How one scientist transformed scientific art

Guest Author: Henry Hershey

Editor: Patrick Cooney

On October 23rd 2016, Rene Martin, a PhD student studying the evolution of deep sea fishes at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, decided to create a hashtag on Twitter for the sole purpose of motivating herself to draw every week.

#SundayFishSketch

The first piece of art that started the #SundayFishSketch tradition.

Lucky for the rest of us, the hashtag quickly picked up steam as other scientists also had a creative itch and began to contribute and promote the weekly ritual. After two years of tweets, #SundayFishSketch has become more than a hashtag. It is now a rallying point for a community of ichthyophiles who every Sunday share their passion for art and fishes on Twitter and Instagram. This past week alone, tweets with the hashtag reached more than 50,000 unique accounts on Twitter.

What a difference a year of practice makes.
Every year on the anniversary of #SundayFishSketch, Rene once again composes the Opah.

Rene says that the Sunday fish sketch community is comprised of two types of followers: “The first are the countless people who follow the hashtag, like and retweet the images, and just enjoy the art of fishes every week; and the second are those who participate, enjoy practicing, and enjoy sharing their own love of fishes through art.”

Rene has remained a top contributor since she created the hashtag, and has shared dozens of works of art. Through experimentation she has developed a distinctive style, and discovered that her preferred media are ink and watercolor. Furthermore, she says that the “constant practice has helped her have a better eye for what to look for in fish identification, and has brought her around to looking up information on fish groups that she might never have thought about before.” She hopes that the community continues to grow and that scientists realize it is never too late to practice art.

When asked what she believes scientists can gain from incorporating art into their work, Rene said “Scientists can save illustration costs by being able to make their own figures, and it gives them the freedom and ability to put to graphics what is in their mind’s eye. We have a story to tell for every publication, and that story may be better realized if the author is also capable of creating the illustrations to go with it. Additionally, art is great for scientific outreach and helps the scientific community tell their stories to the public as well.”

Another one of the hashtag’s top contributors is M. Chaise Gilbert, a PhD student studying fish morphology at UMass Amherst. Since the hashtag’s inception, “sketch” has always been interpreted loosely: some people doodle cartoons on bar napkins, and some people tweet paintings that took hours to complete. One unique and colorful style of “fish art” is Chaise’s photography of cleared and stained specimens. “Clearing, staining, and imaging really helps visualize anatomy for both research and science communication. Plus, it can make pretty artwork!”

Chaise is also an avid illustrator and has noticed an improvement in both his artwork and science thanks to the weekly practice: “I’ve always quickly drawn sketches of fishes that I’ve had to learn or hadn’t seen before – in field notebooks and such – but my skills as an illustrator have really improved because of this. Anytime I see something odd or new (e.g., an oddly shaped bone or a new structure), I usually try to sketch it out in my research notes.”

Another artist who credits the hashtag for catalyzing their development as an artist is Cory Brant, a post-doc at University of Michigan studying sea lamprey control in the Great Lakes. Like many of the contributors, Cory has always loved art and fish, but he had never been very social about it. After a long hiatus, and a post-graduate degree slump, Cory found that drawing greatly improved his mood and the community has helped him stay inspired: “No matter your level of practice, everyone is supportive and kind—I think that was what really hooked me. All of the fish science that comes along with the sketches lured me in, too.”

One of the most remarkable things about the #SundayFishSketch community is how supportive the artists and followers are. It can be difficult for budding artists to share their work publicly where it may be critiqued, but to have a community of passionate and diverse people who support and share everyone’s work can be instrumental to the learning process. Furthermore, the inclusiveness of the community and the skill of the artists attract non-scientists and broaden the audience for scientific outreach. 

When asked about the intersection between art and science, Cory Brant said “I think both scientists and artists have a lot to gain by incorporating the other into their work. I’m personally very passionate about bringing art into my science, especially for outreach. If no one ever sees your science, no one will ever use it, or fund it. Art can allow people to visualize your work the way you visualize it in your head as a scientist. I’ll also add that art and science aren’t that different. Both require a deep level of curiosity, an experimental process, patience, and a high tolerance for failure. For me it just makes sense to blend the two, it’s a win-win.”

Please join the #SundayFishSketch community on Twitter or Instagram, and contribute with the artists who are doing an excellent job at communicating science through art.

About the Guest Author (and fellow #SundayFishSketch Artist)

Henry Hershey @spoonbill_hank 

To me, #sundayfishsketch is like an art gallery where we can all go on Sundays (and sometimes Mondays) to see and talk about really beautiful art and science. I’m inspired weekly by the contributors, and I hope that by writing this blog piece, they can inspire even more people. If you doodle fish in your lab notebook, or if you paint oil canvases, there is room for you in the gallery that Rene started. Come see our work this Sunday and admire the talent, learn something new, have a good laugh, and make new friends!Also, it’s worth mentioning that many of us have made publication-quality graphics and are up for hire! As scientists, we often try to communicate our message simply, and without distracting flourishes or ornamentation. But the point of scientific art is not to detract from your message. It is to amplify it by making it beautiful and memorable. Here is an illustration I did for MarAlliance, which was a collaboration that started thanks to #sundayfishsketch and the Fisheries Blog. 

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