lab notebook

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?  

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! 

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!