Finished Bocas ARTS work!

I have officially finished all the work from my project in Panama! This latest set of illustrations contains some of my favorite work to date. 

I'm excited to have been able to take this project. Panama is an incredible country, I got to meet and work with amazing scientists, and I drew things I'd never have drawn otherwise. To see more images I created for the project, check out the full gallery here

This will probably be the last big portfolio update for 2016, but I have some more big projects on the horizon--stay tuned!

--Meghan

PORTFOLIO UPDATE!

FINALLY! I've just completed the first set of illustrations from my Panama project with STRI. The Bocas ARTS project has been incredible to work on, and I've had fantastic colleagues to work with on it! I'm happy to say that this round of images is finished. The phyla this set of illustrations covers includes sponges, sea anemones, and tunicates. 

If you'd like to look at them in full, here's the new portfolio category

Here's a slideshow of the work so far. In a few months I hope to add on the other groups we are working on, including hydrozoans, nemerteans, and algae!

I hope you guys enjoy them! I learned so much about these groups while I worked on these. Which one is your favorite? I think my favorite is the sea anemone cutaway! 

The Field Station: a Science Illustrator's Schedule

In the last week and a half I think I've done more science illustrations than in the last six months. My daily schedule here is pretty intense.

Around 7:30 my alarm gets me up. Some mornings I'm tired from a late night in lab and I might sleep in until 9, but on days when I have a colleague waiting for me I'm out the door and on to the dining hall. I grab a quick breakfast of toast with goat cheese or cereal with trail mix and then I'm off to the lab.

The view from the dining hall--at lunch there are often iguanas sunning themselves and a nest of some kind of white, long-necked birds that are busy grooming.  

The view from the dining hall--at lunch there are often iguanas sunning themselves and a nest of some kind of white, long-necked birds that are busy grooming.  

In the lab I check my list for the day and who I'll be working with. Often my colleagues are out in the field diving in the morning so the night before we've gone over what I'll be doing and where my specimens/files to review are. A key part of most mornings is going over preliminary drawings so I can nail down the subject for a more in-depth piece in the afternoon.

Preliminary drawing for several illustrations I needed to do with this organism--Xestospongia bocatorensis. 

Preliminary drawing for several illustrations I needed to do with this organism--Xestospongia bocatorensis. 

Preliminary drawings are a step I sometimes want to skip but I always regret not doing them. You can send yourself down the wrong path if you don't take time to study and make notes bfore starting on a larger piece. There have been several times on this trip alone where my preliminary work gave me new ideas for how to show a structure in an illustration or a new view to try.

For lunch I like to take a longer break and make something hot (usually with lots of greens, as the local catering service we have for dinner can't always get fresh greens in our area) and then I contemplate what's still on the docket for the afternoon. For most of our trip there's been a puzzle in the dining hall for all of us at the field station to work on, and that is a good way to take a break from drawing.

We finally finished the puzzle last night! But now I have nothing to do. Rats! 

We finally finished the puzzle last night! But now I have nothing to do. Rats! 

In the afternoon I'm back to the lab to start in on the meat of my illustration work. The majority of my work here so far has been traditional pencil or pen on paper, just because my set up for digital art mostly stayed at home. I spend about 4 hours working in the afternoon, with various breaks to get water or go grab something else from the sea tables. 

Yesterday afternoon's work was pretty complicated and I had to learn a bunch of new terms to figure out this illustration of different sponge families. 

Yesterday afternoon's work was pretty complicated and I had to learn a bunch of new terms to figure out this illustration of different sponge families. 

Usually my head PI will stop by with at least one interesting bit of wildlife to go see around the campus around 5 as dusk hits and a whole new swath of creatures come out from the forest and the lagoon. Sometimes I take my time between wildlife-watching and dinner to myself, but often I'm back to the lab to try and get something done. 

A three-toed sloth hanging from the branches of a tree. It was pretty fun to watch this guy and I was glad of the break from drawing anemone mesentery arrangements.

A three-toed sloth hanging from the branches of a tree. It was pretty fun to watch this guy and I was glad of the break from drawing anemone mesentery arrangements.

Dinner is a great affair. For our grant we decided to have one meal a day catered, at dinner, and it means all of us get back together and talk about the day and what needs to get done the next day. It really fosters the group camaraderie and it's nice to catch up on what happened and what everyone else did. 

After dinner it's usually back to lab for another 2-3 hours of work. Depending on what I've gotten done I might be able to knock off early, but often I'm reviewing illustrations with my colleagues to see what changes I have to make and figuring out my to-do list for the next morning.

This drawing was pretty complicated to figure out and took most of the day. My final step for the night was to draw in some more realistic tentacles. 

This drawing was pretty complicated to figure out and took most of the day. My final step for the night was to draw in some more realistic tentacles. 

Finally, around 10 or 11 I'm off to my bedroom. It's a long day but after a week and a half of work, I have a LOT to show for the stuff I've done. I have around 45 pages of lab notes and preliminary drawings from the camera lucida, and a whole stack of more finalized pieces.

When I get home, you can bet I'm gonna need a day of napping and relaxation.  

What is your work schedule like when you've got a big project?  

Creature Feature Friday: PANAMA!

My first view of Panama from my airplane (although this is near Panama City, and the island I'm on is on basically the opposite end of the country) was kind of foggy but beautiful! 

My first view of Panama from my airplane (although this is near Panama City, and the island I'm on is on basically the opposite end of the country) was kind of foggy but beautiful! 

Guys. I have a confession.  

My much talked about trip has arrived and I'm in Panama! 

That's not the confession. The confession is that I could not, for the life of me, narrow down my choices for today's Creature Feature (and I'm a day late because work is all-consuming at a field station).

So TA DA THESE ARE THE THINGS I HAVE SEEN SO FAR! I'm here at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute field station in Bocas del Toro and everything I've seen is new and fantastic to me. If it wasn't so hot and humid, I would perhaps never go home. (But it is hot and humid, so don't worry, people that are taking care of my pets while I'm gone, I will definitely be coming home.)

Choloepus didactylus is the scientific name for this two-toed sloth. They are even cuter in person. If you can believe that. (Seriously. They are.)

Choloepus didactylus is the scientific name for this two-toed sloth. They are even cuter in person. If you can believe that. (Seriously. They are.)

 

Tree frogs abound!

Frog I still haven't identified, but OMG SO PRETTY! That bright coloration is usually a warning, so no, I didn't touch him while trying to get this image. 

Frog I still haven't identified, but OMG SO PRETTY! That bright coloration is usually a warning, so no, I didn't touch him while trying to get this image. 

Literally more geckos than I can swing a bat at!

This teeeeeeny tiny gecko was in my room and I ushered him gently outside, but when I returned from dinner he was back. I have since declared him my roommate and named him Alfredo. There's another slightly larger gecko outside my room that I am naming Linguini if he continues to hang around.  

This teeeeeeny tiny gecko was in my room and I ushered him gently outside, but when I returned from dinner he was back. I have since declared him my roommate and named him Alfredo. There's another slightly larger gecko outside my room that I am naming Linguini if he continues to hang around.  

Stick bugs! This guy was about 24 cm from stick antenna to stick butt! 

Stick bugs! This guy was about 24 cm from stick antenna to stick butt! 

Pederson's shrimp (Ancylomenes pedersoni) is STUPIDLY cute with its googly eyes. This specimen was collected by someone on our trip for his PhD research. (Thanks Ben, for letting me take some photos of this little dude!) 

Pederson's shrimp (Ancylomenes pedersoniis STUPIDLY cute with its googly eyes. This specimen was collected by someone on our trip for his PhD research. (Thanks Ben, for letting me take some photos of this little dude!) 

The little mangrove fiddler crabs are so amazing! I kept trying to figure out what I was seeing out of the corner of my eye and then finally realized it was these dudes! 

The little mangrove fiddler crabs are so amazing! I kept trying to figure out what I was seeing out of the corner of my eye and then finally realized it was these dudes! 

And then the creatures that I'm here to draw! The last two days I've been working on tunicates, a very interesting phylum because of their close relation to our phyla, the vertebrates.  

And then the creatures that I'm here to draw! The last two days I've been working on tunicates, a very interesting phylum because of their close relation to our phyla, the vertebrates.  

Seriously my area in Panama is jam packed with creatures I haven't seen before (both terrestrial and marine) and it's been incredible.

I've been trying to identify stuff that I have found here, but to no avail can I find a "Field Guide" for reptiles or amphibians or insects here at the station. Next time I will come more prepared! 

So do you lovely readers recognize any of these? I'd love to learn more and have some names to go with my images! 

Panama: T-Minus One Month!

I'm officially less than a month away from my trip to Panama. (Insert me screaming on the inside here!)

I'm busy getting my art supplies ready, packing sun screen, and figuring out my blog schedule while I'm away. 

One question my taxonomists had is what they needed to bring for me, and it got me thinking this would be a great blog post for you all!

First the don'ts: 

Don't ask me to copy an existing diagram. This is against copyright laws and is illegal (except in a very few special circumstances). I can take inspiration in the layout, the way the original artist rendered the subject, and how the data is presented, but I can't reproduce someone else's diagram in good conscience. 

And the do's:

I love when my scientist collaborators have though about and can answer the following three questions!

  1. What does the illustration need to convey? A specific character trait or the set up for your lab equipment? 
  2. What does your ideal illustration look like? Do you want something classic and stippled or a modern digital drawing?
  3. What materials do you find yourself referring to when you have to present on the subject? Do you use big sweeping diagrams of a life cycle or a specific photograph of your lab equipment? 

Keep this in mind when you're looking to have an artist illustrate something for your research!

What do you ask your illustrators when you're looking for scientific illustration work?

Creature Feature Friday: Paper Nautilus Edition

A few years ago my older brother came across the paper nautilus in one of the news sites he follows on a list of cool animals and immediately sent me the link. Since then, they've always been a particular favorite of mine in the cephalopod clade.

This is from my dad's college zoology course in 1957. It is one of my favorite books of all time, because it has fantastic (and classic) science illustrations. This is figure 23-16, "Class Cephalopoda. Loligo, squid; Sepia, cuttlefish; Argonauta, paper nautilus; Octopus, octopus. Variously reduced."

This is from my dad's college zoology course in 1957. It is one of my favorite books of all time, because it has fantastic (and classic) science illustrations. This is figure 23-16, "Class Cephalopoda. Loligo, squid; Sepia, cuttlefish; Argonauta, paper nautilus; Octopus, octopus. Variously reduced."

And last week for my birthday, I decided to see if I could get myself a paper nautilus shell. I managed to find an Argonauta hians shell on Etsy, actually. It arrived this Friday and it is truly a thing of beauty. It will definitely be a treasured addition to my specimen collection. [Ed. note: I usually don't purchase or collect shells, but I don't live in an area where I could easily comb the beach to try and find one of my own. Lake Michigan foils me again.]

Naturally, I knew one of the CFF blog entries would HAVE to focus on them at some point!

A page of the argonaut shell studies

A page of the argonaut shell studies

  1. The shell is secreted only by the female octopuses and is used as an egg case. Recently, however, in situ observations of living female Argonauta shows they actively capture air at the surface and then dive deep using the air to make themselves neutrally buoyant at depth. This is especially important when the female has a clutch of developing eggs in her shell and thus more mass. (J.K. Finn and M.D. Norman, 2010. "The argonaut shell: gas-mediated buoyancy control in a pelagic octopus.")
  2. The females of this species have been known since ancient times, but male argonauts were only described in the 19th century. They do not secrete a shell and can be as little as 1/600th of the female's weight. (J.K. Finn and M.D. Norman, 2010. "The argonaut shell: gas-mediated buoyancy control in a pelagic octopus.")
  3. The argonauts are a classic example of convergent evolution. Octopuses and chambered nautiluses evolved from a common shelled ancestor. Over the course of its evolution the octopus lineage has lost the ancestral shell. Over its evolution, the paper nautilus has secondarily evolved a secreted external shell. And it is convergent because the shape of the shell is superficially very similar to the shell of a chambered nautilus and serves the same function as the chambered nautilus shell. This shows how evolutionary pressures can lead two creatures to develop a trait that appears superficially similar. (Helen Scales, 2015. Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells)

And finally, the art! My watercolored version of my new, absolutely beautiful shell!

Incorrectly labeled "Argonauta argo"–should be "Argonauta hians"

Incorrectly labeled "Argonauta argo"–should be "Argonauta hians"

What do you want to see featured next week? I'm thinking it might be cicada time! Leave a comment with your ideas.

Lab Notebook Tips: the Nitty Gritty

My astronomy teacher in high school was a complete autocrat about scale for all his diagrams and all our student illustrations on tests (he'd mark you down for doing a drawing and not adding "Not to scale"!). In his field, this makes a lot of sense. 

Without the note on scale, someone looking at a drawing of the earth, moon, and sun for the first time could think they're all nearly the same size and VERY close together.  

Without the note on scale, someone looking at a drawing of the earth, moon, and sun for the first time could think they're all nearly the same size and VERY close together.  

I owe him a great deal, because his vehemence has always stuck with me. And it feeds pretty well into my topic today: the nitty gritty of lab notebooks.

That's right, all the potentially unexciting data that has to be recorded along with your more engaging observations.

This includes: 

  1. Scale, or size, usually demarcated in meters, kilometers, milimeters depending on subject

  2. Date and time–especially important for time-sensitive phenomena like tides, embryonic development, and long duration experiments

  3. Temperature/atmospheric conditions–more important for field notes than laboratory notes, though to some extent embryonic development can be temperature dependent

If you have to improvise measuring some of these, that's okay! For scale you can use coins in your pocket or how tall something was relative to yourself (I even know someone who had a scale bar in centimeters tattooed on the side of his forefinger so he would never be without a ruler!)

As for temperature and atmospheric conditions, even a note like "hot as hell and cloudy" is better than nothing for your field notes! If you've included the date and time you can also always go back and add in exact temperature after checking the weather reports for that area.

Scale bars here put in perspective a larval sea urchin and an adult sea urchin. Date, time, and temperature are quite important even in lab situations when there's larval or embryonic development going on.  

Scale bars here put in perspective a larval sea urchin and an adult sea urchin. Date, time, and temperature are quite important even in lab situations when there's larval or embryonic development going on.  

The reason to take these notations? You risk not remembering these things later, but more importantly, another person who wasn't there with you wouldn't know this background info. There may be key details in the weather or the size of your subject that you don't know yet are key!

Next week on Lab Notebook Tips: tips for drawing!

Do you have something you want featured in the Lab Notebook Tips? Leave a comment! 

Creature Feature Friday: The Great Horned Owl

Hey all!

Today I'm doing a native to my area (Chicago) species: the great horned owl, Bubo virginianus. 

I grew up surrounded by owl-related art and books because they are my dad's favorite animal. When Claire (my art student) and I were at the Trailside Natural History Museum in River Forest we were lucky enough to be able to see several owl species, but this guy was the most awake when we went.

Some cool facts: 

  1. Their patterning isn't just beautiful, it serves a purpose. The barred stripes and lighter belly with a darker back help prevent prey from seeing them among tree branches.
  2. Great horned owls roost earlier than almost all other raptors in their habitat range. Courtship will begin as early as October! So if you're looking to see owlets you can expect them earlier than other species in your area, though exact timing of egg-laying will depend on the particular area you're in (Nature Conservancy website).
  3. The eye disc feathers serve two purposes: to protect and cover the ear holes, but also channel sound into their ears (Golden Field Guide, 1983 ed., p. 174)

Here's the field drawing I did while we were at Trailside: 

And then for my birthday I decided to make some owl-related art (which you may have seen on my art blog on Wednesday!):

owletry.jpg

If you'd like to download a mobile/desktop a background of this, see this post for more info!

That's it for this week's Creature Feature Friday! What do you love about owls?

Creature Feature Friday: The Axolotl

Welcome to Creature Feature Friday!

Today we are talking about the Axolotl–also known as Ambystoma mexicanum or the Mexican Walking Fish–and it's a doozy. 

It started last week when I was working on a piece for my friend's birthday. She LOVES the axolotl (and Dia de los Muertos, which you'll see when I show you my fine art piece) and I'm fascinated. 

Some cool facts before I get to the sketch and art: 

  1. The axolotl is one of the few amphibians that reaches adulthood without going through any metamorphoses–it keeps its gills and larval form rather than growing lungs and becoming land-born (reference). 
  2. Axolotls are used today as a model organism because they're easy to breed in captivity, they have very easily manipulated embryos (scientists can see full development of the vertebrae), and they have a neural tube formation and closure very similar to humans (reference).
  3. Saving the best for last: axolotls are of incredible interest for scientists because they can regenerate limbs! In some cases they have even regrown less vital parts of their brains without issue and the ability to regenerate perfectly is NOT affected by age (reference). 

Some lab notebook-type drawings. I find their gills beautiful and tricky to capture. 

And then the art! 

In the tradition of Dia de los Muertos, marigolds are a flower left at altars for the deceased and entrances to graveyards. The Dahlia is also significant for Mexican culture; in 1963 it was declared the national flower of Mexico.

In the tradition of Dia de los Muertos, marigolds are a flower left at altars for the deceased and entrances to graveyards. The Dahlia is also significant for Mexican culture; in 1963 it was declared the national flower of Mexico.

This beautiful piece also lets me tell you something exciting:

I NOW HAVE A SHOP!

You can buy art prints of my work as well as cool things like phone cases and leggings! 

Do you have a favorite creature you'd like to see me feature? Leave a comment and I'll be sure to add it to the list! 

The Magical Blue Lead

I'm a big fan of a lot of different art supplies, but perhaps the one that has made the biggest change in the way I create illustrations is the magical blue lead.

Oh magical pencil lead, how I love you!

Oh magical pencil lead, how I love you!

I cannot say enough good things about this product. 

The reasons I love it so much?

  • it erases REALLY well
  • when I'm trying to figure out how to draw my subject I don't get overwhelmed by the mess of scribbles
  • it doesn't compete with whatever ink/watercolor I might lay over it. 
  • this is purely aesthetic, but I like the technical feel it gives the in progress work
This is an alpaca skull I drew for a project I had–I was hoping to better understand what an alpaca's skull looks like under all that fluff they have.

This is an alpaca skull I drew for a project I had–I was hoping to better understand what an alpaca's skull looks like under all that fluff they have.

Here you can see that the blue line work around it is faint, but it gave me an excellent feel for where my ink lines needed to go.

If there is one piece of equipment I recommend for every lab student, it's a mechanical pencil filled with this lead! 

Panama!

Do you ever have a project you're so excited about that you're afraid if you talk about it or even think about it that it will somehow magically go up in smoke?

This is me and Panama, guys.

To start the story, a little over a year ago I was contacted by a friend of a friend about going to Bocas del Toro, Panama, and helping create an educator's taxonomy guide to six of the more cryptic phyla. Naturally, I said, "Yes, I'd love to," as calmly as possible while trying not to jump up and down screaming.

But the problem was it was an NSF grant we were applying for. I drafted my price quote for the grant and with a lot of work from our PI and all the participating taxonomists the grant application got sent off into the bureaucratic black hole* that so many other NSF grants go off into. Last December I got the news that it looked like we were in the clear with our grant and we would be leaving for Panama in the near future!

Naturally, when you're trying to arrange for six working taxonomists, a videographer, and a science illustrator to travel from all over the world to the same remote field station, it takes a lot longer than expected to figure out the details. But may the fates bless Rachel Collin, our fearless leader and PI, because she has done just that.

Fast forward to today: I've spent the last two months in paperwork purgatory (and again bless Rachel Collin and her lab manager, because they've been trying to get me through paperwork purgatory) and it looks like all my ducks should be in a row any day now.

Which leads me to feel like I can finally talk about going to Panama without feeling like it will fall through in the next breath. We even have a website for the project!

The Bocas ARTS Project

I have my plane tickets! I have my assignments! All I need now is for October to be here!

* It's not actually a black hole, but there are a heck of a lot of other applications that get sorted through and it takes several months to hear back about it so it feels kind of like a black hole.