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Symbiartic

Symbiartic


The art of science and the science of art.
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Never met a scientific illustrator? Meet Carol.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Whenever I tell people that I’m a scientific illustrator, I get one of three responses:

1. No pulse: We’re flatlining here. Talking to an economist/I-banker and they could care less. One of us will awkwardly change the subject.
2. Honestly clueless: “A scientiffiwha… I’m sorry, what is that!?” Depending on how much they loved dinos as a kid, they’ll fall into one of the other two categories upon hearing my answer.
3. Super excited dino-science freak-out: “ZOINKS! A scientific illustrator at the University of Chicago?! Do you work for Paul Sereno?” Of course, the answer is no… but I’d like to introduce you to Paul Sereno’s illustrator. Her name is Carol Abraczinskas.

Carol Abraczinskas

Carol Abraczinskas on Tena Bar in Vancouver, WA. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Friedland, FBI)

Carol was the first scientific illustrator I ever met. She also taught the first scientific illustration course I ever took and introduced me to the fundamentals of illustrating for science. Her resume is as impressive as her work – she has a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has been working as a professional illustrator for 22 years. She is currently the Principal Scientific Illustrator in Paul Sereno’s lab at the University of Chicago. Her work has appeared in numerous peer-reviewed journals and popular magazines, on the covers of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Cladistics, Evolution, and The International Journal of Plant Sciences, and in exhibits at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Science and Industry. She has received numerous honors including the John J. Lanzendorf Paleoart Award for Scientific Illustration twice over and honorable mention once. And fun fact? In her spare time, she’s helping the FBI track the case of D.B. Cooper, the mysterious hijacker who jumped Bond-style from a plane 40 years ago never to be seen or heard from again.

I interviewed Carol over email in October, which is kind of ridiculous because she works in my department. But her office is separated from mine by four flights of stairs (up, duh) and my glutes are atrophied from living 11 years in the flat-as-a-pancake midwest, hmm-kay? But I digress. Without further ado (cue Kermit the Frog arm-waving and a big “yaaaaaaay!”)… Carol Abraczinskas!

When was the first time you realized you could combine science and art into a career?
I think that there were certain people in my life and particular moments that became important and together, steered me in the direction towards art and art school and finally, a career combining science and art. My grandmother, Marian Oleksy was a painter and she and I would work on art projects together and discuss art. When I was a freshman in high school, she and my mother asked me if I would take just one art class for them. If I didn’t like it, then I didn’t have to sign up for another class. It was then that I began to develop a serious interest in art.

I became a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the first time I think I remember science and art coming together, I had been taking a figure drawing class and the instructor kept telling me that I needed to draw on a larger scale. She also wanted me to “get aggressive” in my drawing style, draw more freely, and to not be afraid to get my clothes dirty and the paper dirty. I had always drawn in a clean, tight, precise style so I abandoned my current style and eventually broke out and learned to draw on a very large scale (maybe 9 feet by 5 feet) but I was never really comfortable with it, and ultimately returned to the tight, precise work that I enjoyed. It was then that she suggested that I might want to look into taking a scientific illustration course that the school offered.

Another significant moment also occurred during art school. I was in the middle of a studio drawing class when two Chicago police detectives walked into the room. They spoke with the instructor and were interested in hiring an illustrator to produce some drawings of a victim that had been tortured and killed here in the city. They knew what had happened to the victim, but because it was extremely complicated, they were looking for a series of drawings to clarify the murder for court purposes. I saw the opportunity as very unique and a chance to make a difference. It was an opportunity to help someone, where the art really meant something. I wanted the job but wasn’t chosen. The detectives made the right decision in selecting another student in the class who was extremely talented, much better than me. It was the first time that an unusual, paid opportunity presented itself, and it was a situation where I realized that one could combine science and art (and in this case, law) into a possible career. It just wasn’t the exact path I ended up taking.

Anatoshuchus minor dentary

Dentary of the crocodyliform Anatosuchus minor. Pencil drawing of mid-section of the left dentary including alveoli 7-14 (MNN GAD18). A, Dorsal view. B,Ventral view (reversed). Dashed lines indicate estimated edges; hatching indicates broken surface; double-dash pattern indicates matrix. Scale bar equals 1 cm. Abbreviations: ad7, 12, alveolus of dentary tooth 7, 12; asp, articular surface for splenial; d14, dentary tooth 14; fo, foramen; Mc, Meckel’s canal; sh, shelf.

You were the first illustrator I know to make the distinction between being an “illustrator” rather than an “artist.” Do you still make such a distinction in regards to your work? Why or why not?
I do make the distinction between “illustrator” and “artist” and I think that idea stems from my days in art school where everybody was an artist. One would always state what kind of artist they were – painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, illustrator, etc. We were all artists, so it seemed redundant at the time to refer to someone else as one. If I do refer to someone as an “artist” it is the artist in the classical sense – usually a painter who works in oils, paints exactly what they want to paint, and lives solely off of their paintings. They produce in their studio, actively participate in gallery shows and have no other income except from their fine art. Actually, I know of only one person personally in the city who fits this description. To me, that’s the real definition of an artist.

I remember you showing our sci-ill class a stipple you did for the cover of a JVP and asking us to find the mistake (one dot was missing). Assuming this kind of mistake happens rarely, if ever, (grin!!) does it bother you that due to the nature of science, some of your illustrations are now riddled with what we now know are errors?
I remember the illustration well. It was a stipple pen-and-ink reconstruction of the left lateral view of Stegosaurus stenops that was published on the cover of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology in 1992. My boss had a manuscript in the journal at the time, and we were asked to submit a drawing for the cover. Our drawing was selected. We eventually received a copy of the journal in the mail at the office, and when I ripped off the packaging and saw the cover I exclaimed something like, “Aw! I missed a dot!” Everyone laughed but I was completely serious. There was one tiny spot on the drawing that had too much white and needed just one dot to visually smooth out the area. It bothered me forever and I went back to the original and filled in the area with a stipple. It wasn’t a mistake per se, but merely an unfinished drawing by one dot. I think it is a great example and a learning tool for my students in understanding the importance of the placement of every single stipple, and it also is a terrific test of a student’s observational skills. I always show that drawing and tell that story at the beginning of my scientific illustration course, and no one can find the spot for the missing dot. By the end of the class, however, it has become obvious to every student.

Abraczinskas JVP cover

Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 1992 cover illustration of the reconstruction of the skull of Stegosaurus stenops in left lateral view. Ink on paper. Abraczinskas uses this as a teaching tool in her scientific illustration class because it is missing one dot. Can you spot it? (answer at the end of the post)

I can think of one drawing though, that I produced where a mistake was made and it wasn’t realize until after the drawing was published. It was a weighted-line drawing reconstruction of a left lateral view of a skull and my boss and I had been going back and forth trying to locate the exact placement of the premaxillary/maxillary suture. We were extremely confident about all of it except a tiny portion that disappeared into an area of broken surface. One day we’d place the suture in one position and the next day we’d change our minds and with some hesitancy, put it in the other position. It was only a few millimeters of suture, but it was important and we hemmed and hawed over it for a long time. Eventually we made as confident a decision as possible, and the drawings were submitted for publication. A month or two after the work was published, we located that particular part of the suture on another specimen. We had chosen wrong. Looking back, I should have drawn a couple of dashes in place of the questionable suture area. It was painful, but it happens.

You have worked with Paul (Sereno) for 22 years now. Can you describe the process you usually go through when preparing an illustration?
Well, I don’t get to choose what I draw. I’m handed a group of specimens with some accompanying notes and the name of the journal the manuscript will be submitted to. My boss selects the views he’d like me to draw based on which particular areas of the specimens are important to his work or need clarification. He selects the figure order that best compliments his paper and a deadline is communicated. I’m usually given a dozen or so plates of drawings to start with, but as the illustrations and manuscript progress, other ideas come about or a particular drawing may promote further discussion and together we usually decide to add additional views. The latest paper I’m working on started out with 30 plates and has grown to 100.

Araripsesuchus dentary

Left dentary of the crocodyliform Araripesuchus rattoides sp. n. Pencil drawing of isolated left dentary ramus lacking teeth (UCRC PV3). A, Dorsal view. B,Ventral view. C, Medial view. Dashed lines indicate estimated edges; hatching indicates broken surface; double-dash pattern indicates matrix. Scale bar equals 1 cm. Abbreviations: ad1, 4, 5, 8, alveoli for dentary tooth 1, 4, 5, 8; asp, articular surface for the splenial; fen, fenestra; fo, foramen; sym, symphysis.

Any artists/illustrators inspire you?
The artists that inspire me are artists whose work happens to be the complete opposite from mine. Surprisingly, none are illustrators, but true artists (and an artist/photographer) in the classical sense. Vik Muniz has been a favorite for years. He produces really clever, intricate work and is always evolving in interesting ways. I’m a huge fan of British street artist Banksy. Painter Jenny Saville and chewing gum artist, Jason Kronewald are also favorites.

What’s your favorite medium?
Pencil. Always pencil. I really prefer how a scientific specimen looks when drawn with a great range of tone.

Pachycephalosaur tooth

Pencil drawing of an undescribed, isolated Pachycephalosaur tooth #130318. A, Labial view. B, Lingual view. Hatching indicates broken surface. Scale bar equals 5 mm.

What’s your illustration pet peeve?
Sometimes I’ll begin designing a series of plates of drawings for a particular publication, and then we’ll ultimately decide to submit them to another journal that has different requirements. I never begin a drawing without knowing which journal it is going to because things like overall layout size, number of columns, and font type will change. If a drawing is completed for one journal and then is going to be submitted to another, I’ve got to redo a bunch of work. The drawing never turns out as well as when it is designed for a specific journal from the very beginning. A pet peeve, but it’s just the nature of the job.

In your experience, did art school prepare you for the business end of making a career as an artist? Any advice for the young’uns out there?
Surprisingly, looking back, I never thought about or worried about what I would do after art school, career wise. I was never concerned with how I would make money at art, or IF I would make money at art. I went to art school only because I was interested in it. I hope there are more business classes available for the student artist today. When I was in school, there was just a simple class that was required, but it involved more of the fine art aspect of art as a business – how to approach galleries, how to write an impressive résumé cover letter for a gallery, etc. and not the career side of art. I went through art school at a time when no one used a computer so everything had to be done the hard way. There was a small computer lab at the time (maybe 6 stations), but it was required that one had to be a registered design student to gain access, of which I was not. It seems like things are so much easier today.

Hmmm…art advice? If one is interested in a career in art, keep your mind open to unusual and interesting opportunities as you never know what path they may lead you down. Go with your gut and do what makes you happy. And when it doesn’t make you happy anymore, make a change – without fear or hesitation.

Heterodontosaurid dentary

Left dentary of an undescribed heterodontosaurid from the Lower Jurassic Kayenta Formation of Arizona (from Sereno et al. unpublished). A, Lateral view. B, Medial view. Dashed lines indicate estimated edges; hatching indicates broken surface; double-dash pattern indicates matrix. Scale bar equals 5 mm.

Finally, you’ve been in the news a lot lately, but for something far from paleontology… how did you become involved in the investigation of the 70′s hijacker known as D.B. Cooper?
I became involved in the D.B. Cooper case three years ago while attending a meeting for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Cleveland, Ohio. A friend of mine, Tom Kaye had been contacted by the case agent at the time, FBI Special Agent Larry Carr out of the Seattle office. Larry, who was the Bank Robbery Coordinator, was looking for a creative way to allow the case to continue being worked on without using government funds. In bank robberies, the details of the case are given to the public with the hope that information is brought back. Tom began assembling a small team of people to work with him on the case, myself as well as metallurgist Alan Stone from Aston Metallurgical Services. Our group was invited to examine the evidence in the case at the FBI in Seattle.

[FYI, Carol's contribution to the 40-year-old mystery of a skydiving hijacker, D.B. Cooper can be found at Citizen Sleuths. It's been hot in the news lately - read articles in the National Post, The Oregonian, The TODAY show, CNN video, and KVAL.com.]

Links ‘n schtuff:

“Artists help push science forward” – a University of Chicago feature on Carol and yours truly

“Scientific illustrator works Egyptology, forensics on the side” – A University of Chicago feature on Carol

ResearchBlogging.org

Sereno, P., & Larsson, H. (2009). Corrigenda: Sereno PC, Larsson HCE (2009) Cretaceous Crocodyliforms from the Sahara. ZooKeys 28: 1–143. ZooKeys, 29 DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.29.368

Sereno, P.C., & Dong, Z. (1992). The skull of the basal stegosaur Huayangosaurus taibaii and a cladistic diagnosis of Stegosauria Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 12 (15), 318-343

JVP cover closeup

Close-up of the missing stipple on Abraczinskas' Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology cover.

Kalliopi Monoyios About the Author: Kalliopi Monoyios is an independent science illustrator. She has illustrated several popular science books including Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within, and Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Find her at www.kalliopimonoyios.com. Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. makinaro 11:27 am 11/30/2011

    Great piece! People may scoff at the stipple, but now that she pointed it out, I can’t unsee it. Even without the close-up.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Symbiartic.km 12:26 pm 11/30/2011

    Thanks, makinaro! I know – it’s amazing how once you see it, it just pesters you.

    Link to this
  3. 3. h. gillespie | biocreativity 3:26 pm 12/1/2011

    Yay! Thanks Kalliopi for this great interview! If anyone wants to meet even more science illustrators I’ve got interviews with three in a row on my ECO Art + Science series on the biocreativity blog (a blog about the intersection of art + the biological sciences). Check it out!

    http://biocreativity.wordpress.com/eco-art-science-series/

    Thanks for the great blog – I love reading Symbiartic!

    Link to this
  4. 4. Glendon Mellow 7:53 am 12/6/2011

    I really love Carol’s definitions of “artist”. The term is mostly redundant, and the typical oil painter is often what most people mean. Or, in my experience, self-described “artists” are often poets who like video editing and paint occasionally without any direction.

    Old-school stippling! Awesome! I agree, now I can’t un-see the missing stipple.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Julia Morgan-Scott 10:04 pm 12/7/2011

    Good to know I’m not the only person left doing real pen stippling, not to mention pencils. Pencil and pen have a liveliness and beautiful texture that computer drawing can never achieve.

    I find stippling very relaxing, sort of like knitting or doing embroidery. Yeah, I want to go in there and plunk down that missing dot right now. LOL.

    A great article! Symbiartic is on my Art Blog list now and I’ll definitely be back to read more.

    Link to this
  6. 6. katana 9:32 am 12/11/2011

    This is an excellent article! I’ve not a shred of artistic talent personally, but I have always admired the illustrations that were detailed and accurate. I didn’t even know about stippling for illustrative purposes, but I completely understand how that one missing dot felt. I suspect it’s the same way any of us feel when we notice a tiny technical error in our (finally-published) manuscripts that have made it through countless peers and editors before seeing the light of day. Others may laugh or tell you you’re being OCD, but I actually greatly appreciate how much you care about the quality and accuracy of your work! THANK YOU.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Ausktribosphenos 5:02 pm 12/15/2013

    Fantastic stuff! As an aspiring Scientific Illustrator, this is right up my alley.

    Link to this

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