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.