Coronavirus is a killer, but this artist won’t reduce it to a cartoon villain

Philip Kennicott

THE WASHINGTON POST – For weeks, we have seen the same image of the coronavirus, a grey sphere studded with red spikes that looks like a forest of surrealist trees growing on a dead planet. The rendering was created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and can be downloaded from its Public Health Image Library. The spikes, which can also be seen when the virus is looked at with an electron microscope, are what gives the virus its characteristic corona.

But there’s a key difference between the CDC’s computer-graphics image and a coronavirus seen by the electron microscope, which renders it as a grey blob with imperfectly spherical form and a dark shadow around the characteristic crown-shaped spiky covering. The vivid red, which makes the digitised virus look so threatening, isn’t there in real life. As David Goodsell, a professor of computational biology at the Scripps Research Institute and research professor at Rutgers University, explained, the virus is smaller than the wavelength of light, so it doesn’t actually have colour.

The CDC’s image, he said, is scrupulously faithful to what we know now about the virus’ structure, but the red-and-grey colour scheme is artistic licence.

Goodsell, 58, is also an artist whose work focusses on making images of living cells at the molecular level, and he has produced his own watercolour of the coronavirus, with his own invented colour scheme.

In Goodsell’s painting, the virus is seen in cross section, not in the round as in the CDC image, and the colours resemble the vibrant, jazzed-up earthiness of Arts and Crafts-style wallpaper that was fashionable in Victorian homes of the late 19th Century. In Goodsell’s painting, the characteristic spikes are bright pink, the core of the virus, known as the nucleocapsid, is lavender, and the whole is rendered in a floral sea of green, orange and brown mucous.

His image is strikingly beautiful, whimsical and orderly, and it isn’t hard to imagine it as a record cover for a hippie rock band of the 1960s. After releasing his image on Twitter in February, he has thought a lot about the idea of beauty, and the scientific rendering of something that much of the world now finds uniquely terrifying.

“I am completely struggling with this,” he said. “When I did this painting, I didn’t think about it. I did it in a colour scheme I’ve used throughout my illustrations, to separate the different functional parts of the image.”

His goal was to render, as accurately as possible, all the known details about the structure of the virus, using a visual scheme that draws on the simplifying line and distillation of cartoon graphics for greater intellectual clarity.