Supplies: about 5 yds 60″ pattern paper (from the commercial roll that I found in a dumpster in 1978, the single greatest dumpster find of my life), sharp scissors, sharp seam ripper, good pins, felting needles/roving/foam block, hand needles both specialty and sharps, Schmetz machine needle library of sizes, miniature crochet hook, Gutermann thread several colors, 6″ sliding ruler.

DinaCrab: Hermit Crab Behavior

When humans are near, making noise or stomping on the ground or rippling the intertidal waters, our crab retracts swiftly into its shell and only a little bit of claw can be seen:

When the humans back away, and stay quiet and still, our crab comes out and waves its claws about, testing that it has a peaceful environment again, and then gets on with its business of scrabbling about looking for food or patrolling its space:

Who is our crab?

We have been taken with the hermit crabs of Koh Lon, their big personalities (from an anthropomorphic perspective) and varied looks and behaviours (from an ethological/naturalist perspective). Throughout their lives they move to ever larger colorful shells, from compact round snail houses to pointy or gracefully ovoid ones. They come out to the beach in diverse-looking groups because of their differences in size, shell type, and claw colors. If you get close, they snap into their shells, a little patience and distance and they are eager to get on with their business while we are watching.


Another crab, the fiddler crab, was one of the first dramatic animals we met. On our first evening we walked on a huge intertidal expanse exposed by a full moon tide, and the bright orange of swarms of fiddler crabs were dramatic. But as soon as one gets close, one’s footfalls, water disturbances, or shadows alert the fiddler crabs who all pop into their holes in the coral or sand. As they disappear one sees their bright orange claws, and then nothing. Only quite a bit of distance or perfect stillness from the humans gives them a safe time to come back out.

We simplified my (Margaret’s) orginal wearables Dinacon project concept to collaborate on creating “humans” and “crabs” animated on Microbit boards, which felicitously have cute orange-red displays on board suitable for crab claws! We installed one of our crabs in a mighty shell, and let Dinasaurs carry human boards and other crab boards around with them. Using the Microbit’s packet radio capability as a quick, though not very accurate or precise, ranging technology, crabs can tell whether there is any human nearby. As soon as any human gets in range, it snaps into its shell, leaving just a claw visible (like a hermit crab’s visible armored claw blocking it’s shell opening). As soon as all humans are far enough away, the shy crab comes back out waving its claws about.

Using the packet ranging for interactivity between creatures was inspired by a lovely and extensive dance performance interaction project by Emily Daub, her student capstone project at the ATLAS Center at CU-Boulder. We are grateful for her inspiration, and for help from Emily and her student colleague Annie Kelly.

Creating the animation of the crab claws, in my happy place near the sewing/textile/yarn corner. Microbit universe in an egg crate.

Oliver and I collaborated on programming for the crab/human existence and interactions. We used the microbit/microsoft blocks-language interface to its Typescript language (Javascript). Oliver built up a test suite for packet radio ranging in textual Typescript as well. I built several wearable versions of the boards using various batteries and sewn wearable holders, then ended up simplifying to hand-carrying the lightweight boards with simple enclosed battery pak. I also decided on an indoor installation space for our largest crab. For the humans, it feels like walking on the beach while carrying a rock or shell one might have picked up. For the crabs, is that like carrying a shell? No idea…

Here’s video of DinaCrab: Dinacrab with human 23 sec and Dinacrab in-progress 2 mins

This is most of the blocks code for the main interactivity. It supports as many “crab” and “human” boards as you want, we had four at Dinacon. Usually configured as one crab, three humans, sometimes two crabs two humans.

Any questions contact us!

You can find the micro:bit code to make your own humans and crabs at: https://github.com/margmarg/Dinacrab

You can also find Oliver’s micro:bit RSS metering code here: https://github.com/osteele/microbit-signal-meter

by Margaret Minsky and Oliver Steele
Koh Lon, June 27 – July 7

photo of live hermit crab courtesy Cherise Fong