November 25, 2013
There are tribal tattoos, photorealistic tattoos, celtic tattoos and biomechanical tattoos. Then, there is a whole genre called anatomical tattoos. Chris Nuñez, a tattoo artist and judge on Spike’s TV show Ink Master, has said that this style is all about “replicating a direct organ, body part, muscle, tissue, flesh, bone in the most precise way you can.”
Danny Quirk, an artist working in Massachusetts, is doing something similar, only his anatomical tattoos are temporary. He creates body paintings with latex, markers and some acrylic that appear as if his models’ skin is peeled back.
The project began in 2012, when Halloween provided the occasion for Quirk to paint his roommate’s face and neck. From there, he made other anatomical paintings on the arms, backs and legs of willing friends, and his photographs went viral.
“The paintings started off very rough around the edges, having a ripped skin aesthetic,” says Quirk, “but as they grew, I started making them more anatomical, showing the adipose around the cuts and proper layering of nerves and vessels. I really started making medical illustrations in a new and different way than what was done before. I made ‘living lectures’ for lack of a better term.”
Quirk has his sights set on a career in biomedical illustration. He graduated from the Pratt Institute in New York in 2010, with a bachelor of fine arts in illustration, and then applied to medical schools. Without having some of the necessary science prerequisites, he wasn’t admitted, so he got a little creative. Kathy Dooley, a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, asked Quirk to do 10 to 15 illustrations for her class, and he did a little bartering, trading the artwork for a spot in her doctorate-level gross anatomy course. It was in this class that the artist got to dissect a cadaver.
“Let’s just say, the books are much prettier than the real thing. In the books, everything is color coded and pretty, where as in the labs, everything was grey, with the exception of tendons, which have a beautiful, silvery iridescent shine to them,” he says. “I learned first hand that despite its drab hue, the body is a fabulously constructed machine. It’s like lace that can stop bullets—the intricacy of its inner workings are so fine and delicate, and yet the strength and durability behind each structure is unreal.”
Quirk likes to say that he now dissects with his paintbrush. To some extent, the subject of a painting is determined by the model, and his or her features, he explains. If he has a volunteer with a particularly muscular neck, he’ll add his flourishes there.
“When you find bony landmarks, it’s just a matter of hooking the right muscles up to the right places on the bones, and coloring it in from there,” says Quirk. Of course, the time he spends on any anatomical painting depends on its size and complexity. A full rendering of a model’s back, with not just superficial musculature but also the deep intrinsics, can take up to 14 hours to complete, though the average illustration demands about four to six hours.
One of the advantages of Quirk’s anatomical body paintings is that they dynamic, compared to other biomedical illustrations, which are static images. ”I paint my anatomy very precisely, making sure to match up origins and insertions, so that when the model moves, the painting moves with it, really illustrating what happens under the skin,” he says.
Quirk is trying to arrange some guest speaking gigs at schools, where he’d use his body painting to teach anatomy. He is also working on a timelapse video of a painting in progress, overlaid with educational notes.
“Aside from that, I really want to find a bald head,” he says.
November 14, 2013
A century ago, a British art critic by the name of Clive Bell attempted to explain what makes art, well, art. He postulated that there is a “significant form”—a distinct set of lines, colors, textures and shapes—that qualifies a given work as art. These aesthetic qualities trigger a pleasing response in the viewer. And, that response, he argued, is universal, no matter where or when that viewer lives.
In 2010, neuroscientists at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University joined forces with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore to conduct an experiment. What shapes are most pleasing, the group wondered, and what exactly is happening in our brains when we look at them? They had three hypotheses. It is possible, they thought, that the shapes we most prefer are more visually exciting, meaning that they spark intense brain activity. At the same time, it could be that our favorite shapes are serene and calm brain activity. Or, they surmised we very well might gravitate to shapes that spur a pattern of alternating strong and weak activity.
To investigate, the scientists created ten sets of images, which they hung on a wall at the Walters Art Museum in 2010. Each set included 25 shapes, all variations on a laser scan of a sculpture by artist Jean Arp. Arp’s work was chosen, in this case, because his sculptures are abstract forms that are not meant to represent any recognizable objects. Upon entering the exhibition, called “Beauty and the Brain,” visitors put on a pair of 3D glasses and then, for each image set, noted the their “most preferred” and “least preferred” shape on a ballot. The shapes were basically blobs with various appendages. The neuroscientists then reviewed the museum-goers’ responses in conjunction with fMRI scans taken on lab study participants looking at the very same images.
“We wanted to be rigorous about it, quantitative, that is, try to really understand what kind of information neurons are encoding and…why some things would seem more pleasing or preferable to human observers than other things. I have found it to be almost universally true in data and also in audiences that the vast majority have a specific set of preferences,” says Charles E. Connor, director of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute.
“Beauty and the Brain Revealed,” an exhibition now on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., allows others to participate in the exercise, while also reporting the original experiment’s results. Ultimately, the scientists found that visitors like shapes with gentle curves as opposed to sharp points. And, the magnetic brain imaging scans of the lab participants prove the team’s first hypothesis to be true: these preferred shapes produce stronger responses and increased activity in the brain.
As Johns Hopkins Magazine so eloquently put it, “Beauty is in the brain of the beholder.”
Now, you might expect, as the neuroscientists did, that sharp objects incite more of a reaction, given that they can signal danger. But the exhibition offers up some pretty sound reasoning for why the opposite may be true.
“One could speculate that the way we perceive sculpture relates to how the human brain is adapted for optimal information processing in the natural world,” reads the display. “Shallow convex surface curvature is characteristic of living organisms, because it is naturally produced by the fluid pressure of healthy tissue (e.g. muscle) against outer membranes (e.g. skin). The brain may have evolved to process information about such smoothly rounded shapes in order to guide survival behaviors like eating, mating and predator evasion. In contrast, the brain may devote less processing to high curvature, jagged forms, which tend to be inorganic (e.g. rocks) and thus less important.”
Another group of neuroscientists, this time at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, actually found similar results when looking at people’s preferences in architecture. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year, they reported that test subjects shown 200 images—of rooms with round columns and oval ottomans and others with boxy couches and coffee tables—were much more likely to call the former “beautiful” than the latter. Brain scans taken while these participants were evaluating the interior designs showed that rounded decor prompted significantly more brain activity, much like what the Johns Hopkins group discovered.
“It’s worth noting this isn’t a men-love-curves thing: twice as many women as men took part in the study. Roundness seems to be a universal human pleasure,” writes Eric Jaffe on Co.Design.
Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum and guest curator of the AAAS show, finds “Beauty and the Brain Revealed” to support Clive Bell’s postulation on significant form as a universal basis for art, as well as the idea professed by some in the field of neuroaesthetics that artists have an intuitive sense for neuroscience. Maybe, he claims, the best artists are those that tap into shapes that stimulate the viewer’s brain.
“Beauty and the Brain Revealed” is on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., through January 3, 2014.
November 1, 2013
As a mathematical concept, the fractal can be intimidating.
Benoit Mandelbrot, the Polish-born mathematician who coined the term, defined a fractal as “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole.” Fractus, in Latin, means “broken.”
But, the whole idea, I think, becomes a lot more digestible when you look to nature.
The natural world is chock full of fractals. Consider a tree, one of the simplest examples. Whether you look at the entire tree, a branch or a single twig, the shape is generally the same. The same can be said for rivers and their tributaries. This “self-similarity” is a defining trait of a fractal. A fiddlehead—a young fern that is tightly coiled—has little leaflets that form even tinier coils. Similarly, the interior sections of a nautilus shell, all the same crescent shape, get progressively larger from the center of the spiral outwards. Fractal geeks also point to their favorite vegetable: Romanesco broccoli. Each bud of the edible plant is composed of more miniature buds of the same geometric form.
“There’s this moment of awakening where you understand that the natural patterns that you’ve been seeing your entire life are actually based on simple mathematical formulas. And once you’re aware of those patterns—be it the spiral shape of a galaxy or the whirl of a hurricane or the swirls of cream in your morning coffee—you’re able to recognize them anywhere,” says Ben Weiss.
An expert in computer graphics, Weiss has taken it upon himself to make these universal mathematical principles even more accessible. His new iOS app, Frax, which he developed with colleagues Kai Krause and Tom Beddard, puts fractals, as he says, “in the palm of your hand.”
Frax users begin with a basic shape from the app’s fractal library. Then, they manipulate the shape to their own liking, adding depth, shading, color, lighting, gloss and texture. The end result is nothing short of art. The fractals are complex, colorful patterns that conjure any number of things—sea weed, snowflakes, sand dunes and oil spills.
While most will just doodle on their iPhones and iPads, “Some will use it to create more complex works of art, using it as a starting point for fabrics or paintings or digital art installations,” says Weiss. “We’re also hoping that the interaction with these beautiful images will inspire users to want to learn more about the underlying math and geometry, in the same way that looking through a telescope can inspire interest in astronomy and science.”
Weiss’ fascination with fractals took root at an early age. As a 10-year-old, he was writing bits of code and patiently waiting hours for the images to load on the screen of his Apple IIc. For three decades, fractal programs have required users to plug in lots of equations to generate visuals, Weiss explains. He was excited to harness the power of today’s touchscreen devices for this purpose. Frax is built on the famous Mandelbrot and Julia set equations, but, as Weiss told Co.Design, he and his team hid all the mathematical inputs, amounting to almost 100,000 lines of custom code, “under the hood.”
“Not everyone wants to be introduced to something in terms of math,” says Weiss. “There is plenty of complexity hidden away behind the scenes, but the audience is immersed more easily if they don’t see the mechanics behind it all.” (It is a little like slipping fruits and vegetables into desserts.)
Kai Krause, a German software and interface designer involved in the project, has watched kids use Frax. “They clearly have no clue about ‘Mandelbrot’ or the math of it,” he says, and yet they have an appetite for the app, as an entertaining, creative experience. The design team sees Frax as something with broader appeal than other fractal programs on the market, used mainly by math geeks. Krause says they have amplified the play value, without making Frax a game in the traditional sense. “The belief is that you can have serious fun without the need for shooting pigs or people or high scores,” he says.
The experience is immersive, and, as the user zooms in on fractals and makes aesthetic decisions about colors and other effects, he or she picking up skills and developing a more innate understanding of this mathematical art form.
“You’re playing directly with mathematics, but it doesn’t feel dry,” says Weiss. “It feels like an artistic adventure.”
October 29, 2013
Adam Cohen and Ben Labay are surrounded by thousands of fish specimens, all preserved in jars of alcohol and formalin. At the Texas Natural Science Center at the University of Texas in Austin, the two fish biologists are charged with documenting the occurrences of different freshwater fish species in their home state and those neighboring it.
That is their day job, at least.
Outside of work, Cohen and Labay have teamed up on an artistic venture they call the Inked Animal Project. Since 2008, the colleagues have made surprisingly tasteful prints of actual animal carcasses—scales, fur, feathers and all.
Both scientists have dabbled in art—drawing, painting and sculpting—for as long as they can remember. As a kid, Cohen even used an octopus and flying fish that he bought at an Asian market as huge stamps to make ink patterns on paper. Fish, of course, were a natural subject for two ichthyologists, but Cohen and Labay were also familiar with a Japanese art form called Gyotaku (meaning “fish rubbing”), where artists slather ink on fresh fish and press them onto paper as a means of recording the size and other details of the catch.
Their first collaboration was a poster with prints of all ten sunfish species that live in Texas, and the Inked Animal Project was born. They inked trout, bass and catfish. But why stop with fish? The duo quickly expanded its repertoire, applying the same printmaking technique to mice, squirrels, rabbits, geese, gulls, hummingbirds and a smattering of deer, pig and cow skulls. No specimen seems to fluster the artists.
I interviewed Inked Animal’s creators by email to learn more about where they obtain their portrait subjects, how they produce the prints and what exactly possesses them to do this.
As you know, Gyotaku is both an art form and a method of scientific documentation. Are there certain anatomical traits you try to accentuate in your Inked Animal prints for scientific purposes?
Ben: I don’t think we print for any tangible scientific goal, though we do print in a spirit of documentation, similar to goals of the original Gyotaku printings I guess. As we’ve expanded our medium beyond fish, we’ve been interested in trying to document life processes through the animals, such as internal or unique anatomy and “road-kill” or animated postures.
Adam: Not long ago I ran across some field notes belonging to a fish collector from the late 1800s, Edgar Mearns, who, rather than preserving a particularly large fish, decided to trace the animal on paper and insert it in his fieldbook. We were well into the Inked Animal Project at that point and that‘s when I realized what we were really doing was a form of documentation as well as art. But, in reality, these days with cameras so ubiquitous, there is little need to print or trace the animal on paper for documentation purposes. I think our prints have relatively little scientific value, but substantial artistic value. I often think about the physical characteristics that someone who knows the species well would need to see to verify the identity of the specimen, but I try not to let that get in the way of creating interesting art. I’d much rather have interesting art of an unknown and unverifiable species.
How do you collect the animals you print?
Adam and Ben: We get the animals in all sorts of ways. In the beginning we went fishing in our spare time. Recently, as word of our project got out, we’ve had people donate specimens. A lot of our friends are biologists, hunters, exterminators and people who work in animal rehabilitation; they have access to animals and are excited to donate to the cause. Additionally, there are a lot of great animals to print that can be purchased through exotic Asian grocery stores. We’re getting serious about printing larger animals, like farm livestock. We would love to get an ostrich or emu too.
On your website, you say, “Our tolerance for gross is very high.” Can you give an example of a specimen that pushed this tolerance to its limits?
Ben: My personal worst was the armadillo. We’ve had worse-smelling animals like a gray fox that was sitting in a bucket for a full day before we printed. But something about working with the armadillo really grossed me out, almost to the point of vomiting. Most mammals are squishy with decay, but the armadillo was a stiff football of dense rotten meat. It’s also a bizarre animal that we don’t ever expect to get so intimate with. This is just a crazy theory, but animals like the Eastern cottontail or gray fox are more familiar, and maybe more approachable or acceptable when rotten. When it comes to larger, strictly wild animals, things get more interesting and intense.
Adam: Ben mentioned a gray fox that we printed in the early days of Inked Animal. I remember picking it up and the juices ran down my arm. But I was so excited by the print we were getting, which I think was the first time we realized that we were on to something really unique, that I hardly even thought about it. We recently printed a very rotten deer whose skin peeled away as we lifted the cloth to reveal a writhing mass of maggots—that was pretty gross too.
You are almost more interested in prints of dismembered, rotting or partially dissected specimens, right? Why is this?
Ben: When we started to expand from fish to other types of animals, Adam and I felt excited about not just doing something unique, but doing art that was deeper than just a pretty picture. I think we both feel that there is something indescribable about the animal prints, which allows people to view them from different vantage points. You see it as an animal print, and also as a process. I like the idea of documenting rotting or dissected animals because it emphasizes the process part of the experience. People see it and can immediately imagine what must have happened to produce the image. Most people love what they see even though it’s something, which if seen in real life, would disgust and repulse them.
Adam: At first I think most people think working with animal innards to be a little gross, but really there’s lots to offer aesthetically in the inside. Ribs, lungs and guts provide very interesting patterns and textures. Blood stains and feces add color. These are the parts of the animal that are not usually seen so they catch the viewer’s attention and cause reason for pause. If, for example, the animal is a road kill specimen, whose guts are spilling out—well that’s an interesting story that we can capture on paper.
Do you try to position the specimens in a certain way on the paper?
Adam and Ben: Absolutely. We think about position quite a bit. Mainly we want to capture natural poses, either making the animal seem alive or dead. Often if the animal has rigor mortis or could fall apart, due to rot, we are limited to how we can pose them. Sometimes animals come to us very disfigured, depending on the cause of death, and we’ve been surprised by the beautiful prints that can be obtained from them.
Can you take me through the process of making a print? What materials do you use, and what is your method?
Adam and Ben: We are always experimenting with different papers, fabric, inks, clays and paints as well as different application methods, but it really all boils down to applying a wet media to the animal and then applying it to paper or fabric. The trick is finding the right kinds of materials and transfer technique for each kind of specimen. The process for bones is very different than fleshed out animals; and birds are different than fish. Having two of us is often essential for large floppy animals where we want to apply the animal to the table-bound paper. Fish can be the most difficult; their outer skin is essentially slime, which repels some inks and creates smudgy prints on paper. You have to remove this outer slime layer before you print a fish. Salt seems to work well for this. We often do varying degrees of post-processing of the raw print with paint or pencils.
What do you add by hand to the actual print?
Ben: For each animal we’ll likely do half a dozen to a couple dozen prints searching for the perfect one. With all these replicates, we’ll play around with different techniques of post processing. The traditional Gyotaku method restricts touch-ups to accenting the eye of the fish. I think we’ve at minimum done this. But we’ve employed a lot of post-processing techniques, including pencil, watercolor, acrylic, clay, enamel and even extensive digital touch ups.
Adam: There is a balance that we are trying to achieve regarding preserving the rawness of the print and creating a highly refined piece. We like both and find ourselves wavering. Recently, we’ve started to assemble prints together digitally and sometimes alter colors and contrast for interesting effects.
What are the most challenging specimens to print?
Adam: I think small arthropods (animals with exoskeletons) are particularly difficult and time consuming. We’ve come up with the best method, to completely disassemble the animal and print it in pieces. The other trick with them is to apply the ink very thinly and evenly. Anything with depth is also difficult and sometime impossible since the way paper and fabric drapes across the animal can result in very distorted looking prints.
Ben: Small fish or insects. Fish because they are just so small, and the details like scales and fin rays don’t come out well. And, insects because they can be so inflexible, and their exoskeletons are, for the most part, pretty darn water repellent, restricting what kinds of paints we can use.
What animal would you like to print that you haven’t yet?
Ben: Generally, I’d love to print any animal that we haven’t already printed. That said, I have a gopher in my freezer that I’m not too excited about because it will likely turn out as a hairy blob. And once you’ve done one snake, another the same size is hard to distinguish. Large animals are, of course, charismatic and impressive, but I also really enjoy the challenge of trying to capture details on smaller animals. There are some animals that do, in theory, lend themselves to printing. For example, we have a porcupine in our freezer that I’m really excited about.
Adam: I get excited about anything new really. To date, we’ve been primarily interested in working with Texas fauna, but we are excited about other possibilities as well. I especially like animals with interesting textures juxtaposed. For example, I think the more-or-less naked head and legs of an ostrich with the feathery body would be interesting and very challenging. But, beyond specific animal species, we’re now experimenting with the process of rot, a commonality of all dead animals. One project involves placing a fresh animal on paper and spray painting it at various intervals with different colors as it rots and expands. The result is an image of the animal surrounded by concentric rings that document the extent of rot through time.
What do you hope viewers take away from seeing the prints?
Ben and Adam: We like to think there is something in the animal prints that captures both the spirit and the raw corporeal feel of the animal. It’s amazing to us that the art was created by using an animal as a brush so-to-speak, and that there’s even DNA left on the art itself. We hope people have a similar thought process and feeling about the work. We also hope that the project and print collection as a whole serves as a way people can better approach and appreciate the biodiversity around us.
Ben Labay will be showing works from the Inked Animal Project at his home in Austin on November 16-17 and 23-24, as part of the 12th annual East Austin Studio Tour (EAST), a free self-guided tour of the city’s creative community. Inked Animal works are represented by Art.Science.Gallery in Austin, Texas—one of the first galleries in the country to focus on science-related art.
October 15, 2013
The sea has been the stage for monstrosities and strange tales since antiquity. And, why not? Unlike land, the ocean is constantly shifting and moving, with currents that could carry a ship off course and storms that threaten wrecks. Even the substance itself, seawater, is often cold and dark, and deadly to drink in quantity. So, what of the creatures that were thought to live there?
The sea monsters that populated European medieval and renaissance imaginations—fierce-toothed animals battling in the waves, long serpents wrapped around ships, torturously beautiful sirens and a wide assortment of chimeric beings—are the subject of two new books. Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, by Chet Van Duzer, and Sea Monsters: A Voyage around the World’s Most Beguiling Map,by Joseph Nigg, both focus exclusively on illustrations, several of which are included here, of such monsters on old maps.
More than mere marginalia and playful illustration, cartographers drew sea monsters to enchant viewers while educating them about what could be found in the sea. Most of the decorated maps weren’t used for navigation, but rather were displayed by wealthy people. That doesn’t mean the monsters were purely ornamental inventions though. “To our eyes, almost all of the sea monsters on all of these maps seem quite whimsical, but in fact, a lot of them were taken from what the cartographers viewed as scientific, authoritative books,” said author Chet Van Duzer in a podcast with Lapham’s Quarterly. “So most of the sea monsters reflect an effort on the part of the cartographer to be accurate in the depiction of what lived in the sea.”
There was a long-held theory, going back to at least the first century with Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, that every land animal has an equivalent in the ocean. There were thought to be sea dogs, sea lions, sea pigs—you name it. Some of these are now the names of real animals—sea lions are eared seals and sea pigs are deep-water sea cucumbers (tube-like relatives of sea stars) with legs. But the medieval imaginings were the literal hybrid of fish with the known land animal.
Some of the illustrations, however, are closer to real animals but warped into monstrous forms. Whales were typically drawn with beastly heads, like a cross between a wolf and a bird, with tusks or large teeth and waterspouts. Despite their generally gentle nature, they were often drawn attacking ships. While it’s unlikely that such confrontations were frequent, it’s easy to imagine the fear welling up when a sailor spotted the back of a whale longer than his ship rise above the waves. If it jumps from the water, is it on the attack?
These uneducated sailors were the main sources for artists and writers trying to describe life in the ocean. So, their reports of monsters—from the singing sirens that lure sailors to jump to their deaths to the the lobster-like “octopuses” and various serpents and worms—became the basis of natural history texts and drawings on maps. These maps then helped perpetuate the life of these creatures, as they inspired travelers on the dangerous sea to confirm their existence.
However, at the end of the 17th century, sea monsters start to disappear from maps. European understanding of science was growing, and the printing press made the spread of realistic images easier. “As technology advanced, as our understanding of the oceans and navigation advanced, more emphasis was placed on human’s ability to master the watery element: to sail on it and conduct trade on it,” Van Duzer told Lapham’s. “And thus images of the dangers of the sea, while they certainly did not immediately disappear from maps in the 17th century, became less frequent over time, and images of ships became more common.”
There were still illustrations on maps, but they were far more pragmatic. Ships indicated areas of safe passage, while drawings of fish and whales showed good fishing areas. On one map from the early 17th century, vignettes illustrated how to kill and process a whale. “Whales, the largest creatures in the ocean, are no longer monsters but rather natural marine storehouses of commodities to be harvested,” wrote Van Duzer. Some of the mystery is gone as the sea becomes another resource rather than a churning darkness to be feared.
Just when you think that we’ve lost that sense of awe at the sea, captured in these old maps and texts, we are reminded that much remains to be discovered in the ocean. This year, both the giant squid and the 15-foot megamouth shark were filmed for the first time, and there is still plenty to learn about each. We’re still dazzled by bioluminescent light displays in the deep, or the surreal, shimmering movements of schools of millions of tiny fish. The awe continues—it’s just based on fact rather than fantasy.
Learn more about the ocean at the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal.