What do science writing and sketching have to do with each other? Wyoming EPSCoR asked me…


I was recently interviewed for the Wyoming EPSCoR program’s blog.

In addition to a number of questions specific to the nature of sketching workshops I teach, Jess White from EPSCoR asked a thought-provoking question about how drawing contributes to my writing. It was a question I’d never consciously considered before, and I was delighted to be compelled to do so.

Little of that aspect of the interview made it into the final article, which is how interviews often go – there’s only room for so much, and no matter how interesting a tangent may be, it may not sync well with the dominant theme of the article.

So, here’s the “how sketching influences my writing” out-take:

Since you’re also a science writer and essayist, can you talk about the connections you see between art/illustration and your writing?

In a pragmatic sense, drawing compels me to look very closely at a given subject – much more closely than I find I do if I merely work to describe that subject in writing. I also have to problem-solve visually, which involves capturing color in a visceral way, drawing and re-drawing a form until I have accurately captured the shape, relationships of parts, sizes, etc.

I find when I carry my sketchbook along on a hike, or out into the garden, for example, that my eyes are more attuned to nuances of light, color, minute signs of wildlife (including insects), etc. I notice the play of the clouds in the sky more if I try to draw them, and I definitely find I engage more with all my senses than I do when I just snap a reference photo and move on. And sometimes, I have an opportunity to interview someone or draw something that I likely wouldn’t have access to if it weren’t for the serendipity of art as an “introduction” or access point.

All of this deep observation pays off for my writing in explicit ways.

Three galls_illustration_v2_rsLast summer, for example, I wrote two short essays about bizarre insect observations I made. Both essays started as a series of sketches, made while I was observing these insects in their natural environments. The first, about sage brush galls, led to considerable time browsing through scientific articles about parasitic insects and has changed the way I perceive sage brush.

The other, about flashing fireflies I saw near Firefly logo_v1my hometown in Montana, proved to be a moment of discovery that contradicts the extensive scientific literature about where in North America flashing fireflies occur (supposedly only east of Kansas!). In the ensuing writing process, I spent a delightful afternoon touring the Montana State University Entomology Collection (during which the director confirmed I should have kept the
20150630_firefly 5_cleanspecimens I caught and sketched, as he’s in the process of collecting enough to publish a scientific paper demonstrating fireflies do occur in MT), and even later wound up with a commission to draw a firefly logo for a research project on acoustics.

On a related note, I find my capacity to articulate what I observe (in writing) is supplemented by the broad and rich vocabulary of the art world.

Art-informed concepts/words such as chiaroscuro, baroque, stippling, and burnt sienna expand my linguistic repertoire in fundamental and productive ways. I have actually considered organizing some workshops for local writers that would explicitly explore writing about color through hands-on sessions with researchers who study visible light and teaching artists who can provide writers with experience mixing and identifying colors.

You can also enjoy the benefits that drawing contributes to science writing.

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