Creating Art When You Don’t Know How To

Inspired by my friends Cindy and Eric, I’m learning to create art. The last time I put pen to paper for artistic study was in high school (hi sophomore art class). This is probably my fourth or fifth attempt to do learn how to make art in the last decade through lesson plans or tutorials, with ended in failure. My last visit to an art supply store was an avalanche of colored pencils and paper types and paints and tempera and markers–so many tools that I don’t know how to use, all of them daunting. I have no idea how to art, so how do I start learning what I don’t know?

I started with what I know. And if you want to learn to make art but are also feeling uncertain, overwhelmed, or terrified by the thought of creating art, starting with what you know (instead of a specific book or tutorial) might be the right path for you too.

While I haven’t created art of any kind in years, I have been making creative decisions my whole life. You have too. An artistic decision is everything from choosing the color of our clothes to picking what music to listen to after a rough day at work to simply choosing to touch the bark of a tree. You’re making a decision to experience a feeling in that moment. That is a creative act in your life, even if it doesn’t make art that others can enjoy. So we are all creative.

Some of my most recent creative decisions have been in figure-making for academic journals, which might sounds boring (but stick with me). During my PhD I published two research articles that required not just figures showing data, but also schematics of what was going on at the molecular level. Creating these schematics isn’t entirely standardized, leaving room for artistic leeway. I ended up spending a lot of hours in Illustrator and Powerpoint building these schematics, not just for my research articles but also for presentations I gave on my work. This mostly consisted of arranging shapes and colors in a way that conveyed information but wasn’t painful to look at (seriously, lemon yellow will never look good on a projector). These each creative decisions, though I didn’t think of it at the time.

So for my first artistic endeavor, I started with something I know: my thesis work. Below is an artistic interpretation of what I discovered with my thesis work.

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There are things I would change (and certainly a few things that are ‘scientifically inaccurate’) but overall I’m pretty happy with it. Here are some close-ups:

One of the biggest challenges (besides having to give up some scientific accuracy to artistic license) was figuring out what colors to use on the sketch. My previous experiences with color in this world have primarily come from 1) clothing choice, 2) creating Powerpoint documents and scientific figures, and 3) identifying plants and mushrooms. None of those translate super-well to watercolor pencils, so I took one of the sheets in my notebook and broke it into boxes to test color patterns for each part of the sketch. I then tested the final color palette on the other side:

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Though it takes an extra piece of paper, this method was invaluable for seeing what colors look like next to each other (which does change) and I can keep it for subsequent projects, so I’ll count that as a technique learned!

I’ll let you know what I make next.

Natalie

 

What I learned by starting this blog

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The endless sea of ideas beyond the bramble of writers’ block

Hey reader!

It’s been a while since a post, hasn’t it? I’ve learned a few things in starting this blog that I want to share with you below because I’d wager a lot of people face similar problems. If you’ve been stalled on your blogging/writing, I give you 100% permission to borrow this post, blame it on one the problems below, and start anew:

  1. Writing what you know well isn’t always the easiest. You get bogged down in the details and you want it to be perfect. This is compounded in academia because you worry about the balance between reaching people outside of academia and those who might read it in the academic circle. To make blogging easier, begin with subjects you know some about and you won’t be dragged down into the deep details. Yes, sometimes you’ll write things that won’t make sense later or might be wrong, but that’s FINE. We learn nothing by venturing nothing.
  2. Don’t feel beholden to a post you said you’d do, and you can always postpone a post to later. This is a hard one for me because I feel strongly about commitments and following through. It’s the same feeling that gives us anxiety when we leave an email unanswered for what we think is ‘too long’ or haven’t posted on a blog in a while. You feel like you’re letting your audience down, whether it’s one person or a million people. But you don’t owe the internet anything—you’re a free person.
  3. This is an extension of 3, but it’s important to say on its own: write what you want. The easiest way to kill a blog is by having writing ideas but putting them aside because you “said you’d do” a specific post next. Likewise if you’re writing just for likes/favorites/exposure. It’s going to feel like an awful chore if you don’t write about what you want, so write about what you’re interested in, what you want to learn about, what won’t leave your mind. Get your thoughts out into the world.

So I’m holding off on writing in-depth about my PhD work for now. But I also didn’t want to be beholden to #1, so I wrote you a six-sentence summary of what I did in my PhD. Is it perfect? No. But it is:

As I described in the previous post, if we want to use living systems (organisms, cells) as technology, we want them to work as expected because we can’t rely on them if they don’t. One of the biggest problems is that most of life uses the same genetic code, so engineered cells can pick up genetic information from the environment that messes with their intended function. It’s as if we were all running the same version of Windows; you could install a program on any of our systems and it would run–including viruses and malicious code. To solve this problem, my PhD showed that changing the genetic code of an engineered cell makes it harder for genetic information in the environment to mess with the cell’s function, making it more stable. It was like we modified the “operating system” in our engineered cells, making it harder for malicious pieces of genetic information such as viruses to infect. In the future, we can change the genetic code in living systems to ensure they work as expected, bringing applications of biotechnology and synthetic biology closer to realization.

What will I write about next? We’ll see what I feel like, although posts will probably remain infrequent while we travel around the world (more on that here). One of the big projects I want to do over the next year is learn the physics of aerodynamics and orbital mechanics, partly because both of these are really important for space travel and partly to dispel the persistent myth that you can’t transition from “softer sciences” to “harder sciences” later in life. Anyone should be able to learn anything regardless of their background.