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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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.