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
- -
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?

- -

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

- - - - - - - -

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

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: 

- -
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!

- -

Check out the rest of Beetle Week!

- - - - - - - -

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

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.

- -

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.

- -

Stay tuned for the rest of Beetle Week

- - - - - - - -

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

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

Incredible Hulk Anatomy

(This post originally appeared yesterday on Symbiartic, the art+science blog I co-author on the Scientific American Blog Network.)
- -
Like millions of other superhero comic fans, I loved Joss Whedon's & Marvel's The Avengers when I saw it (in 2D) opening weekend. Motion-captured Mark Ruffalo turned in the most incredible version of the Hulk we've seen yet on the screen.  Squeeing and cheering, it reminded me of a drawing I had made back  in 2002.  I drew this fan art of Marvel Comics' Incredible Hulk, dissected and analyzed. Here it is with a new lick of paint. 

Hulk © Marvel Comics. This fan art has moral © Glendon Mellow. Feel free to share under Creative Commons.

At the time, I tried to draw on not only my mother's nursing school anatomy textbooks, but also gorilla and hominid ancestor skulls (such as Paranthropus, though my murky text  identitifies it with the outdated Zinjanthropus name), inspiration for things like the cranial ridge and large jaw muscles. I included details such as 3 scars on the bone (I'm Canadian: Wolverine wrecked his face a few times and I wanted to document that) and perfect glowing teeth. If anyone has perfect shiny teeth, it needs to be Hulk.
The science and geekery site recently listed 10 Science Concepts that Could Spawn Awesome Supervillains (by Esther Ingliss-Arkell). Established characters borne of exaggerated real world scientific causes could probably use science-inspired revisions too.  Can't wait to get my hands on The Art of Marvels The Avengers to see what scientific concepts the pros who designed the movie concept art came up with.

- - -
As a bonus not featured on Symbiartic, here's what the labels around ol' Jade Jaws' head say.
  • The Hulk Reviewed
  • Points of interest concerning the osteological and muscular systems. 

TOP LEFT: The Skull

  • Note muscle-anchoring protuberances and ridges not found in average frontal and zygomatic bones. 
  • Enlarged and bifurcated nasal cavities; see Appendix 3.1 for discussion and speculation of respiratory efficiency. See also; ribcage and spinal cord sinuses. 
  • Note disproportion of maxilla to mandible. 

TOP RIGHT: The Skull
  • Grossly enlarged frontal fontanelle, similarity to Zinjanthropus found in 1959. 
  • Three scars unhealed grazing left ocular cavity; unusually, no traces of foreign molecules present. 
  • Connective tissue spurs above eyeteeth at gumline. 
  • Note complete absence of tooth decay or erosion. 
  • Analysis of blood vessel to marrow ratios reveals skeletal system itself surprisingly fragile relative to comparisons with muscle and tissue tensile densities. 

BOTTOM RIGHT: Musculature

  • Layers of cartilage and dense marrow-like tumours surround blood vessels; protecting both vessels and braincase simultaneously. 
  • Jaw muscles extend to skull ridge homologous to gorilla. 
  • Note muscles allowing subject to shut nostrils: unheard of in primates. This trait normally found in desert-dwelling ungulates such as dromedary camel. 
  • Jaw may lock while mandible is at any degree of extension. 
  • Elasticity of muscle tissues allows striations and contractions on 4-axis per muscle. Eyes and mouth can close using enormous, continuous pressure. 

- - -
Above image done in pencil and painted in ArtRage Studio Pro. The Incredible Hulk is © Marvel Comics and I did this piece of fan art without permission but with respect.  I claim only a moral copyright to this specific rendition of their character.

- - - - - - - -

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

Print Shop

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

Flying Trilobite YouTube Channel

There's been a positive response to my two very brief art tutorial videos, so I decided to make a YouTube Channel to keep them in one place. I hope to make some more.

You can see both videos below, or visit them on YouTube for comments, liking, and counting how many times I say "umm".

Flying Trilobite YouTube Channel

- - - - - - - -

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

Print Shop 

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