Tuesday 26 June 2012

Beetle Week Day 1: The Challenge of Scientific Illustration

Welcome to Day 1 of Beetle Week on The Flying Trilobite!

Earlier this year, I was commissioned by entomologist and insect photographer Morgan Jackson of Biodiversity in Focus to contribute to a soon-to-be-published dead-tree book. The result?  My first series of scientific illustrations, instead of the off-kilter, surreal scientific illustrations I'm known for. Today: The Challenge of Scientific Illustration.

- -

I've been painting for a couple of decades, and blogging my artwork for over 5 years. One of the joys of this career is that there's always more to learn, more challenges, more surprises.

When Morgan Jackson first approached me about contributing 7 Ontario jewel beetle illustrations for an upcoming publications he and researchers at the University of Guelph are working on, I was excited about the idea and also a little intimidated.

Although I sometimes head to the Royal Ontario Museum to work on realistic drawings of fossil skulls, they are mainly exercises for myself, and not overseen by researcher in the field. I assume they do add a little to my professional street cred since this blog is frequented by paleontologists and paleo-art fans. Morgan's request was different. These needed to be spot-on scientific illustrations, useful for the purpose of identifying some of Ontario's diverse species.

So, I did what I usually do when trying to depict a new subject: got out my Strathmore Bristol paper and trusty .3mm mechanical pencil and started to draw in high detail. The project called for 7 species, and I decided to start in alphabetical order, with Agrilaxia.

Agrilaxia drawing, © Glendon Mellow

As I mentioned above, Morgan is an amazing nature photographer (seriously. Check this out. Or this.) Though I wasn't able to visit his lab, he provided me with stunning dorsal, ventral, side and genitalia(!) views of the beetles to illustrate.

And after scanning the drawing above, and opening up my favourite digital painting program, ArtRage Studio Pro, that's when I got cold feet. I mean, how realistic does the painting need to be?  You can zoom almost an infinite amount in a digital painting, and the high-res macro photos Morgan zipped and sent to me allowed a huge level of detail.

As I was zoomed in, I starting getting that creep of imposter syndrome. How could I possibly match a photo with a painting?

A cup of coffee later, and I started to relax. Morgan and his team were looking for scientific illustrations, for paintings, and I know he's viewed my portfolio. Making everything super-hyper-photo real wasn't the goal. I hoped.

I settled in and began to paint.

Screenshot of painting Agrilaxia in ArtRage Studio Pro, with Morgan Jackson's photo references on the left.

I'll say more about the process of painting with ArtRage tomorrow.  It's enough to say I employed a wide variety of that robust program's painting tools, and started to enjoy myself. I emailed some in process shots of Agrilaxia to Morgan, and to a couple of artists who's opinions and discretion I could trust.  I can count on them to keep me honest, and the reactions were positive.

Part way through the process of painting the beetles, I recall Morgan letting me know some of the other researchers were getting accustomed to my art style, or some words to that effect. Important feedback that sends me into a hyperactive state of focus, trying to ramp up my accuracy and tighten up the work.

Accurate enough? Final, almost full-res version of Agrilaxia. © Glendon Mellow

It was a lesson for me as an illustrator, and also one for researchers considering hiring an illustrator. Chances are, if you are not going with photography, there will always be a little of the artist's style - the movement of their hand, the colour associations in their eye - that is inherent in the final  illustration. It's the sum of the illustrator's experiences up to that point in their career coupled with doing something new.

That said, being a scientific illustrator carries the responsibility of taming style in the service of the twin aspects of accuracy and clarity.

- -

Stay tuned for the rest of Beetle Week

- - - - - - - -

Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite © to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

Print ShopFind me on Symbiartic, the art+science blog on the Scientific American Blog Network!


Emily said...

Lovely illustration, Glendon.
Like you, I have had to remind myself that clients hire me because they already like my style; it's definitely a good thing to remember!

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks Emily! And you should remember that because your style is crisp and GOR-geous.:D

Post a Comment

Posts over 14 days old have their comments held in moderation - I've been getting an unusual amount of spam for a guy who paints trilobites. I'll release it lickety-split though.

Copyright © 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 Glendon Mellow. All rights reserved. See Creative Commons Licence above in the sidebar for details.
Share |