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.

 

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.

Early Solar System Artwork in Science News Magazine

Early Solar System Cover Art

A cover and opener illustration for Science News article on the Gas Giants in the early days of our Solar System. © Nicolle Rager Fuller

Check-out the cover art and opener for the “Born Gas Giants” article in Science News Magazine, describing recent developments in our understanding of the solar system.

You can see more of the art up-close here: SayoStudio and read the Science News article written by Nadia Drake here (available for anyone to read now, but will only be available to subscribers once a new issue comes out): http://www.sciencenews.org.

The task was to create two illustrations, one for the cover and one for the opener, about updates to the Nice model (Nice as in Nice, France) which explains how the giant gas planets positioned themselves in our outer solar system. When the theory was first proposed in 2005 a few things were still left unexplained. The cover art focuses on a possible 5th outer planet, similar in size to Neptune and Uranus. Its presence helps explain how an early Earth’s trajectory was changed so that it didn’t go crashing into Venus. This extra gas planet played a dangerous dance with Saturn and Jupiter, eventually leading to it’s ejection from the solar system.

The opener feature art focuses on how the gas giants–Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus–were able to so quickly attain their size. This current theory postulates that 3-4.5 billion years ago the planets were much closer together, and they lacked the standard orbits they have today leading to a lot of jostling. As the early gas giants moved, they were able to collect the debris that were thickly distributed in the younger solar system, with Jupiter even stealing some that would otherwise have allowed Mars to become larger.

Career Talk: Finding Your Niche

Following Your Passions to Find your Niche; Career Talk at Lewis and Clark College

Sayo Studios: Protein Synthesis Inside a Eukaryote CellI’m excited to share my story of transition from science-geek to a science-art-geek-hybrid at my alma mater, Lewis and Clark College, on Friday the 13th (oooo) at 3:30pm. I’ll get to talk a little bit about combining two seemingly disparate subjects (why, science and art of course) and hopefully offer some inspiration to those searching for their own weird combination. On Saturday I’ll follow it up with an introductory workshop on 2d and 3d Digital art. If you’re an LC student find-out place, time and register here: college.lclark.edu/offices/alumni/saa/events/.

Career Talk N.R. Fuller Lewis & Clark

Career Talk from N.R. Fuller of Sayo-Art LLC on combining your passions and finding your niche at Lewis and Clark College, April 13th, 3:30.

In light of the upcoming talk, I’ve been contemplating how my career path may be applicable to those with differing interests. The more I think about it, the more I realize that career happiness on a day to to day basis (and thus success… but that’s a whole ‘nother post) is largely based on PROCESS. Yes, I’ve found a way to combine two subjects I’m interested in, but I’ve also found a job that suits my personality for day-to-day activities.

From a young age we’re encouraged to think in terms of subject matter, and the jobs that relate to those subjects (well, perhaps other than the Village People’s set of careers) . Often it’s not even related to what subjects you ENJOY, but instead focused on what you’re good at. Of course, what you’re good at and what you enjoy are often one in the same, but for those out there searching for their (next) career path I’d argue reassessment might be helpful based on a couple of other factors…) A few examples that have been relevant for me:Sayo Studios: An Asteroid Finds an Unlucky Dinosaur

  • Detail or Generalist? Are you detail oriented and like plenty of time for a thorough job (mildly anal-retentive), or like me are you a big picture person who wants a quick turn-around so you can be passionate about a project for a defined time, and then BE DONE (mildly messy, flighty, and easily bored)?
  • People Person? Do you thrive being part of a team, or are you content being a lone wolf (like me, which is why I may go days not talking to anyone other than my 2yr old and husband)?

I’ll stop with the comparisons before getting too myers-brigg-ish, but you get my point. In retrospect it’s pretty clear why a bench scientist job wasn’t my perfect fit. The ideals of science–like learning how things work–great! Doing it in a methodical way and daily troubleshooting why your results are unintelligible? Not the perfect fit… for me. You may have noticed in the bullet list I included some negative descriptions in parenthesis. I think we’re sometimes handicapped from seeing and truly understanding ourselves, because Sayo Studios: An Ocelot Hunts An Agouti in Panamawe’ve learned to equate a specific trait with the negative description rather than the positive (what, me messy?). If you can learn to consider the positive side, it may allow you to accept the direction of your true potential. I know, a lofty goal. On the flip side, if we can learn to accept the negative description as well, it’s easier to recognize potential pitfalls, AND easier to laugh at ourselves. (Here’s to trying!)

Since we’re discussing negativity, another hang-up that took me awhile to get past were my narrow definitions of different fields. When I was younger I definitely fell into the rigidly idealistic category. I didn’t see art as a viable option, because I saw it as a black and white choice between being a poor, misunderstood ‘true-artist’ (yet another post for another time), or a commercial artist whose career and work would be entirely dictated by others’ wants (commercial = bad, to my young brain). Obviously, my sweeping generalizations were way off, but moreover it kept me from really learning what the jobs entailed. I crept into the commercial art field through the side-door, and it wasn’t until I turned around and realized I WAS a graphic artist that I really understood what it was all about and what I really digged: visual problem solving and communicating and taking someone else’s story to depict it visually.

So I guess in the end, remember to reassess what your limits are… they may just be your strengths, and reconsider paths you might have initially rejected.