Wednesday, April 25, 2012

SciArt Saturday Talks to the Artists

The last SciArt Saturday post went live this past week, and now there's a moment to reflect. 

I only began thinking about the similarities between science and art about a year ago in the middle of a genetics lecture, when I first saw images of the Brainbow --a fluorescent, microscopic imaging technique used to visualize neuron arrangement in brain tissue. I don't remember much of the lecture after that (sorry, Dr. Hersh); I was too busy making notes to learn how cells could be made to appear like beautiful splatters of red, blue and yellow paint across the projector screen. Since that day, I've made it a point to promote the overlap that exists between the two disciplines. And this week I'll be introducing you to others who try to do the same, as I interview artists whose work has appeared in the SciArt Link Roundups.

Today, we meet Nicole Wong, a scientific illustration graduate student at Cal State University, Monterey Bay. SciArt Saturday featured a link to her illustrations earlier this year. Nicole kindly agreed to answer a few questions for The Factual Enquirer about her experiences.  

Southern alligator lizard (Elgaria multicarinata), acrylic
by Nicole Wong

DD: What made you pursue scientific illustration?

NW: I grew up drawing, but never thought I had a distinctive enough style to pursue it professionally. I just liked drawing animals in a realistic way. In college, I opted to study wildlife conservation, keeping art as a secret hobby I pulled out when making visual flashcards for exams, or taking notes in biology lab. Then by chance I came across the blog of a student in the CSUMB graduate Science Illustration program. Her work was amazing; she was doing everything I wanted! A perfect blend of fine art and science. That's when I realized illustration could be a medium for sharing the little animal stories that made me so passionate about wildlife conservation in the first place. I investigated the school, applied, held my breath, and was ecstatic when I got into the program. It's been an intense, but thrilling experience to say the least!

Did you have any training in science beforehand?

I graduated from UC Berkeley with a B.S. in Conservation and Research Studies. During my time there, I volunteered in the Essig Muesum of Entomology, and prepped skin and skeleton specimens for the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. I spent a summer doing fieldwork in Montana, and another studying wild monkeys in Bolivia. It definitely helps coming from a science background. Knowing the anatomy of an animal, and being familiar with the terminology used to describe it, helps a lot in the research stage of an assignment.

How much does the science come into play in the illustration? That is, how much do you learn about your animal (or plant!) subjects through your art?

Science always comes into play! The goal is to communicate accurate information through a drawing, so the way I take in information on a subject is very specific. Depending on what applies, I pay attention to its anatomy, behavior, posture, size, and the environment from which it came. I have to think about what view of the subject best communicates this information, and carefully choose a composition where this information won't be misconstrued. Training my eye to read such details has allowed me to learn about the subject in an intimate way, to discover things I might not have already learned through the available literature.

Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), ink on scratchboard

What's your favorite part of the job? 

Definitely the research. I spend hours reading up on my subject, digging up scientific papers if I need to. Then I spend hours sifting through photos online, finding good references for my composition. It's surprising how much a photo can distort information, so whenever possible, I also like to have the subject sitting before me. This might require building a clay model, or if I'm lucky, I can find a stuffed specimen in the local museum to take notes from. Even luckier, I can find a living specimen to photograph in my own neighborhood. More and more I prefer taking my own reference photos to avoid copyright issues.  

Do you have a favorite type of specimen to sketch, and how long do you spend on a single piece?

I'm still figuring out my niche, so I'm still into everything. Depending on the medium and level of detail, I can spend as short as 6 hours on a piece start to finish, to 100 hours. As a student, I have the luxury of spending an endless amount of time fine-tuning a piece. When I finally start freelancing, I'm going to have to learn to reign in my perfectionist tendencies.

What are you working on now?

A botanical plate, an animal behavior sketch, edits to my portfolio, and preparations for the class gallery show opening this week. I'm pretty excited about the last one. 

Mind if I include one or two credited images of your artwork in the post?

Not at all!


Be sure to check out Nicole's tumblr for more illustrations and behind-the-scene candid photographs of her life as an art student. 

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