Knowledge Pupates [wip]



Lately I need a warm-up to get back into my commissions, so I've been spending a few minutes here and there with this old drawing, re-painting it with ArtRage. I think the pencils are about 15 years old.

It might appear on Symbiartic in its final form. 

The ebook I have planned will likely be this style, or something close to it. Pieces like this help me think about it.

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite © to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

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Regaining That Edge


The eternal debate. After the toddler is good and asleep, do I stay up late and work on contracts? Or get up extra early in the morning? 

Mug design by Glendon Mellow, commissioned by Scicurious

Back when I worked at the art store (before the kid) I would get up around 5a.m. and make art or blog. Then, I'd be thinking about what I had worked on all day and I'd feel good about it. But something happened after being a stay at home dad for almost a year. I've become a night person. An ineffective, exhausted, but can't-get-to-sleep night person. 

So I needed something stronger than coffee to help. Something to help me regain that edge.

That's right: two coffees. 

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite © to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

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Sketches Better Than Paintings

Sometimes I wonder if the sketches look better than the paintings. 


Trilobite Boy with Gargoyles - sketch.

Trilobite Boy with Gargoyles - complete. 

There's something about the scratchiness of it I don't usually retain in the finished pieces. That's why I think I'm enjoying drawing and then placing the original drawing over the digital painting on a multiply layer. I'm catching the scratchiness a bit better. 


Avimimus - pencil drawing.

Avimimus - painted using the Sketch Club app on my iPhone. 

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite © to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

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Creative Depression And How I Got Rid of It

When I die one day, my biggest creative regret will likely be all the artwork I didn't have a chance to finish. Headlines marketed at artists and illustrators like "How to Increase Your Creativity" and "Get Your Creative Juices Flowing" never make sense to me.

Ideas aren't the problem. Time to execute them to my satisfaction is. 



Not every idea makes it past the sketch phase. 

So it may seem strange when I say that looking back, I was in a creative depression for much of last year. I was almost locked-up, I could barely act. Everything seemed too difficult: opening the research files, choosing digital or paper sketching, creating process templates, setting up the easel, dealing with my dismantled studio - it was all too much.

I think I know why, now.


I quit my full-time, 10-year, well-paying job managing an art store the day after I found out my wife was pregnant back in 2010. One friend put it, that he, "nods approvingly at the madness of it".  The final few months of my wife's pregnancy had me working from home, getting a steady stream of small revenue but exciting science-art projects. When Calvin was born, it was great, all three of us together. 


I completed this commission, Tylosaurus Reef around the time of my son being born. 

It was the best time of my life (being a dad, being freelance, blogging for freakin' Scientific American is a dream come true) but barely being able to keep up financially was hurting us. Michelle and I have weathered tough times before - we've been married for 9 years - but it was just us. The weight of responsibility for my son to have what he needs was all-encompassing. The cafe job felt professionally like dues I've already paid as a younger man, but ya do what ya gotta do. 

When Michelle went back to teaching, this was the state of things. I worked those 4 part-time jobs while being a full-time stay-at-home dad. Being a freelancing dad was a process I never finished learning how to do.


I painted this small oil on my first day of full-time freelancing. "Freelance Leap". I never did figure out how to fly all the way to those freelancing fairgrounds in the distance. 

The depression really set in for me last fall after my son started daycare. It was the right time for him to go: he loved it almost immediately, running around, learning like an exuberant, friendly and hyper little sponge. 


The new expense of daycare and the empty house/studio brought it all home for me: 

  • With the publishing market being where it is, 
  • With scientific funding being so small, 
  • With science-art as a field barely crawling on the periphery of cultural awareness, 
  • With my history growing up with one parent struggling to keep my sisters and I going,
  • With my experience going from job-to-job in a steady stream since I was 14 years old, 
  • With my amazing wife and amazing son being here in my life, 

I realized something.

I am not cut out for full-time freelancing.

I sent out resumes to a very small number of studios around Toronto that do work I respect and might be good for my 
fine art/science/social media/management background, and you know what? One of 'em hired me, and it's fantastic. 

My energy is back, I'm excited to go to work (the team there is brilliant, welcoming and fun), and I'm excited to get up at 5 a.m. to blog or sketch again. And we have groceries. 


The fallout is, there are a few people who have commissioned me I owe apologies to for being later than I ever expected. Three of those projects are still in the works and I hope I make them kick-ass and worth the patience that's been given to me.

I lifted the creative depression by starting to become part of a team doing work I believe in, and by bringing my share into the household. Never underestimate the impact that 


  • supportive people
  • new influences and 
  • livable income 

can have on your creativity. 


Okay, so it's not all perfect. For example: my face. 

Art is no longer a grind, and in 2013, I think it will be an adventure again. 

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite © to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

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Arthropod Meeting


Sometimes I forget just how useful warm-up sketches and painting can be. Enjoying taking old pencil sketches and digitally watercolour painting them with ArtRage to get my engine running for commissioned projects. 

I tend to build up a lot of neurotic "all conditions must be perfect in life, studio and mindset" hang-ups before I get started on things. It's good to visually slap myself out of it by working on pieces like this that are already decent drawings, and just play loose with the colour. 


I like this enough I made prints available in my store- - - - - - - -

Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite © to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

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Find me on Symbiartic, the art+science blog on the Scientific American Blog Network!

Beetle Week Day 3: Being a Freelancing Dad

Welcome to Day 3 of Beetle Week!

Earlier this year I was commissioned by entomologist and insect photographer Morgan Jackson of Biodiversity in Focus to contribute to a soon-to-be-published, honest-to-gosh, dead-tree book about jewel beetles in Ontario, Canada. The result? My first series of scientific illustrations, instead of the off-kilter, surreal science paintings I'm known for. 

Today: Being a Freelancing Dad
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Let's kick this off with another beetle illustration, since much of this post will be about being a working parent. Here's Spectralia gracilpes:

Spectralia, painted in ArtRage Studio Pro. © Glendon Mellow


Since last December when my wife Michelle returned to teaching, my primary job has been to be a full-time dad. At the same time, in no particular order, I do freelance science illustration, not-yet-monetized science-art consultation, sell the occasional print, do social media work for a major retailer, write a blog for Scientific American and work at a cafe.

 This isn't meant to be a whine from a sleepless parent.  Our son Calvin, 18 months old today, is actually doing pretty good right now, usually sleeping through the night or waking up once around 4 am. He's teething, has almost all of his chompers, but his eyeteeth are taking forever. I suspect he has some sort of huge sabretooth-tiger teeth coming in judging from the pain.

When Morgan Jackson commissioned me about this series of jewel beetles, I had hoped to be faster than I was. I'm fortunate that he and his team were patient and had a long timeline. When I used to work full-time as an art store manager, I'd get up at 5 and work at art or blogging for a couple of hours. That proved impossible over some winter months when Calvin really didn't sleep much (he'd be up from say, 1 am to 5 am nightly). Setting an alarm clock was a waste of time.

And over the past several months of being a freelancing-artist dad, I've learned some things I'd like to share. 



  • Keep in contact with other dads and moms in the same freelancing boat to retain your sanity. Mainly, I did this through Twitter. And I'd like to send a shout out to Chris Zenga, Eric Orchard, Kalliopi Monoyios, Russell Dickerson, Marc Scheff and Nathaniel Gold who were all there for me with advice and support at odd hours. Go buy all their prints, comics, books and hire them for work. They know how to keep it together.
  • Be thankful for your supportive spouse. Michelle really believes in my work, even when times are tough. Be thankful for big contracts.

  • Working digitally is sooooo much easier than working traditionally.  Digitally, you don't have to wash oil off your hands every time you need to take something out of their hands or pick them up.

  • Once your child enters the toddler stage, consider turning your desk around so it's not facing the wall, but facing the room. Then you can see what they're up to when you're stealing a couple of minutes to work.
     
  • Never leave your files open and graphic tablet out once they know how to climb a chair.

    Calvin,about 14 months, working on his art table next to my  workstation.


  • Put an art table next to your workstation. This has worked out well. It's all about mimicry and ain't nuthin' wrong with your kid learning to use a crayon or marker at a young age.

  • Get used to doing things in little bits. No more sitting down for an hour with headphones on listening to rap or metal full of swearing. It's 2 minutes while they're engaged with a snack or enraptured by kicking a ball around the room. Expect to join them to kick that ball.

  • The kid is more fun, more infectious with their sense of fun, than any work you might enjoy. That's my experience anyway. So I felt a lot of guilt when I'd play with my son, watching another self-imposed deadline dissolve like sugar in water.

    Get outside as much as you can. It's good to stretch your legs when you work freelance. 


  • Do something that makes money, immediate money. Don't be too proud. You owe it to your family, especially your spouse, not add to the aggregate stress more than you have to. While I've been a full-time dad, I've also gotten a part-time job at a cafe, because money became too tight and this was a way to get a small but regular injection of money into the household.

  • Don't forget to stop and recognize what you're achieving. This is where one friend (thank you Eric!) really hammered it home for me. Between working at the cafe, making freelance art, selling prints, writing for Scientific American, and doing some paid social media work for a retailer, I estimate I've been bringing in about half my old full-time job's salary per month. While being a full-time dad. Maybe it's not always enough to keep us comfortable, but I still need to be proud of that.
  • If you get an evening or a whole day to yourself, get some fucking work done. Don't play video games. Don't browse Netflix. Just get started, then make coffee and keep working.

    The rough little sketch I used for the Spectralia painting near the top. Looks like a squashed banana peel. 

  • Before we had Calvin and when I still was working at a full-time job, I'd get up around 5 am and blog or make art. That way, my day would start off doing what I love to do and then I'd go off to work in good cheer. I'm still striving to get back to that schedule as a dad, and friends tell me it gets easier as the kids get older. 
  • Every day when I get up, all groggy and I'm tempted to surf around online with my phone, I ask myself: "do I want to be a content-creator or content-consumer?" It's cheesy, but that phrase rings in my head louder than an alarm clock. 



Already in the time that has passed since I finished tweaking and uploading publishable files for Morgan Jackson, the stress of getting the job done while raising a sleepless vampire child is fading, and I'm left with a happy, healthy active kid who has a dad proud of artwork he'll be able to one day share with his son.

Who knows?  Maybe one day we'll find one of these beetles when we're out camping!

Those are my little pearls of wisdom. Any other freelancer parents have any more?

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Beetle Week continues tomorrow!

Day 1: The Challenge of Scientific Illustration
Day 2: Painting Bugs with ArtRage Studio Pro
Day 3: Being a Freelancing Dad
Day 4: Animated Painting of TrachysDay 5: The Exhibit

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite © to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

Portfolio
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Print ShopFind me on Symbiartic, the art+science blog on the Scientific American Blog Network!


Beetle Week Day 2: Painting Bugs with ArtRage Studio Pro

Welcome to Day 2 of Beetle Week!

Earlier this year I was commissioned by entomologist and insect photographer Morgan Jackson of Biodiversity in Focus to contribute to a soon-to-be-published, honest-to-gosh dead-tree book about jewel beetles in Ontario. The result? My first series of scientific illustrations, instead of the off-kilter, surreal science paintings I'm known for. 

Today: Painting Bugs with ArtRage Studio Pro

Technical specs: 


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When tackling a new illustration subject for the first time, I like to begin with mechanical pencil and bristol paper. They're my comfort zone. After that though, I have decisions to make. In my undergraduate degree, I worked mainly in oil paint. Since then, I sometimes find it more useful to paint digitally, especially for a project like these beetles. Adjustments and corrections to ensure scientific accuracy are much easier with digital media than with traditional paints.

I've tried a number of digital painting programs, and by far my favourite is ArtRage. If you're not familiar, it's a digital painting program with versions available for PC, Mac, iPad and the iPhone. Each one is relatively affordable (under $100 for the PC version, compared to several hundred for Photoshop).

The main attraction for me with this program has always been the interface. Instead of drop-down menus, ArtRage includes all the important tools right on the screen in two quarter-circles in the corners:

Screenshot showing the interface, from my original test of some of ArtRage Studio Pro's tools. Click to enlarge. 


On the left, all your tools: oil and watercolour brushes, inking pens, pencils, erasers and host of other tools from technical to goofy. On the right, the colours, allowing you to adjust tones and how metallic the paint appears. These two palettes, tools and colours, mean everything to me as a classically-taught painter. I feel just like I'm dipping into my palette or brush box.

In ArtRage you can control the paper or canvas surface (or blackboard, or sandpaper or...) and the digital paint handles differently on each type. The big advance in Studio Pro (also known as ArtRage 3) over the previous 2.5 version is, in my opinion, the amazingly realistic watercolours.

I planned to use watercolours for the beetles early on. It can give the work the feel of old naturalist's studies. However, as the project went on, I realized that more than watercolour would be needed to bring out the richness of texture and metallic colour on some of these little animals.

Here's a look at Xenorhipus:

Xenorhipus, one of the more colourful jewel beetles for this commission. © Glendon Mellow


This painting required a lot of stippling.  The Intuos 3 graphics tablet has 1024 levels of pressure, so you can achieve some subtlety of colour depending on how hard you press.  It's one of the main features of working on a desktop that remains superior to the iPad version.

Here's an up-close look:

Up close, closer than I look while actually painting, you can see metallic green pain near the top swathed in more liquid greens. The little greyish tadpole strokes in the bottom half show how varying pressure even in a single stroke can add to the detail. 


A few of the beetles were shiny brown shades, others were multiple bright metallic shades. Another nice feature in ArtRage is you can store and name specific palettes.  Here's one of mine, for Trachys:

Custom colour palette for Trachys, the most brilliant of the subjects. You can see the point of grey chosen on the colour palette at right that I've listed as "grey dots". I found that often, the colours I chose needed to be more brilliant than the ones in the photo references to "read" similarly to the eye. 

I also saved a custom brush that I found was useful for fine detail, hairs and lines on a number of the beetles. Here's a sample of a few light-colour brushstrokes on a dark ground from the painting for Texania:

Custom brush menu. You can save multiple menus, and make them available to more than one file. I've placed some brush strokes on the white area beneath the menu so you can see what they look like without the rest of the bug's head.


If you'd like to learn how to save your own custom tools, I made a short video tutorial last year:



ArtRage is powerful for painting, but sometimes a little less perfect for editing. A couple of the beetles had a kind of "squashed banana" look to them as a result of me trying to inject more dynamic poses and bending them where they don't bend. When I went in to fix them, I used Photoshop Elements 6, the eraser, free transform and the clone tool.

Here's examples of the bent beetle Paragrilus (left), and unbent (right).

Paragrilus, in a dynamic, twisty, squashed-banana pose on the left, and fixed using Photoshop on the right.


There are selection tools in ArtRage Studio Pro, as well as some tools called templates that can be used and I suspect could have done the job in fixing Paragrilus's tilted back, above. I'll have to experiment some more. In this case, I went with tools I already knew to make the correction, and ArtRage allows you to save files in Photoshop's .psd format, even keeping layers intact.

Have any other scientific illustrators tried using ArtRage to do their work?  I'd be curious to see other examples or get feedback on this project. I would certainly use it again, perhaps even with digital pencils as I become more comfortable with them.

Questions, comments and opinions encouraged below!

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Check out the rest of Beetle Week!


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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite © to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

Portfolio
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Print ShopFind me on Symbiartic, the art+science blog on the Scientific American Blog Network!



Beetle Week Day 1: The Challenge of Scientific Illustration

Welcome to Day 1 of Beetle Week on The Flying Trilobite!

Earlier this year, I was commissioned by entomologist and insect photographer Morgan Jackson of Biodiversity in Focus to contribute to a soon-to-be-published dead-tree book. The result?  My first series of scientific illustrations, instead of the off-kilter, surreal scientific illustrations I'm known for. Today: The Challenge of Scientific Illustration.

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I've been painting for a couple of decades, and blogging my artwork for over 5 years. One of the joys of this career is that there's always more to learn, more challenges, more surprises.

When Morgan Jackson first approached me about contributing 7 Ontario jewel beetle illustrations for an upcoming publications he and researchers at the University of Guelph are working on, I was excited about the idea and also a little intimidated.
 

Although I sometimes head to the Royal Ontario Museum to work on realistic drawings of fossil skulls, they are mainly exercises for myself, and not overseen by researcher in the field. I assume they do add a little to my professional street cred since this blog is frequented by paleontologists and paleo-art fans. Morgan's request was different. These needed to be spot-on scientific illustrations, useful for the purpose of identifying some of Ontario's diverse species.

So, I did what I usually do when trying to depict a new subject: got out my Strathmore Bristol paper and trusty .3mm mechanical pencil and started to draw in high detail. The project called for 7 species, and I decided to start in alphabetical order, with Agrilaxia.

Agrilaxia drawing, © Glendon Mellow


As I mentioned above, Morgan is an amazing nature photographer (seriously. Check this out. Or this.) Though I wasn't able to visit his lab, he provided me with stunning dorsal, ventral, side and genitalia(!) views of the beetles to illustrate.

And after scanning the drawing above, and opening up my favourite digital painting program, ArtRage Studio Pro, that's when I got cold feet. I mean, how realistic does the painting need to be?  You can zoom almost an infinite amount in a digital painting, and the high-res macro photos Morgan zipped and sent to me allowed a huge level of detail.

As I was zoomed in, I starting getting that creep of imposter syndrome. How could I possibly match a photo with a painting?

A cup of coffee later, and I started to relax. Morgan and his team were looking for scientific illustrations, for paintings, and I know he's viewed my portfolio. Making everything super-hyper-photo real wasn't the goal. I hoped.

I settled in and began to paint.

Screenshot of painting Agrilaxia in ArtRage Studio Pro, with Morgan Jackson's photo references on the left.

I'll say more about the process of painting with ArtRage tomorrow.  It's enough to say I employed a wide variety of that robust program's painting tools, and started to enjoy myself. I emailed some in process shots of Agrilaxia to Morgan, and to a couple of artists who's opinions and discretion I could trust.  I can count on them to keep me honest, and the reactions were positive.

Part way through the process of painting the beetles, I recall Morgan letting me know some of the other researchers were getting accustomed to my art style, or some words to that effect. Important feedback that sends me into a hyperactive state of focus, trying to ramp up my accuracy and tighten up the work.

Accurate enough? Final, almost full-res version of Agrilaxia. © Glendon Mellow


It was a lesson for me as an illustrator, and also one for researchers considering hiring an illustrator. Chances are, if you are not going with photography, there will always be a little of the artist's style - the movement of their hand, the colour associations in their eye - that is inherent in the final  illustration. It's the sum of the illustrator's experiences up to that point in their career coupled with doing something new.

That said, being a scientific illustrator carries the responsibility of taming style in the service of the twin aspects of accuracy and clarity.

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Stay tuned for the rest of Beetle Week




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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite © to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

Portfolio
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Print ShopFind me on Symbiartic, the art+science blog on the Scientific American Blog Network!