Solve One Problem, Solve The Next

I've been repeating variations of this quote every day for the past couple of weeks for personal reasons. It's from The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott, screenplay by Drew Goddard, starring Matt Damon as astronaut-botanist Mark Watney. 

Solve one problem, solve the next. 

Shared it on Twitter, and maybe some other people will find it useful today. 


Solve one problem, solve the next. 

How To Talk To a Roomful of Artists Who Are Better Than You

Here are my public speaking tips when speaking to a roomful of artists who are better than you. Okay, first let's define "better".

  • I have an Honours Bachelor of Fine Arts, and tend to paint dead ocean critters with ridiculous wings on them.
  • I have spoken to artist groups such as Association of Medical Illustrators and Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, many of whom have graduated from programs like the Biomedical Communications Graduate program at the University of Toronto and know what the thing at the back of your throat is called and how to draw it in cross section as well as animate it wiggling when you sing karaoke. Scientific illustrators create artwork that can save lives, inspire conservation efforts, and visualize trips to space. This post is based on a presentation I gave in front of life-saving medical illustrators. So that's what I mean by "better".

My tips:

One of my first slides, showing a flying trilobite painting. I let descriptive blurbs on the slides tell the jokes for me. © Glendon Mellow.

1. Be willing to laugh at yourself. Poke a bit of fun at your own work. Although I think wielding the power of evocative visual metaphors is one of the highest intellectual pursuits of humankind, I have to admit painting wings on trilobites is pretty weird. Hopefully this disarms any audience naysayers who wonder what you are doing there and makes discussing your work easier for others. If you don't treat your own paintings as precious, highly-evolved concepts above the likes of normal mortals, you are easier for people to relate to. For some reason.

I almost didn't include the hashtag info here. It felt like I was putting too much text on the slide.

2. Don't read from the slides. Slides should be visuals to illustrate your points, not where you keep your points. <--SERIOUSLY, THAT'S THE MOST IMPORTANT TIP ON HERE. This talk was only 20 minutes, so there was a lot of ground to cover. I included this slide (above) near the end as one I could quickly whip through if my time was almost done, or I could linger on if my talk still had extra time due to drinking 5 coffees that morning and talking like a squirrel. 

Talkin' Twitter at the Association of Medical Illustrators. Thanks to Julie Saunders for the photo!

3. Share useful tools. There's a tendency in artists and illustrators to want to always maintain some professional mystique, to keep the aura of Why You Are So Great a bit of a mystery so that no one replicates your success. We all need to fight that and share techniques with each other. During this presentation, I shared why I think Twitter is a great tool for nuanced, complicated arguments by using what's know as the "Twitter essay" (increasingly misidentified as a "tweet storm" these days, whatevs).

Oh, and in case you're wondering about how to write a Twitter essay without looking like a noob:

The Twitter Essay: keep replying to each of your own sequential tweets (delete your @name), and use 1/m, 2/n until you are finished. Then, when someones sees 32/n retweeted into their feed, they can click on it and see the whole thread.

4. Don't be creepy. You want to share enough about yourself to show how everyone's professional journey is similar, but each has unique twists and turns in the story. But if you throw random personal stories out there without a point, it can come off creepy. That's why I never tell anyone my "broken zipper at a friend's wedding" story. It goes nowhere. Always bring it back around to the work and your drive for why you do what you do.

Talking about our Symbiartic blog means talking about the #SciArt community.

5. Open doors. When I talk about Symbiartic, I talk about the things that I feel are important to the #sciart community. Copyright and attribution issues. Respect for illustrators as effective science communicators alongside journalists. The power of banding together on issues that matter. Sharing art techniques and ideas. When I speak to professional scientific illustrators, I hope to convince them to get out of their studio-and-peers bubble a bit and share more of their work and expertise with the wider world of science communication. Insight should be shared.

Giving any sort of talk to artists and illustrators should be a call to action, a call to communicate. It's not just self-promotion, it's about participating in a wider community.

- -

A version of this post originally appeared on Symbiartic, the Scientific American art+science blog in July, 2014. It has been lightly edited.

First Frost

Yesterday, we had our first local frost here in west end Toronto. A little cold breath of winter on the morning of Hallowe'en. 

Frost-laden grass in the field at my boys' school.  

Frost-laden grass in the field at my boys' school.  

A fallen leaf covered in frost. 

A fallen leaf covered in frost. 

Pics by me.  

The Chemistry of Oil Painting

What chemical properties give oil paintings their luminous glow and deep darkness?

Why do they crack?

What kind of oil is used?

Is it safe to use the oil painting medium on a fresh dandelion salad?

The old Symbiartic blog banner started out as oil on slate. Tough to photograph, fun to scan. I have no patience and scanned it wet.

As an oil painter for the past 20+ years who used to manage at a fine art supply store and notably not a chemist, I’ll do my best to explain. Don’t slip on the floor, and remember to soak your cleaning rags in water before disposing of them in the metal bin. They can spontaneously combust, you see.

Introduction to what paint is and isn’t

All fine art paints share a few properties that make them different from say, dyes. Paints are essentially pigment particles bound in a sticky, transparent medium, whereas dyes or soluble in liquid. So oil paints are pigment bound in oil, acrylic paints are pigments bound in acrylic polymer medium, and watercolours are pigments bound in a water-soluble medium called gum arabic. Fabric dye and fabric paint are therefore not the same thing.

There can be other agents inside a tube of paint these days, that slow down or speed up drying, that lend texture, or help stubborn pigments bind to the medium. (Inexpensive paints often have too much binder in them and can cause discolouration over time — check out this post by artist Jonathan Linton on his blog Theory and Practice for some empirical tests.) But at their root, all paints are pigment+medium.

Quick History Lesson

Within Western Art History, oils overtook fresco painting and egg tempera painting in popularity relatively quickly. The Master of Flemaille is sometimes credited with beginning the practice of using oil paint for fine art purposes, though more often the credit is erroneously given to the Van Eyckbrothers. In reality, craftspeople and artisans were already using oil for some time previously. We also now know that oil paints were in existence even earlier in Asia, thanks to paintings found behind statues blown up by the Taliban at Bamiyan.

The superior qualities of oil make it easy to understand why it took over from other mediums. Fresco, such as Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling, are essentially pigment bound in plaster. You had to mix just enough of the correct colours for one “go” or “pass” at a section, and estimate how much detail you could achieve with it before it dried before your eyes. So something like the subtle blending of God’s robes or tones and shadows of Adam’s skin in The Creation of Adam had to be estimated in multiple swatches, each with its paint mixed just before application. A difficult task. Oil paint on the other hand, may not fully dry for weeks: you can play with it, correct its tones and even erase missteps from the canvas and start again on a section. Blending becomes open for experimentation.

Types of Oil

Even in the Renaissance when oils first inspired artists to delve wholeheartedly as a medium, a number of oils were tried as vehicles for pigments. And their properties differ.

  • Linseed Oil — made from flax, linseed is the most popular due to its flexibility and resistance to cracking. It does have a strong tendency to yellow with age, however.
  • Walnut Oil, Poppy Oil and Safflower Oil — much less likely to yellow, these thin, clear watery oils are much more prone to cracking.

Yellowish, flexible Linseed Oil on the left; Clear, prone-to-cracking Walnut Oil on the right.

With these different properties, how do they come into play when actually painting? Well one of the Ninja Turtle Old Masters had it right: analysis of Raphael’s The Mond Crucifixion (1502–3) shows that the ground, figures and green robes were painted using linseed, and the blue sky painted with nut oil. This way, the yellowing of the figures and ground were an acceptable trade-off due to their subject, but the blue sky was considered better off being cracked and bright blue than yellowed and smooth. Painting below:

The Mond Crucifixion by Raphael uses two types of oil on different elements to preserve colour and paint film. And the effect still lasts after 500 years, eh?

Watching Paint “Dry”

Watercolour and acrylic paints have water as part of their medium — they dry by evaporation. But oil paints don’t. They dry by what’s called a siccative quality. That is they absorb oxygen from the air. This has the undescriptive definition of:

(Chemistry / Elements & Compounds) a substance added to a liquid to promote drying: used in paints and some medicines
[from Late Latin
siccātīvus, from Latin siccāre to dry up, from siccus dry]

Essentially, oils have a rate of autooxidation from the air, they absorb oxygen and harden. I’ve often described this as putting Jell-o into an enclosed container and adding tons of pineapple chunks to it: the oil is the Jell-o and the air is the pineapple — you can only add so much to the enclosed bowl and it will stop jiggling. Perhaps I haven’t got this analogy quite right. But now I want Jell-o.

As oils harden, there’s an interesting problem: oxygen is absorbed through the paint surface, meaning if the paint is very thick, you can see a different “drying” rate on the paint’s film than on the first layer’s applied on the canvas. The surface could be hard and the oils underneath still squishy like yummy lemon Jell-o. (Warning: oils processed as art supplies are not cleared for human consumption.)

Fat Over Lean

One of the main appealing properties of oil painting are the glazes. By adding a small amount of pigment to the relatively clear oil medium, you can very subtly tint an image. This is called glazing. Most Renaissance Old Masters (think the Ninja Turtles and their peeps — Artemisia Gentileschi not April O’Neil) used a toned underpainting and then built up several of these thin glazes of colour on top to create astonishingly realistic figures and scenes. The translucence of the paint film allows for sophisticated ranges of flesh tones. But then we hit the problem of the upper layers of oil glazes drying before the lower (first) ones do — and this is where cracking comes from.

Okay, another analogy: imagine the top (newest) layer of oil is stretching as it dries out hardens, and it stretches to the max. Its surface is expanding because it is absorbing oxygen (not evaporating water). Now, they oxygen eventually begins to hit the layer below. And it stretches and expands to the max. But they layer above is already dry, how can it expand any more with the one below pulling it!? >crack<

Like a big cookie on a pan. Slide an uncooked cookie under a cooked cookie, a bigger one and stretch and heat up that dough: as the bottom cookie dries and expands its surface, it will crack the smaller cookie it is now stretching on its surface. >crack< Nomnomnom.

To get around this, painters developed the Fat Over Lean rule. With each layer of glaze, add an increased amount of oil paint to the layer. (Less pigment, more oil.) This way, the rate of oxygen begin absorbed by an oily (fat) top layer will be slower than the hidden lower, less oily (lean) layers, and hopefully they will saturate with oxygen and harden at approximately the same time.

This leads to other tricks and techniques too. If you use too little oil in an early glaze, it can obliterate the drawing or painting underneath that you want to show through all the thin transparent glazes. It also can make the paint too pasty and thick, which is unworkable for fine detail. So, in the early, lower glazes, sometimes solvents such as turpentines are added. The loosen the paint, disprese the pigment particles, and then kindly evaporate in a big hurry leaving the old that’s left to be covered by another turp+pigment+oil layer that has a little less turp and a little more oil. And so on.

To answer the question above about the dandelion salad, oils themselves are not harmful (though not processed to be safe for food). An open container of say, safflower oil on the table will do no more harm to breathe in than some extra-virgin olive oil with Balsamic vinegar and a few chili flakes on your table for bread. It’s the solvents you have to be especially wary of. Even some of the odorless ones have harmful vapors, although it’s possible nowadays to buy non-toxic alternatives. I’d be happy to recommend some I’ve tried if anyone has email requests (this is not an infomercial).

Patron Saint of Pigments

In Renaissance Italy, the patron saint of painters was St Luke — who was also the patron saint of doctors. Painters didn’t have a Guild of their own, they belonged to the same as doctors. Why? Besides the mythology of the saint himself, it was for the practical reason of painters and doctors both frequenting apothecaries for medicinal and artistic ingredients.

The pigments in oil glazes add another property and challenge to the artist who up until about 150 years ago, had to mix each batch of paint by hand. The pigment particles are not all the same size, and do not all disperse at the same rate within the oil medium. What this means is some colours will have more oil, and others less. Yeah you see it coming: the glazes following the fat over lean rule are best applied in certain orders to reduce cracking upon hardening.

As an example, let’s say you’re painting a red rose, with all it’s subtle shadows and highlights. To get ideal results in your glazes, you may want to apply the glazes in this order: manganese blue, cadmium red, quinacradone red, alizarin crimson. Mostly this will not matter to modern oil painters, but it can still have an effect even today. Most true alizarin crimsons will have up to twice as much oil content as a lead-based white.

Bouncing light

What’s the point in all these complicated glazes? Just to mix colour? Not just — they add luminosity to the painting. You see, when light enters the hardened oil paint film, it passes through several distinct layers of mostly transparent paint. And sometimes, before being reflected back out to the surface, it bounces off of one of the colourful pigments, and back down to the layers below, and then out. Sometimes it will bounce on the boundaries of the separate glazes before bouncing out to meet your eye. And this is what gives oil paintings their glow and their deep deep blacks. The dancing behaviour of the light in the complicated multiple layers and their colour pigments.

Here you can see the light beams (blue) bouncing multiple times through the oil layers, off oil membranes and off the colourful pigments. This bouncing gives oil paintings their luminous glow.

The New Oil

Consider this little afterword the start of another conversation for another day.

Oil painting gave artists the tools necessary to create images that can be corrected easily due to their long drying times and that seem to glow due to their layers. As an oil painter myself, these are highly prized qualities. And the last several years, we’re seeing another technology that prizes these same qualities of easy correction and luminosity. Digital painting has exploded in popularity with programs like ArtRage (used to create the simple image above), Photoshop, Corel Painter, and the shareware Gimp. Ctrl-z is the new solvent, and pixels the new luminous colours. And I don’t think it’s an accident. What would pioneers like The Master of Flemaille or the Jan Van Eyck have done with current technology?

If they’re like me, they’d want to experiment with the ease of the new tools but still stick their fingers in the sticky paint, smell the soft odor of the oil, and play with their pigments.

I’m not a chemist — I could be wrong. Feel free to offer corrections and tips of your own in the comments. When this post was originally published in 2011, some lively discussion ensued in the comments on both Symbiarticand Lines and Colors and I think they’re worth checking out.


1. History of Art, Fourth Edition. H.W. Jansen, revised and expanded by Anthony F. Jansen, 1991 Harry Abrams Inc. p.425–426. (Link leads to newer edition)

2. The Artists Handbook. Ray Smith, 2000 Alfred A Knopf. p.180

3. The Artists Handbook. Ray Smith, 2000 Alfred A Knopf. p.182


Originally published on Symbiartic on Scientific American at on August 2, 2011. I have made some light edits.

13 Things I’ve Learned About Being A Science Artist Online


After celebrating 9 years of blogging on The Flying Trilobite, I’m going to get all old guard and pompous and established and drop some wisdom about best practices for science artists online.

  1. Show off. Saying “I am too busy making art to spend time online” means you are too busy making art no one will see. Visual art is a performance art.
  2. Yes I said before coffee. Start making art before you even have coffee in the morning. Get up an hour early and do art before you go to your day job. You’ll spend the rest of the day with your creative muscles buzzing because you gave them a workout and that feels good.
  3. Make pie. Don’t do the hyper-competitive thing and only talk about yourself and your own work all the time. It’s tempting, I know: we’re all trying to make it, and live the dream of full time art-making all day. But doing that will cause you to miss out on the camaraderie of community with other science artists. Promote other people too. Remember: you are not giving away your piece of the pie by retweeting someone else’s art: you are making a bigger pie for the potential audience to feast on.
  4. Sell your very soul. Don’t try to separate art from artist. More than ever, artists are a part of their art. Your online presence will award you contracts not only on your talent, but also your personality.
  5. Get with the times. Used to be that things were centralized around The Blog and comment sections were lively places. That’s not the case anymore. People read the link on Twitter or Facebook when you share it, and then comment on that social media platform instead. It may be a little messier, but skipping the latest-greatest social media platform means missing out on those conversations about your work.
  6. Have an art avatar. Update your blog once a week, but put some art up every day on Twitter. Remind people that you are talented and not just amazingly Twitter-witty.
  7. Get on Twitter. So you have a blog and you have Twitter ( both non-negotiable in my opinion.) You may want to sign up for a lot of social media sites to try them out, but pick two more and focus on building an audience and business with them. Artstation? Instagram? Periscope? Vine?
  8. Spending money to make money is a lie. Go cheap when you start out. Use free blog software to build a portfolio. Skip joining professional illustrator groups and find community in Google Hangouts and industry hashtag discussions. Spending time to make connections is the truth.
  9. Proudly Google yourself. Learn how to use Google Search by Image and Tineye to monitor how your work is being used by other people. You need to be proactive in protecting your work.
  10. You’re scared, I know. Let people share as much of your art as you can. Sharing ≠ stealing.
  11. I’m telling you to work harder. Crowdfunding, selling on Etsy or print-to-order like Redbubble all offer the potential to take some of the burden off of working 2 jobs and making art in the wee hours. So treat it seriously. Have a plan and be professional.
  12. Oh that ol’ thing? Chances are you’re building new connections all the time. Dust off your older artwork and share it again for a fresh batch of eyes.
  13. Winning. Remember that as science artists, our feeds are filled with the very best of the internet: exciting scientific discoveries and delightful, disturbing, intriguing art. We are creating sciart utopia. We win.

+ + +

This post originally appeared on Symbiartic on Scientific American, by Glendon Mellow March 29, 2014. I’ve done a bit of updating to the list of platforms and added an extra tip.

Beefy arm and theropod doodles

A few doodles while away at a friends' cottage for the Victoria Day weekend. 

Originally shared on my Twitter and Instagram.  


Turning a sketchy doodle into a beefy guy's tattoo.

Turning a sketchy doodle into a beefy guy's tattoo.

Anatomy and planes all screwed up. Don't care. Cottage doodle. #longweekend #sketch

Anatomy and planes all screwed up. Don't care. Cottage doodle. #longweekend #sketch

 ...and now there's an inked theropod. #sketching

 ...and now there's an inked theropod. #sketching

Theropod sketch. #doodling #sciart  

Theropod sketch. #doodling #sciart  

Amazing how good carving a little time for some undirected sketching feels. Like aligning bicycle brakes. And I think I could turn this into a more elaborate tattooed-dinosaur piece... 

What If All the Images Went Away

Can you imagine what science communication would be like without images?

Again on Twitter and Facebook, I find myself levelling criticisms at particular sites and railing against improper image use in science communication. Again.

After arguing with (arguably) allies in science communication I was fed up. Fed up with the attitude that unattributed images are just a (small) sacrifice for the net good of science communication to the populace at large. Fed up that photographers, cartoonists & illustrators are considered by many to be lesser professions than scientists & educators. Fed up that rapid image sharing (oh I’m sorry: “curation”) can trample so many creators and yet lead to fame and fortune.

I found myself saying once again, “can you imagine what science communication would be like without images?

And now I’m going to show that to you. Click on the images for maximum effect.

* * *

The 4 blogs I am showing below are all ones I consider to be excellent at science communication in all aspects: compelling reads coupled with effective, often astonishing images. These bloggers, in my opinion make every effort to attribute and use images correctly. They link back. They name sources, just as good science blogging should.

Deep Sea News

See Cocktail Party Physics’ post here

* * *

I wish that once a year, popular browsers like Chrome, Safari and Firefox could somehow block all images online as an awareness campaign.

Despite feeling discouraged last week about what it will take to see a phase-change in how image creators are treated online, I still believe there is hope. And thanks to those of you who encouraged myself and others who were wading into some ugly debates. Here are a few hopeful tweets I shared.


Many thanks to Annalee Newitz (io9), Dr. Craig McClain (Deep Sea News), Jennifer Ouellette (Cocktail Party Physics) and Ed Yong (Not Exactly Rocket Science) for letting me stripmine their blogs in order to make these non-images. Apologies to your bloggers, illustrators, photographers and designers.

Before anyone goes scurrying off to see if they have ever screwed up and forgotten an attribution, let me assure you that these bloggers would welcome the correction. I didn’t approach them because I am certain they are perfect: I approached them because they show respect to creators consistently.


Originally published at This post originally appeared on Symbiartic on Scientific American, by Glendon Mellow March 18, 2014. I’ve done a bit of light editing on tense in the first paragraph. This post has also been re-blogged on Medium