Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Scientific illustration part 2: introduction to drawing supplies and basic techniques & practice

Alright, the first post in this series with real content! This one will focus on the beginnings of drawing - both from a materials standpoint - but also basic introductory techniques. Not everyone learns art the same way, but this worked for me - I did not start formal training until late middle school, after drawing (very poorly) for nearly a decade. My artwork was still not great until after a year or two in to High School, and all the improvement since then has been entirely self-taught - all practice, practice, practice, self-criticism, a little bit of beer, and a lot of experimenting with technique.

My graphite drawing kit - drawing board, paper, pencils, pencil sharpener, a series of erasers, drafting brush, and blenders.

Where to begin?

I encourage everyone to dabble in artwork – I would like to think that most folks have some sort of creative hobby, whether it’s 2d art, model making, sewing, knitting/crocheting, cabinetmaking/carpentry, gardening, etc. – all of these involve some degree of imagination – conjuring a mental image and making it a reality out of raw materials and a little blood, sweat, and tears – and the drive to complete it. When I find that my ‘drive’ is sagging, I wander around downtown Charleston and go into art galleries – not the snobby type where cookie cutter oil paintings of sailboats are sold for 25,000$ a piece – but art made by real people like myself who can’t afford their own gallery. These are the places where I find inspiration because the veil of unattainability is gone. Looking at wonderful artwork never fails to inspire me to go and make my own. So, if you have the drive, find out and discover what helps you keep the train running at full steam – or how to start the locomotive back up!

If you’re starting from zero, congratulations! You’re starting a journey. First, you’ll need some of the raw materials. We’re starting with just graphite drawing, which at its core, just requires a pencil and paper. Definitely an eraser. Nice drawing pencils are not terribly expensive, but if you feel intimidated or want to start out super inexpensive, pick up a drawing pad with reasonably thick paper and Ticonderoga #2 pencils; these are made with real wood, not the powdery crap fake wood pencils which do not hold up to pressure and break all the time when drawing. Through grade school I tended to always push hard on the paper both with writing and drawing and as a result have always hated those pencils. But Ticonderogas have never failed me; all through grade school I would pick them up when I found them and save them for drawing - they were my favorite 'standard' pencil, long before they ever put the "world's best pencil" statement on their packaging.

20 minute self portrait sketch I did in fall 2001 using a classmate's compact mirror - there doesn't seem to be much evidence of erasing, and it more or less looks like 16 year old me complete with sideburns and punk spikes. I think this is my only self portrait! Getting to this stage is going to require a couple hundred hours of sketching practice.

Sketching: mastering proportion.

Sketching is a good way to start practice. Just sketch line drawings of everyday objects. You’re going to do a lot of this. This is how you get an eye for proportion. Proportion I find is the hardest thing to pick up during the early stages of your artistic journey. Also, start simple: don’t try sketching someone’s portrait yet, because it will probably look terrible, or hilarious, depending upon your sense of humor (and confidence). Start with unfamiliar objects – objects you don’t care about. If you care about something, like I really love my pair of converse sneakers – you probably have an ingrained image of that object in your head. On one hand, you’ll be good at finding out where you screwed up – probably too good, however, so it is easier to begin with something less familiar. Go grab some fruit or vegetables from the fridge. Every one is different. Sketch it, and when you’re done, turn it around and sketch the opposite side. Compare them: which is better? Why is it better? When you’ve done this enough times with unfamiliar object, sketch your shoes (if you’re a young man, make sure to spray them with odor eaters or Febreze first). Will you produce artwork that you’re too embarrassed to show others? YES! I have at least 20 pounds of finished and abandoned work I haven’t shown anyone in over a decade because I think it’s bad, but it’s a part of me so I will never get rid of. Maybe I should share some of (spoiler: I shared some in the prior post). Don't try copying something - start by sketching physical objects in a "still life" setting.

Some tips for line sketching: the hold-up pencil method? It works. This is commonly referred to as “eyeballing it”. You hold up your pencil at arm’s length, and use it to estimate the relative proportion of two measures of the same object. This is a great way to estimate if an object is 2/3 as wide as it is long, ½, or somewhere between ¾ and 1/1. I tend to start with big flowy sketchy lines and then sort of zero in on where I think the line should be and make darker lines – I still do this, and it’s all a matter of practice. The lighter lines can be cleaned up with an eraser.

Here are some tutorials for sketching practice:

A shaded gradient, unblended, with a 2B pencil.

 Monotone patch blended, and a gradient on the left using 2B and 4B, shown blended below and unblended above. Blending fills in all the crevices in the paper and keeps it from looking like "static".

Chiaroscuro: light and dark shading

Once you’ve gotten proficient at sketching, the next one is shading and tone. This is fortunately a little easier to discuss as it is a bit more concrete. The best way to practice shading is to sketch and shade in simple nonreflective objects with a single light source: spheres, cones, cubes, etc. Understanding how light interacts with an object is just as fundamental as proportion. Begin with a cube, then a cone, and finally a sphere. If at all possible, put a sheet of white paper on a table near a window and find something approaching a white sphere – maybe a baseball (but ignore the stitches) – onto it. In art classes in middle and high school you start with a light bulb, white-painted wooden blocks, cones, spheres, and a white background. Most students instinctively think that because a cube has flat sides, that same light value will be continuous on each side, and each side will simply have its own single value and you’re done – voila! Actually, every side is going to have its own gradient based upon how close the surface is to the light source. I do not have a white cube on hand, but here is a photograph I just took of the ceiling in my bathroom:

You’ll notice that the vertical wall the lights are on gets increasingly darker further to the right, and there is a sharp edge: this is because more light is being reflected by the far wall that is perpendicular to the light source. Even on flat surfaces, you will still have a gradient! Things get more complicated when you try cones and cylinders. Out of these types, spheres are the most difficult, but for some reason a bit easier for me to explain. The chiaroscuro sphere can be broken into several parts, in order from proximity to the light source: a highlight; the middle tones, transitioning from lighter to darker; the core shadow (the darkest part) and a “skirt” of reflected light. Reflected light, you say! It’s not sitting on mirror?! Indeed, nearly all surfaces, shiny or not, reflect light – mirrors tend to be the most reflective, but white reflects a LOT of light, to the point where sheets of Styrofoam can be used in fossil photography to add a bit of scattered light into dark areas of the specimen.

The chiaroscuro shaded sphere - one of the early lessons in pencil drawing. Note the light source from the upper right, highlight, middle tones increasing in darkness to the lower left with the deepest part of the shadow and a reflected highlight, and the cast shadow. This isn't the best example as I did the whole thing in about 10 minutes.

As for technique – hold the pencil at a low angle, make sure that the graphite is reasonably sharp so you have a wide edge to use, and hold the pencil at a low angle to the paper – the goal is to rub in a little graphite at a time without indenting the paper. For practice, make a long rectangle with a series of boxes – say, 10 – starting from white to the darkest you can achieve with your pencil, making each one successively darker as you approach the darkest side. Then, practice making more even, continuous gradients with the pencil – slowly applying more pressure to achieve a darker tone. Note that as you wear down the pencil, the facet that is rubbing away will become larger and larger resulting in gradually thicker lines. Practice rotating the pencil around as you use it. Additionally, if you need a sharp edge, you can just hold the pencil differently.

There are all sorts of helpful online tutorials on how to do this – here are a couple of examples:

Comparison of erasing (above) and blending (below) of different softness/hardness graphite. Note that the soft lead (right) is more easily blended but difficult to erase properly, and the hard lead (left) is more difficult to blend but easier to erase.

Blending: making smooth transitions in shading

When you start shading, you will see lots and lots of lines, and they need to go away if you are seeking a smooth gradient. Most artists start by using their finger – a perfectly acceptable way of doing things! I have always avoided this, because I have always been super duper anal retentive about smudges (where not intended). If you really get into it and forget that there is graphite on your finger, you will forget and accidentally leave fingerprints on the white space around it! Instead, I use blending stomps, tortillons, and even cotton swabs (some use Q-tips - note that you will scratch the paper if you push hard since the stick is hard plastic, so best kept to softer dark lead). A bit of paper towel wrapped tightly and wrapped with some tape can even work. Blenders can also be used for shading themselves: whenever you use one, graphite is pulled off the drawing, so you can use it to shade lightly toned areas without using a pencil at all. On that note, if you’ve just used a blender to blend a very dark area, and you need to blend a lighter area next, make doubly sure to rub the blender off on a separate piece of paper until it is as light or lighter than the desired tone, otherwise you’ll end up over-darkening it when you blend. The goal of blending is to remove pencil lines and make it look continuously shaded like a black and white photograph. I have two basic rules: 1) the larger the area where a single tone is, the larger the blender; and 2) ALWAYS make sure your blending direction is perpendicular to the direction of the graphite lines. If you blend in the same direction, you end up reinforcing that pattern and the lines will never go away. Also - unless you're extremely careful, a circular motion will make the shading uneven and spotty, resembling a very muted leopard print.

If you need to shade in a gradient, note that a blender is always going to make the light parts slightly darker (if you’re lazy and do not file the blender down – a little sandpaper stick will do the trick) and lift enough off the darkest part so that it will effectively ‘neutralize’ whatever gradient you had initially drawn. Fear not! Just shade more, or if you have them, shade with a darker pencil. For most of my drawings I have needed to do numerous - occasionally dozens - of blending + shading + blending cycles, each time using a softer lead pencil into a smaller and smaller part of the shadow. More on this in the next post.

Some tutorials on blending here:

Don't break the bank

There are a LOT of art supply snobs out there, and truth be told, if you're interested in scientific illustration you're probably a scientist or a science student, in which case you're probably poor like me. Drawing supplies don't cost much; the most expensive items are going to be nice pencils and a drawing board. I have been criticized before for using 'cheap' paint, for example; I politely explained once to the critic that most people who are snobs about art supplies aren't usually very good artists. They were not very happy with my response.Work within your means and remember, it's about what you can do - not about what you're using. (definitely avoid any paper that's not acid-free though, because it will turn yellow over time).

Drawing boards and blue artist's tape

Depending upon the size of the illustration, you'll need some sort of drawing board. Inexpensive ones run from large clipboards to huge A0 sized boards that go inside a cloth portfolio. This is often the most expensive thing to purchase; I'd start out with something small. Make sure the clipboard isn't a type that clamps down and chews through paper; blue masking tape can be used to secure the other corners. Most people think of that stuff as "painter's tape" but I've always called it artist's tape, perhaps incorrectly, but if you get the right kind that is not super sticky it can be peeled off of good drawing paper without tearing it.

Cleanliness: avoiding smudges

Use a sheet of paper to rest your hand on, and make sure it does not slide! This prevents smudging from your palm. Sliding the paper around will make graphite smudge as well on a much broader scale. Graphite sticks to skin well and does not wash off easily!

Erasers here are mostly for fine edges, sharp highlights, and detailing; I cannot seem to find my larger magic rub eraser, so it's not in the picture. It might be at the office. I should find it...

Erasers are your best friend

Erasers are important because you’re going to go through a lot of rubber when you start out. Not all erasers are created equally: some really suck. Make sure you have a high quality eraser that has not gone stale. I’ll briefly comment on some commonly available erasers.

1) Pink rubber erasers – fine, often come with a sharp edge. A decent middle ground.
2) Art gum erasers – good for a few months but rapidly harden, and can crumble. I don’t really like them, but they are quite soft and (if fresh) won’t damage most papers. Not good at erasing detail.
3) Kneadable erasers – can make all sorts of shapes! Supposedly good at erasing detail if you make it into a cone or point, but since it is malleable when I apply sufficient pressure it just kind of deforms. They’re also sticky and leave my hands without oil, making it very easy to lift graphite off.
4) Triangle erasers – look for the ones with sharp edges, and you can erase nice lines into your graphite. I love these.
5) Mechanical erasers – I have two different ones of different diameter – one is about 3mm and the other is about 6mm. I use scissors or an exacto knife to cut these on occasion if I need a super sharp edge. You can also rotate the eraser as you use it to rub the tip into a cone, intermittently using that sharp cone to erase fine lines.
6) My personal favorite is the Prismacolor magic rub. This is technically a vinyl eraser but MUCH softer than one you would use to erase pen. These tend to have a much longer shelf life than art gum erasers.

Several more things:

1) First, erasers are at first usually used for removing or correcting mistakes, but after some practice you will find that you are mostly using the eraser to cut into the work and add texture, erasing highlights, or actually using a graphite-covered edge to blend or shade parts of the drawing itself!

2) The paper will NEVER get as light as it was before you put any graphite down. NO amount of erasing will ever return it to its virginal condition. So tread carefully! Larger erasers tend to be useful at erasing larger parts of lightly applied pencil (e.g. sketching phase); smaller erasers are better at correcting minor mistakes or for detailing.

3) Eraser crumbs and shavings will get everywhere – don’t wipe them off with your hand! You’ll smudge everything. You can try blowing, but you run the risk of getting tiny little spit drops on your drawing, which is not a problem IF you let it dry before proceeding. If you do not, you’ll get a permanent little screwed up spot. Invest a few bucks in a decent brush that can carry off eraser shavings without lifting any graphite off the sheet.

4)  Note that erasers can get quite stale and hard, and if you use one on accident, the smudge on the paper is now permanent and cannot be erased. If you're used to erasers on pencils, you will go through a weird phase with new drawing pencils because they have a wooden end and if you accidentally rub that in you'll get a nice streak of paint on the paper - so resist the muscle memory! It took me hundreds of hours of drawing to remember to put down the pencil and grab a separate eraser.

The blenders I use - the big fat one and the others that are looking kind of yellowed are from a set I purchased in 2006 and have served me well; I've maybe only filed away a centimeter or two (using the sandpaper block on the bottom). The lighter ones were purchased during my first year at University of Otago in NZ; the smaller ones I use sparingly for detailing, and the bigger ones are used for blending larger areas. Most of these are blending stomps (double ended); the third one from the top with the flat edge on one side is a tortillion, and if made well are quite good for detailing.


Blenders are just made of rolled or compressed paper and I've been using the same set since 2011, so I would not be the best person to ask for questions about brands/quality - I imagine there are not different brands or much of a difference since they are all paper. There are two types - blending stomps, which are pointed on both ends and typically extremely tightly rolled up paper, and a tortillion - which is basically like a cone. The stomps can take a lot more punishment. I end up using a blender just as much, perhaps even more, than I am actually using a pencil to lay down more graphite. Blenders can also be used to do small-scale shading without a pencil - little soft edged dimple patterns are easily done with a fine-pointed blender. The bigger the blender, the more that gets blended! The softer the graphite, the easier you can move it around.


Some papers are worse than others. For practice, even something as flimsy as printer paper is fine, or newspring “sketch” paper. But when you get to a point where you want to keep paper, make sure it is acid free so it will not change color over time, and make sure it is thick enough to take a bit of ‘damage’ during the drawing process. I am an unashamed paper queen, and always use Strathmore brand Bristol board: 100lb paper that is very, very thick (so you can really apply a lot of pressure) and resistant to bending and forming creases. There is a variety of surface textures available; the smoother the paper, the more detail you can achieve. It all depends upon if you want something to be flowy and expressive or intricately detailed and illustrative. I tend to be the latter when I draw (but NOT when I paint) and thus tend to prefer the smoothest, thickest paper possible.

My pencils! Two different sets - the green ones I purchased from an art store in NZ during my Ph.D., when I decided to finally start playing around with different hardness pencils. I have no idea where the silver ones came from, I think a gift from early college that I never used until about six years ago.


Comparison of pencil hardness with average pressure applied onto the paper.


I recommended starting out with a Ticonderoga #2. Eventually, you’ll find that a #2 can’t get quite so dark as you would like, or that it smudges enough when doing detail that you’re getting frustrated. High quality drawing pencils are fortunately inexpensive, and I would recommend getting a 2H, 4H, 2B, 4B, 6B, and maybe an 8B; I find that anything harder than 4H is sort of useless on any paper. Note that HB is right in the middle – and the equivalent hardness of a #2 pencil. It’s basically on a scale – the higher the number, the harder or softer the lead is. Soft lead can go super dark, but smudges very easily and should be used sparingly if attempting detailed work. Likewise, hard lead wears down slowly and thus maintains a sharp point for longer, allowing unparalleled detail. However, it is very light which means that only a certain amount of fine-scale contrast is possible, and additionally it may be hard enough that if you try to really grind it in, you will indent the surface of the paper and no additional graphite will stick, regardless of softness. So, experiment with hard graphite, because it is essentially irreversible if you put it on too hard. On that note, that could potentially be used to your advantage!

Pencil Sharpeners

I am really picky with pencil sharpeners. Most don't sharpen the pencil enough and leave a little 'nub' of graphite  - essentially forming a 3d road cone with a hole in the end since the blade doesn't go down far enough. Staedtler makes a nice one with a little bin for the shavings, but often the sharpeners that come with nice pencil sets that do not have a little shavings bin are some of the best you can find. A freshly sharpened pencil will break a bit at the tip so I tend to always rub the tip down on a sheet of scratch paper to 'prime' it for working on the work itself.

A drawing place & beverages

I tend to watch TV while I work on artwork and drink ice cold beer - so I have a preferred seat on the couch. Find a spot that has either the right amount of distractions, or is distraction-free if you need it. I find that a glass of beer or wine helps me subdue my anal retentive tendencies and work faster without second-guessing every thing I am doing, which mostly tends to speed the process up a LOT. I've heard other scientific illustrators who were taught to have a glass of wine and relax as a little bit of alcohol helps steady your hand. Do NOT try drawing if you've drank a bunch of coffee! You will make mistakes if your hands are a little shaky from needing a snack. I drink a LOT of coffee, so my art time is usually no earlier than mid-late afternoon.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Scientific illustration part 1: philosophy, motivation, and some words of encouragement


I’ve never bothered writing about artwork before on this blog, which is somewhat surprising given that it’s a very important and big part of my life. Enough that my failing grades in math courses and inferior grades in science courses in high school meant that many suggested I take up art if the whole science thing fell apart – instinctively I knew I did not want to be a professional artist.

My artwork now - a graphite + digital illustration showing a pod of extinct lipotid "river dolphins" in the genus Parapontoporia, from the Pliocene of California, commissioned by my colleague Bridget Borce for her master's thesis research.

My perspective and motivation

I love artwork, and I want to continue to love doing art. I don’t have a whole lot of time for it these days, but try to make time. I make art for three reasons: first, and most importantly, because I enjoy it; secondly, because I’m too poor to buy other people’s artwork and so I can conveniently use my own to decorate our house, and thirdly, because occasionally other people want to commission something of their own and I can make a few bucks on the side. Completing artwork is an emotionally controlled process: it’s easy for me to be very dissatisfied with a particular piece – frustration with an unsatisfactory piece leads to creative stagnancy. For these reasons I often do my work in fits and starts, occasionally the locomotive engine gets really hot and I can keep cranking stuff out (which requires sufficient free time away from teaching and research). Furthermore, because I’ll occasionally have creative droughts – and if not allowed sufficient creativity of my own on a commission – I’d probably starve to death if I relied on my art for my primary income. To be explicit here: I am a very “needy” artist if I accept a commission. It needs to be something I am interested in, I need creative control, I expect to be paid – not handsomely, but enough, and I need a lot of time to do it. It’s very easy for me to not want to illustrate something – but if I am emotionally invested, then you’re damn sure it’s going to get done and I’ll be damn proud of the resulting piece. Because of this, I am extremely selective in what I illustrate and owing to my busy, overly committed schedule and my finicky nature I am honest when I tell folks I’ll need a lot of time – or, I’m not really interested in drawing that so the end result is probably going to look like shit.

As a scientist, my art naturally reflects my fascination with the natural world; it rarely features man made objects, and rarely people. In particular, I am naturally quite obsessed with the coast and the ocean – as a kid growing up in California 20 minutes from the beach I could never get enough of going to the tidepools. My obsession with tidepooling and frequenting spectacular beaches in Northern California, coupled with the realization that those same beaches were some of the best fossil sites in the area, ultimately shaped my career path as a paleontologist. The same beach I had my 13th birthday party at is the same place I got my first collecting permit for through California State Parks, and in 2005, became the spot where I discovered my first new species in the fossil record – an ancestral minke whale I later named Balaenoptera bertae.

OK, back on track: I am an admitted perfectionist with my artwork, but only to a point; after a while you’ve got to put down the pencil or brush and say “yeah that looks pretty good. Time to hang it (or mail it)”. There are many other artists out there who have a much stronger eye for detail and texture than I – who also work on far larger pieces of paper. I’ll gleefully admit I’m too lazy and don’t have enough free time to draw a 4x6 foot wide portrait of somebody’s face, sketching out individual skin pores at the size I’d normally do a nostril. I like to think I’m already at the limit of detail I can manage with a pencil – or maybe I’m not trying hard enough. I don’t really care, because at the end of the day, it’s entirely about how I feel about the piece and whether or not I’m satisfied. Over the past 19 years I’ve been seriously drawing, if I can manage to put together a piece that I am satisfied with, most folks will be impressed. We’ll talk about having a critical eye later.

What is “talent”?

I’m often told “you’re so talented!” I usually thank them, but often respond by explaining that talent isn’t real. It’s not a thing. Nobody is born with an innate ability to do anything other than to walk, eat, talk, and reproduce – and even then, much of that is taught. Folks are usually surprised by this statement, but it does usually trigger an interesting discussion – what, if anything, is talent? On many occasions, which got me to thinking, some folks said “you have an ability I don’t understand”. Which is fair enough – it’s easy for me to describe the process. And then I started thinking about music – I love listening to music, most people do after all – but I don’t understand how people are able to sing better than others. Certainly, there are voice lessons some people take from a young age, but I don’t understand it – which, for a completely different type of art, is what I view as talent; something someone else is really good at that I cannot do myself, nor do I understand how they became so proficient. I am completely ignorant regarding how people become good musicians.

So, a few things to explain. I think “talent” is probably a bundle of different things. Obviously, there is skill: skills always start at zero and there is only one way to go from there. Second is practice: practice makes perfect, so to speak – or, at least, better. Practice and practice and lots and lots of failure will eventually lead to slightly less failure and eventually, after months or years of effort, something you think is passable. That nascent phase in artistic practice is critical: everyone going through it is going to fail, and that’s OK. Hopefully you aren’t too hard on yourself, and if you’re in a drawing class, hopefully your teacher is encouraging and critical. If you, your teacher, or your classmates are too negative, it is so very easy for the artistic flame to be extinguished during this critical period. 

Image result for napoleon dynamite drawing trisha

One of my favorite scenes regarding art in any movie - nope, not "draw me like one of your french girls" - is the scene in Napoleon Dynamite where Napoleon shares with "Trisha" a portrait he drew of her. We've all been through this stage, where we're experimenting with various techniques but don't have any of them pinned down yet, producing something far off the mark. Napoleon needed to practice proportion, and avoid treating hair as just a series of overlapping lines. A light source off to one side would help as well. Fortunately, nobody told Napoleon that his drawing looked like shit, so he very likely continued drawing and passed the misshapen face stage of portrait drawing. The honesty behind this scene really hits home for me, and I strongly suspect that the scene was inspired by something the screen writer or director experienced.

 So, if the flame is not extinguished by negativity – why does it keep burning on its own? This is the part I don’t understand and cannot explain. I’ve always just ‘wanted’ or felt driven to draw and paint or create things. There are enough folks out there who are content to do nothing more than just watch TV all weekend and get back to their 9 to 5 come Monday. I don’t understand that either. Most kids like to draw, so I imagine everyone is probably like this at some point in their early lives. What happens? I don’t know. I don’t feel any different about why I want to do art than I did when I was 7: I just wanted to make something pretty. So long as you have that drive, it will propel you through years of practice and enough failure that you learn from to hone your skills past a point where you can finally become confident about your work. And even then, most good artists (whatever that means) that I have met are still not very confident. Even some well-established paleoartists I’ve spoken with are insecure about their work that I’m just gaga over and blush a bit when I compliment their work (usually because I gush a bit myself to them). Many of us are not fair to ourselves and feel the whole thing is a house of cards – artists very much suffer from impostor syndrome just like most young academics I know. On a separate note, the few academics I know in my age bracket who don’t or never suffered from impostor syndrome tend to be pretentious, bloviating hacks. Why are some of the best scientists and artists in paleontology like this? I think it makes us better scientists and artists because we’re constantly striving for better quality, even if internally it makes us a wreck inside. On a final note – don’t mistake confidence for someone who  is cured of impostor syndrome. I’ve enjoyed enough success in both fields that I will happily tell someone who doesn’t like my art or science to stick their comments far up their own ass. Things aren’t much different now, but the syndrome is fading. My peers and friends definitely help (thanks, if you're reading this!).

One word of encouragement: nothing about what I do is special. Anyone can do this. All that is different is that I do it a LOT and really enjoy doing it.

Dealing with criticism

Don’t let your flame be extinguished. If I perceive someone as attempting – wittingly or unwittingly – to do this to myself or someone else, my defensive response is usually quite harsh. Don’t like someone’s art? Shut your goddamn mouth and don’t buy any of it. There are plenty of people whose artwork I am not a fan of, chiefly because I think the genre or subject is too kitsch or mainstream - but I keep these thoughts to myself. I can appreciate work based upon its technical merits, and if the work is technically unmerited, so to speak, I am happy to provide constructive criticism - if asked. Many artists are extremely thin-skinned, and I get it; I've had some fairly rude responses, particularly to portraits I've done, to which my response might be "great, I didn't ask you" or "here's a pad and pencil, why don't you do it better?". I don't expect to make a living off of art, so I can afford to say things like that when I feel like it.

One last, related note, before I actually start talking about the artistic process: many scientists are going to be reading this. Telling someone their reconstruction is inaccurate after they’ve done it in an unkind manner is extremely thoughtless, though you may think it is helpful. “But but I’m a scie-“ shut your damn mouth, that doesn’t matter. There is certainly a right and a wrong way to go about criticizing somebody’s work – I don’t exactly know what the right way is, since different artists are more sensitive than others. Being an artist, I can gauge it far easier than a non-artist. I have the fortunate background of being an artist and also studying the anatomy of the extinct critters I draw – that is a unique privilege, not one shared by most paleoartists, who may for example be commissioned to illustrate some species outside their comfort zone, and get the anatomy a bit wrong. Unless you are the commissioner of the work and can help guide the artist during the process, or if the artist has opened up to you for advice during the process, or if you are extremely careful and positive about how you deliver your criticism, your opinion (scientific or otherwise) does not matter. Sorry. 

Some reflection: looking back at my own high school art

It wasn't until high school that I started taking serious art classes. I took drawing 1-2 my freshmen year, 3-4 my sophomore year, 5-6 my junior year - which was essentially a class only offered rarely, and only to students who had some sort of future in art; there were no assignments other than once a month I had to produce themed illustrations - where I got to pick the subject - and show improvements in quality during the course of the semesters. My senior year I became the first person in my high school to take drawing 7-8, at the start of which my teacher - the wonderful Ms. Jane Dahlgren - insisted I focus entirely on artwork relating to paleontology and anatomy, since I had just gotten accepted into the paleo program at Montana State University. Early on, my artwork was sort of an eclectic mix of stuff a teenager was interested in: fantasy illustrations, skulls, castles, landscapes, portraits, and lots of dinosaurs. Much of it is a bit cringeworthy in terms of subject matter (but not necessarily execution, at least sophomore year onward), but I've selected a few examples I am comfortable with sharing for purposes of providing critiques, and showing that I have grown and that I wasn't always able to do what I can now.

Here's a deer skull that I sketched... I think shortly after 9/11, perhaps fall of my junior year of HS (2001, obviously). This is perhaps 1-1.5 hours of work, and about 8 inches wide; being an aspiring anatomist, I made sure to include all of the skull sutures as lines, likely exaggerating their values in favor of being anatomically informative. Nothing is terribly dark, which is a bit unusual for most of my early work. I really went overboard on the contrast to make extremely dark, almost gothic chiaroscuro illustrations. No attempt has been made at blending. This was also done on very light paper, essentially just scratch paper.

Like any teenage boy I drew a lot of theropods. I'm so sick of theropods now that I am embarrassed I drew so damn many. This is from spring of my freshmen year (2000), an Allosaurus on actual drawing paper (I hadn't discovered the wonder of Bristol board yet), and about 16" wide. Until this particular drawing, where my teacher told me to lay on the graphite much more darkly, most of my dino drawings looked really flat. This one was one of the first to have any depth. It's not great, but it marked a turning point in my early career. No real attempt at blending has been made, and I'm not sure that I was really bothering with it yet. Certain parts of the dark camouflage are way too dark, and a lot of white flecks show through, which otherwise would have been eliminated by a little bit of blending. Also, the pencil lines are really obvious in the shaded regions. The hands and feet are way too lightly shaded, and the scales on the head are kind of jarring.

Fortunately I continued drawing during college. This is from first semester of freshmen year of college (2003) - a T. rex head. This one is tiny, perhaps 4 inches wide. Blending was used, proportions are fine, I imagine the free tongue would not hold up to scientific scrutiny. I think the shading on the jawline is too sudden and simultaneously too light; the front of the lower jaw looks flat. However, I'm still quite pleased with the three-dimensionality provided by the changing shapes of the scaly polka dots. Detail is lost in some areas owing to smudging, if I remember right- both during and after drawing this. I had not yet started using different hardness pencils, and this was also done on shitty paper in a sketchbook.

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This is the first skull illustration I did that I am proud of. I started it in 2006, gave up, and continued drawing it two years later. I sort of stopped drawing during my sophomore year of college (failing grades, academic probation, depression, etc.) and didn't really pick it up again until my junior/senior year. This is a skull of the archaeocete whale Dorudon atrox; because it was based on a fossil, and I wanted it to be accurate, I skipped the sketching stage and traced the outline from a photograph in order to get the proportions right. I *can* sketch it, but it takes a couple hours of messing around. If you look closely, there are some weird artifacts in the shadowed regions not evident in the actual illustration owing to the weird scanner I used. The strange lighting is based on the actual lighting of the skull at the Canadian Museum of Nature. My only comments on this one are 1) the teeth are too strongly shaded and look like they're made of metal; 2) the highlight on the maxilla above the upper molars is jarring; and 3) the shadows are not blended very well. That aside, I'm still very proud of this one and I should probably hang it up someplace.