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.

 

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.