Creating a Haeckel GAN

Lindsey Carr
3 min readMar 22, 2021


Documenting the process behind making a GAN based on Haeckel’s lithographs for ‘Kunstformen der Natur

‘Radiolarian’ plate from Ernst Haeckel’s ‘Kunstformen der Natur’

There are over 100 plates involved in the making of the 2 volumes but within each plate there are between 3 and 15 organic structures. Many of them based on the microscopic mineral skeletons of protozoa. I thought they’d make a great base for a GAN, but only if each organism could be isolated.

Creating the Haeckel Dataset

There’s no real way around this, a dataset like this has to be hand curated. Each organism was cut from its surroundings, cleaned up and placed onto a black background. Because some of the plates are colour against white I either desaturated them and then hand cut each one out or else I desaturated and inverted them. I eventually ended up with a set of 1000 images at 1024 x 1024.

Sample from the Haeckel dataset — Inverted and desaturated

The GAN model

I used Stylegan 2 ADA running on 1 x 16GB GPU over at Paperspace. Initially I was over optimistic and tried to train on the 1000 image dataset. I’d had some good results from a previous 2000-ish dataset and just thought, why the hell not? I was wrong and after a 70ish ticks it went into mode collapse.

StyleGAN2 Ada on 1000 Haeckel images. Not what we want.


What you can do in this situation is find the same model trained on a larger but similar enough set of data, you can then use the weights from this model to prime your model, so I went hunting and found a set of pre-trained Stylegan 2 models. I went down a few dead alleys in there until I eventually stumbled upon my personal nightmare data. Trypohobia. I don’t even know why this model exists or what purpose it serves but Trypophobia refers to a fear of too many holes close together. A bit of weird info on Trypophobia here.

It was the closest set of data I could find, so I started the model running on this with limited optimism.

Results on Haeckel Data Pretrained with Trypophobia

So much better and fast (comparatively), obviously there’s a preponderance towards- holes close together which is present within a fair amount of the Haeckel images as well.

Latent Space Interpolation

Pretrained Mk 2

I decided to augment the initial pretrain data, what i’d been looking for initially was electron microscopy databases and eventually came across something called the NFFS-Europe — 100% SEM Dataset. So I used my Trypophobia pretrained set, trained for a short period on Electron microscopy images and then threw in the Haeckel Dataset. What this did was give the results more of a matt grey effect.

Generate a Haeckel

I’ve hosted a version of the Haeckel generator here (reduced - as the large pkl file would not work inside Runway where I deployed it)



Lindsey Carr

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