Wasp Microbial Landscape – Art Process

Our bodies are made up of the trillions of cells encoded by our unique DNA–right? Current research is diving into another rabbit hole, with suggestions that the microbes that coexist with us are just as much US, as our ‘own’ DNA encoded cells. For every one of our DNA encoded cells, 10 microbes exist. For Science News magazine’s special feature on animals’ microbiomes I created a wasp ‘composed’ of microbes. Check out SN’s reporting here, Microscopic Menagerie for more on the science and links to other artists’ great illustrations. In this blog post, you’ll find insights into the my process creating the wasp art.

wasp microbes drawing

Wasp microbiome art created for Science News magazine © N.R.Fuller.

 

wasp-sketchGetting Started on the Art: I almost always start with a sketch to confirm both composition and accuracy. In this case the wasp was a Nasonia wasp (a small parasitoid). After sketching the wasp itself, I sketched microbes onto the very front of the specimen as an example of where I was headed. Science News agreed that it was on track, but gave me some feedback like avoiding monoculture areas like I originally had in the eye.

wasp-zsphere

On the top are the underlying Zspheres used to create the model, and below is the sculpted wasp.

Even though we wanted the final style to look more hand-drawn and less computer generated, I decided to use 3d software to help me with the overall shading and the nuances of the microbial shading. My plan was to spend some time sculpting the wasp, then harness computing power to scatter the microbes, and finish up with sketched details in Photoshop. I started out using Zbrush’s zspheres to create the underlying shape of the wasp. If you’re not familiar with zspheres, they’re a fantastic way to quickly create a mesh (model) without traditional polygon modeling skills. It’s basically like stringing together beads to create your shape.

Zspheres remind me a little of the newish kid’s building toy Zoobs; essentially balls with connectors, of which any of the balls can become a joint. As I built my wasp I kept each major part separate as a Zbrush subtool so that I could easily modify the pose. Once the structure was created I sculpted the details of the wasp, using primarily a combination of the sculpting slash, inflate, and move tool. Since I knew that I’d be adding the microbes I didn’t need a whole lot of detail, I just wanted to define the body contours.

Next up, sculpting microbes

microbes-inprocess

When I first envisioned creating this art I planned to use zbrush to sculpt a base wasp, and then Cinema 4d’s mograph module to populate the surface with microbes, or perhaps even Vue’s ecosystem function (*TIP* Vue’s ecosystem function, meant to populate trees and plants across a landscape, also works well to scatter objects).  I quickly realized that the scattershot microbe approach wasn’t working. For the microbes to really look integrated and one with the wasp, I needed to selectively place the microbes according to the contours and the specific part of the body–more rod bacteria on the legs, strings of cocci along crevices, etc… It’s of course possible that if I had the programming knowledge I could have made the shotgun method work, but I don’t, so… my quick computer solution quickly turned into a VERY time consuming process of hand placing each microbe using Zbrush’s insert mesh tool (still very cool that it’s even possible with Zbrush).

I sculpted each variety of microbe (a few different rod bacteria, cocci, spiral…) and created a custom insert brush so that I could place them across the wasp’s body. In some places where less detail was needed I used an alpha brush with a mix of microbes as a texture, although in most places this proved to be too low resolution. After I had most of the microbes placed I turned on polypaint, so that I could individually paint the color of each microbe, and further added texture with noise textures (alpha brushes).

Putting it All Together

Now that I had my wasp composed of microbes, I rendered several different styles using zbrush’s built-in materials and imported them into Photoshop. Different materials emphasize different lighting, reflection, highlights… so I ended up compositing several different renderings to get the mix of colors and shading that I was looking for using several photoshop layer mix modes (overlay, color, multiply…). In the image below you can see several of the different lighting/material renderings from Zbrush that I composited in Photoshop.wasp-head-3ds

With the base microbes-wasp complete I continued to refine the art in photoshop. I used the photoshop stamp tool to duplicate some of the microbes into spots that were left a little bare in the zbrush renderings and I added some extra color to help it pop a bit more. With the help of Science News’ great art direction, I looked for parts that were flattening out and  then hand-drew (on my cintiq tablet) hatched shading to emphasize the distinction between microbes and highlight the overall body shape. Below left is the final color base made up of several different composited renderings. Below center is the line-work I drew and on the right is the final art with the drawn line-work on top of the color.

wasp-head-final

Thanks for checking out my work and my process. If you happen upon this and would like more info on specific programs or techniques in future posts, please let me know and specify what level of information in the comments.

 

Adjusting Work Motivations – Freelancing as a New(ish) Parent Part 2

In my last post on balancing parenthood with freelancing I talked about maternity leave logistical realities. This week I want to talk a little bit more about the emotional side of things. After defining myself by my work for so long, I was shocked to find myself not loving work after g-pterodactyl (preschooler girl) was born. I took 5 months of maternity leave after g-pterodactyl was born, which I needed for both the physical recovery and the mental adjustment to parenthood. Returning to work was a bit of a shock, and it was the first time my ‘work’ felt like ‘work’.

Giant Galaxy swallows small galaxy.

A giant elliptical galaxy swallows up a young spiral galaxy. Recently created during the kiddos’ naps and after bedtimes for All About Space magazine. © Nicolle R. Fuller

It really bothered me that I wasn’t working purely for the love of it anymore. Before my pterodactyls, people used to give me a wink-wink, nudge-nudge when I told them that no, really, I didn’t do it for money–but I meant it. That shifted a bit when g-pterodactyl came along. I had to force myself to sit at the computer. Once I got going I enjoyed the work, but there were still other things I’d rather be doing: watching her learn to crawl, making yummy food, sleeping… I never got to a point where I wanted to quit, but I finally understood why many women do want to focus entirely on their families. We financially needed me to keep working, and I also knew that I’d worked too long and hard building both my skills and my client base to give it all up. Even if I’d wanted to take a temporary break beyond my maternity leave, I knew I would have had a long road re-establishing myself.

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Maternity Leave – Freelancing as a New(ish) Parent

Since becoming a full-time freelance illustrator 6 years ago, I’ve had 2 beautiful children (the pterodactyls, because that’s what they sound like when they cry). That means 2 x 9 = 18 months of hormone-induced sleepiness, and over two years of sleep deprivation (the second year of which I’m nearing the end of). So 3.5 out of 6 years of physically not feeling 100%, in addition to adjusting to a changing self-image and the resultant search for motivation that I had thought could never flag. It’s been a roller coaster.

baby pterodactyls cartoon

My wonderful babies (now a preschooler and baby) often sound like pterodactyls (pterosaurs).

Whether you’re a Dad or a Mom, it’s a struggle balancing work and home, and I’ve been surprised by how few resources there seem to be out there. There’s great general freelancing advice, but when you search for WAHM (working at home mom) advice the bulk of it is actually people looking for work they can do from home, and much of it is pretty questionable spam.

Here and there I’ve found some really supportive people, but often it’s people who’ve been in the business for many years, their kids are older, and the early years are enough of a blur that they’ve forgotten how they made it through (I at least know they made it!). So in the interest of later reminding myself what I went through, and to perhaps help others who are struggling (to commiserate if nothing else), I’ll try to share thoughts on balancing family and work. You might be wondering why I’m taking the time to write this after explaining how strung out I am – for now, this is my therapy :-). After the jump are my experiences with maternity leave as a freelancer, and in future posts I’ll relate my thoughts on adjusting to being a parent and running a business, figuring out childcare, and more.

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Nanolipogel Art: Winner of AOI Illustration Awards 2013 Research & Knowledge

Nanolipogel's attacking cancer, by N.R.Fuller for the National Science Foundation

Nanolipogel’s attacking cancer, by N.R.Fuller for the National Science Foundation, recently won it’s category in the AOI illustration awards.

I’m pleased–and surprised and humbled–to announce that my artwork created for Dr. Tarek Fahmy’s laboratory and the National Science Foundation won in the Research & Knowledge category of the 2013 AOI illustration awards. www.aoiimages.com

From the AOI:

Visual showcase for recently published research to evoke interest from the non-science public and describe how nanotechnology might help combat cancer.

Judges Comments: From a very diverse and impressive range of work in this category this image impressed us because it combined accurate, compelling and significant scientific data with a strong aesthetic appeal. It is a medical illustration that remains accessible to a popular audience. The colour palette works well and it has drama. We liked that it had visual and cultural references from other fields such as 1950’s sci fi movies which provide a richness and humour alongside the hard science.

One of three of my pieces shortlisted, (see AOI shortlist post or the AOI shortlist) the judges picked the most technical, information dense piece of the triad. You can read more about the nanolipogel science in NSF’s pres release here, and some of the funny places the illustration ended up being used here.

I don’t have all the information yet, but it sounds like I’ll be traveling to England’s Somerset House this October for the awards ceremony. Oy ve, I guess I’ll need to figure out what to do with the then-8-month baby… bring him with, leave him with bottles, big sister and Dad…. hmmm… I have time to worry about that later :-).AIO_Logo_small2

Science Art Gets Some Love: AOI Shortlisted Illustrations

3 science illustrations in the AOI competition

Three illustrations by N.R.Fuller of Sayo-Art shortlisted in the AOI images competition.

Us science artists don’t get no respect… at least that’s what I thought until now. When I heard that the AOI (Association of Illustrators) added a Research & Knowledge category to their prestigious, international ‘Images’ competition, I was stoked to have a chance. Beyond the respect for my professional niche, I’m excited to share that my work has been recognized on their shortlist.

The AOI Research & Knowledge Communication category is pretty broad, and described by the AOI below:

Research & Knowledge Communication–Illustration commissioned for the purpose of undertaking research and communicating knowledge. Illustration that is used as a research or investigative tool and that represents, explains or seeks to understand information or data…

Cancer Research Art

Artwork recently shortlisted in the AOI Images competition,  created for the AACR‘s annual meeting. ©2012 AACR / Nicolle R. Fuller

Different illustrations have different purposes, and even within the genre of science illustration there is a wide range of styles and applications. I jive on trying to create illustrations that help someone new to the subject imagine what it might be like to really see the things beyond our vision–teeny-tiny cells to exploding universes–while still staying true to the scientists’ research. Unfortunately, that often means my work just doesn’t fit into most of the big name illustration competitions.

Most of the broader competitions–like Communication Arts or 3×3’s–don’t explicitly exclude science art with categories like “books, editorial, for sale…”, but if you take a look at the previous winners from the past few years it’s clear the likelihood of recognition in their comp is slim to none for an artist like me. Can’t science art compete in the general categories? Sure, some can… but on the whole the goal of communicating science is so different from other editorial art, that it’s just a different beast and can’t be compared easily. To stay accurate and true to scientists’ work while pulling in the ambivalent viewer, a certain level of visual clarity and realism is often needed; leading to style choices diverging from many of the more mainstream popular illustrators.

Science illustration man coughing

If you do have a chance to check out the work in the Research category, you’ll see there is quite a bit of variety in the pieces, from 2 beautiful botanical pieces to some innovative videos. The 3 pieces I submitted include:

  • A piece created for the American Association for Cancer Research’s Annual Meeting branding, meant to honor both the researchers and patients working toward a cure,
  • Artwork for Science News magazine on the science of a cough, using extreme exaggerated perspective of the tracheae to show the cilia on the cells that are irritated by foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria,
  • And finally, an illustration for Dr. Tarek Fahmy at Yale University, released by Yale and the National Science Foundation as a press release to explain the lab’s exciting research on nanolipogels that release drugs to combat cancer and other diseases. (see blog post: Nanolipogels Huffington Post…)

Out of the 10 total professional pieces that were shortlisted for the “Research & Knowledge” category, 1 winner will be chosen. Clearly, I’m pretty excited that my work has been recognized, but moreover, I’m grateful that the AOI has opened up their competition to the international community, and decided it’s time to recognize the art in visual information communication.

The Great Fracking Debate

Fracking (otherwise known as hydraulic fracturing, the process of drilling deep into the earth for natural gas) is the hot button issue within the environmental and energy community. Supporters say it is the next great scientific development that will create jobs and free us from our dependency on foreign oil, while opponents believe it is a dangerous practice that ultimately contaminates and destroys homes, farmlands, and towns. Fracking has even received the Hollywood treatment with the recent film, Promised Land, directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Matt Damon.Explaining Fracking

So, is fracking going to save the American dream or destroy it? The truth is probably neither. As environmental scientist Robert Jackson of Duke University says, “People want it to be simple on both sides of the ledger, and it’s not simple.”

The September issue of Science News provided an extensive analysis of the scientific side of the fracking debate and featured a digital illustration from Sayo-Art explaining the fracking process.

Hydraulic fracturing has been around for over 50 years, but it’s only been within the last decade that fracking has really taken off. This is due to the advent of horizontal drilling, which along with fracking, has allowed gas companies to reach vast pockets of previously inaccessible natural gas. This combination of technologies has made it possible to drill into beds of shale that are typically thousands of meters below the earth’s surface.

Promised Land - Matt Damon Fracking Film

The Promised Land, a movie about the possible implications of fracking (natural gas drilling).

However, tapping this previously dormant resource could have unintended consequences. There have been reports of methane leaking into drinking water, “at levels that can make tap water flammable or can build up in confined spaces and cause home explosions.” Improperly dealt with wastewater from the drilling process has led to dangerous chemicals leaking into the surrounding area. And increased earthquake activity at certain drilling sites has been recorded.

While these findings are worrisome, the lack of rigorous scientific testing on the dangers of fracking keep them from being conclusive. Many of these ill effects may actually be due to the serious lack of regulation behind the fracking process, a problem which is beginning to be addressed at the state and national political levels.

Still, as with any new technology, it comes down to a matter of weighing the risks versus the benefits. And working to understand and reduce those risks as much as possible.

Artwork for “Higgs: The God Particle, Found”

Sayo Studios: Science News - Higgs Boson Cover Image

Cover artwork for Science News article on the Discovery of the Higgs Boson, by N.R.Fuller of Sayo-Art LLC.

The Higgs boson has been the Holy Grail of physics since its proposal in the 1970s, so the announcement of its discovery on July 4th from scientists at CERN marked a watershed moment within the history of physics.

I’m excited to be a small part of the history by getting to create the artwork for the Science News cover and article on the subject.

When I first began my illustration career I interned at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and got a crash course in particle physics.  I don’t get to attempt the impossible and draw sub-atomic particles as much as I used to, so this was an exciting return. And luckily for me, the editors at Science News had clear ideas on what they wanted illustrated for the topic — as much as I love tackling conceptually difficult subjects, it’s great to have some help when it comes to particle physics.

The cover artwork for the July 28th issue of Science News shows the vigorous shaking of the field needed for the Higgs particle to ‘pop’ out.

The Higgs particle has been sought for 20 years, since 1973 when it was first proposed. The Large Hadron Collider was completed in 2008, at a cost of 9 billion dollars, largely with the hope of discovering the Higgs (or not). Billions of dollars to discover one particle? The Higgs particle isn’t called the God particle for nothing. It is the lynchpin of modern theories, that couldn’t be verified until now.

The discovery of the Higgs Boson particle could be an important first step towards understanding the 96% of our universe that is made up of dark matter and dark energy, the 96% that still remains mysterious and unknown.

Still, whatever comes in the future from this discovery, July 4th 2012 will certainly be remembered as a landmark day within physics and the scientific community as a whole.

Rates in a Bad Economy & Tracking Hours

Cougar, Grey Wolf & Grizzly Bear Skulls

My early work was largely done by hand. This piece, depicting three types of carnivore skulls (cougar, grey wolf, grizzly bear), was painted with acrylic. © Nicolle Rager Fuller

Rates in a Bad Economy

Ideally on this blog I’ll talk a little bit about my work, giving you a behind the scenes look at the process that goes into creating my art. Along the way I’ll also offer some advice, although sometimes it may fall under the criteria of “do as I say, not as I do.”

Tracking Hours

I’ve just spent the last hour recreating my calenders for the past week,because I didn’t do a good job tracking hours as I went. This happens far too often. Luckily, I can keep a pretty accurate record by going through my email history and  when I opened and saved different files–but that process needlessly wastes time and isn’t really the point of tracking hours in the first place…Why am I being so lax?

Laziness, that’s the easy answer. If I really fess up to my crimes, it’s not so much laziness, as much as avoidance. Avoidance of tracking my hours. Sounds silly, huh?

As I’m happy to preach to anyone starting out, it’s REALLY important to track your hours so you can tell if your rates are fair. For most of my clients I charge a flat rate, so it doesn’t make a difference in my final billing–but it should make a difference to my future estimates and billing.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t/hasn’t. I haven’t raised my rates in years, partially because of timing: when I went out on my own it coincided with the economic sky falling. I feel lucky to have survived as a new, full-time business owner in this climate, but it’s also meant I’ve been afraid to try to move up my rates.

Now here is the real rub–and the reason I don’t like examining my hours–my ‘official rates’ may not have changed, but if I actually compare my estimated hours vs. my actual hours, my rate has actually fallen dramatically. I’m working more for less money. Which isn’t smart business-wise–but then I’ve never claimed to be the smartest business gal–but throw a kid into the mix who sometimes doesn’t get as much attention when I’m trying to meet deadlines and make ends meet, and my priorities feel all mixed up.

How did this happen?

Sayo Studios: Growing Life In A Biosphere

Most of my illustrations, like this one of the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2, are now drawn and painted digitally, using programs like Eon Vue and Adobe Photoshop. These computer programs open up whole new possibilities for what I can create and they make the editing process far less painful, but surprisingly increase the amount of time I spend on each project. © Nicolle Rager Fuller

I dare say, that part of the increased time is from a change in my expectations.

When I first ventured into the freelance world and then the full-time small business world, I felt confident (as confident as one can) about my venture because I knew I was efficient at my work. How did I know? Because I closely tracked my hours and I was always able to deliver on time. On time: meaning a few days before deadline so that we’d have plenty of time for any last minute tweaks. I felt good about my work and my clients were happy. And don’t get me wrong current and potential clients ;-), I’ll still deliver quality on time, but it’s taking a lot more work and a lot more late nights.

I’ve gone from using physical pencils and paints, to using Photoshop and Illustrator, to using the 3D-program Eon Vue and Photoshop/Illustrator, to my current arsenal of Photoshop, Illustrator, Eon Vue, Cinema 4d, Zbrush, Modo and the occasional Poser. The list has become long and there’s always more to learn. I thought using 3D programs would help me speed up, but instead I’ve found my own expectations of detail and intricacy keep increasing with each new tool, and so does the time spent! 

So where do I go from here?

Try to be more efficient? Easier said then done. Or do I just have to accept that my rate has decreased? In the following months I’ll try to follow-up on my quest to improve my efficiency while continuing to keep my work fresh, and keep you posted as I do.

Cancer “Smart Bomb” Art Featured in The Huffington Post and The Mirror

An illustration of a nanolipogel releasing cancer fighting drugs, by Nicolle R. Fuller for NSF.

It’s not everyday that science illustration gets picked up by publications as varied as the The Huffington Post and The Mirror. In this instance a story about a cancer “smart bomb” seems to have sparked some interest.

It’s a funny thing, creating artwork for press releases–you never know where it’ll get picked up. The perfect mix of a good story, a good head-line, good artwork ;-), good timing and a sprinkling of fairy dust… and sometimes it gets picked up by the broader media.

The cancer smart bomb is a nano drug delivery system under development by Dr. Fahmy and colleagues at Yale University. They are developing a new cancer treatment that simultaneously attacks cancer cells and boosts the patient’s immune system. The treatment, which has successfully been tested on mice, uses small hollow spheres, called nanolipogels to deliver the two-prong attack. Some nanolipogels become stuck in leaky tumor blood vessels, where they rally the body’s own immune defenses by releasing interleukin-2 (green). Nanolipogels continuing into the tumor unleash an anti-cancer drug to attack the tumor cells. The original research was published July 15 online in the journal Nature Materials. Check out the press releases from the National Science Foundation and Yale University to learn more.

How It Works – Extinction, Ecosystems, & Traffic Jams

These new illustrations by Sayo-Art for How It Works Magazine demonstrate the ways graphics and text can be integrated to create features that are simultaneously compelling and educational. SayoStudios works hard to create illustrations custom fit to your layout and space needs for text. Below, each image is shown by itself and then in the magazine layout, exhibiting how the client incorporated the artwork with the captions and labels. There are various ways images and text can enhance each other, and Sayo-Art can help by giving you the art as a framework to build upon, work the art around already formatted text, or insert and design the copy you provide.

Below is an illustration depicting the chain of events set off by the asteroid credited with killing the dinosaurs over 65.5 million years ago, sans any labels or supporting text.

The asteroid credited with killing the dinosaurs set off a long series of cataclysmic events. Modeled using Eon Vue and digitally painted with Adobe Photoshop for How It Works Magazine. © Nicolle Rager Fuller

And here it is within the magazine:

Sayo-Art works with each client to decide what illustration style best suits the particular topic. From the detailed, technical illustration demonstrating the science behind shock absorbers in cars:

To the more natural, but equally detailed illustration for the myriad connections within a pond ecosystem:

To view the full project of images in high quality please check out Sayo-Art’s portfolio website at: sayostudio.com. You can also like Sayo Art’s facebook page and follow on twitter: @SayoStudio.