Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘illustration’

18 OCTOBER, 2013

Irving Geis’s Pioneering Scientific Illustrations and Diagrams of Imaginary Flight Paths to Venus

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What the structure of DNA has to do with interplanetary travel and the cross-pollination of art and science.

Two generations after Ernst Haeckel’s seminal biological art, American artist Irving Geis (October 18, 1908–July 22, 1997) ushered in a new era of scientific illustration, his intricate hand-drawn work shedding light on such landmark twentieth-century discoveries as the structure of proteins and DNA. When he was only 29, he was commissioned by Fortune to create this stunning drawing of the circulatory system, which would come to influence a wealth of subsequent stunning vintage illustrations of the body and which marked his foray into scientific illustration:

Though best-remembered today as the illustrator behind the 1954 classic How to Lie with Statistics (which remains an essential piece of cultural literacy, all the more relevant in today’s data-driven everything), Geis found himself mesmerized by the world of science by the beginning of the 1960s — a world that had been catapulted into an electrifying renaissance with the discovery of DNA only a few years earlier. And so Geis, formally trained as an architect and thus as far removed from science as formal education makes possible, set out to illuminate the building blocks of life using his singular skill. Soon, he began working with Scientific American and illustrating everything from cellular biology to space travel.

Geis's early sketch of a hemoglobin molecule. (Courtesy of the Irving Geis Collection, Howard Hughes Medical Institute)

Geis's illustration of the hemoglobin tetramer. (Courtesy of the Irving Geis Collection, Howard Hughes Medical Institute)

Concept sketch for Geis's 1961 painting of sperm whale myoglobin, the very first protein structure solved by X-ray crystallography, for Scientific American.

Irving Geis with his near-complete 1961 painting of the structure of myoglobin. The heme portion of the protein, depicted in red, is still lacking the oxygen molecule at its center. (Courtesy of the Irving Geis Collection, Howard Hughes Medical Institute)

In 1960, a year before he created his now-legendary myoglobin illustration for Scientific American, Geis was commissioned by the magazine to draw a series of diagrams envisioning four alternative flight paths to Venus. An article titled “Interplanetary Navigation,” premised on the idea that space flight between the planets should be a reality “within a year or two,” imagined how an earth-bound navigator would go about bringing a vehicle loaded with scientific instruments to the alluring second planet from the sun, which Scientific American deemed “the planet most likely to be visited first by an interplanetary vehicle.” (They were, of course, wrong — it wasn’t Venus, and it took another ten years to realize the interplanetary dream with Mars.)

Geis’s first task was to revise our conventional models of the cosmos with a third dimension in mind, because treating the solar system as two-dimensional “could cause a vehicle to miss its objective by a thousand miles.” So Geis took the standard two-dimensional diagram…

…and gave it a third dimension, drawing Earth’s orbit on one transparent sheet of plastic and Venus’s on another, then mounting the two sheets in a glass plate and angling them at the approximate angle at which the two planets’ orbital planes intersect each other:

Geis then inspected his three-dimensional model and decided on the best angle at which to translate it into a two-dimensional diagram. The resulting four diagrams depicted the four possible paths to Venus:

A flight path wholly in the plane of earth's orbit which is timed to make rendezvous with Venus when the planet crosses the earth's orbital plane.

A flight path wholly in the plane of Venus, with the launching of the vehicle timed at a moment when the earth crosses Venus's orbital plane.

A flight path started in the orbital plane of the earth and deflected in the orbital plane of Venus by a rocket thrust fired on a radio command from earth.

A flight path projected on a plane (hatched area) that intersects the orbital planes of the two planets, with the vehicle flying out of the earth's orbital plane and into the orbital plane of Venus.

Complement Geis’s work with this retrospective of 2,000 years of scientific images and a look at the history of medical illustration.

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11 OCTOBER, 2013

Drawn to New York: Counterculture Cartoonist Peter Kuper’s Illustrated Chronicle of 34 Years in Gotham

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“This city is change. That’s its glory — it’s a perpetually unfinished canvas, offering up possibility to each successive wave of artists.”

New York City isn’t wont for love letters (and, okay, the occasional hate mail and breakup letter) — from the illustrated to the poetic to the cartographic to the photographic to the literary, and even the canine and the feline. And if this tells us anything, it’s that the ultimate portrait of the city is a collage of a myriad subjective impressions and private experiences. In Drawn to New York: An Illustrated Chronicle of Three Decades in New York City (public library), celebrated illustrator and counterculture cartoonist Peter Kuper contributes his own, which he calls a “portrait of this city I love, both its darkness and light … a city whose story is ever being written.”

In the introduction, painter and graphic novelist Eric Drooker — who contributed to some of Gotham’s dystopian dreams — ponders the city’s enduring, ineffable mesmerism:

Like moths to a flame, millions are drawn to New York … but why?

What’s the attraction to the big city — the eternal Babel — with its endless confusion of tongues? What’s all the hubbub?

What is it that draws so many people — particularly artists — to Gotham?

Is it the buildings? The lights? The sound? The fury?

The wailing sirens at 3 A.M.? The incessant rumble of nonstop express trains on rusted subway tracks?

Or is it simply the seduction of anonymity in the big city … a chance to reinvent oneself in the rush hour crowd?

Many come as a career move, hoping to be discovered by others … or at least to find themselves.

Many self-appointed New Yorkers, of course, can only connect the dots of how and why we ended up in city, as Steve Jobs poignantly noted of life’s general dot-connecting in his timeless Stanford commencement address, by looking back and never by looking forward. When Kuper packed his own midwestern bags at the age of eighteen to make Gotham his adopted home, he had just an abstract sense of why the city — vertical, gridded, stark — drew him. Only decades later would he capture this abstraction in the concrete, stark grids of his cartoon strips and graphic novels.

Dazzled by the city’s glamor on a childhood visit — with his family, at the age of nine, to see his uncle perform on Broadway — young Kuper also witnessed the inevitable sight of New York’s gruffness, involving a gas truck, a drunk man in a Pontiac, a cacophony of blaring horns, and his father leaping into action to save the drunk from an inevitable explosion. That experience shaped his entire understanding of the city. Kuper recalls:

Clearly New York was a dangerous place where terrible things could happen, but also a place that could turn ordinary people into superheroes. On that sweltering August night, amid the roaring swirl of Manhattan’s manic energy, I decided I wanted to move to this city as soon as possible.

It took him a decade, but in June of 1977, he set fateful foot on Gotham soil at Grand Central, set on becoming a New York animator. The city he arrived in — bankrupt, with decrepit subways, a ghostly Times Square at night, and streets lined with towers of uncollected trash from a garbage strike — sounds to the onlooker almost nightmarish, a nightmare made all the grimmer by the famous Blackout that hit only a month later, unleashing rampant looting. But Kuper was in heaven, living his dream.

That, perhaps, is the sign of a great New Yorker, and especially a great New York artist: The ability to love the city not despite its grit but because of it, to inhabit its struggles with dignity rather than disgust, with empathic curiosity rather than cruel gawking. And that is precisely what Kuper has been doing for thirty years in his drawings of the city at its most real yet its most affectionate, and above all its comforting mutability. Kuper himself puts it beautifully:

This city is change. That’s its glory — it’s a perpetually unfinished canvas, offering up possibility to each successive wave of artists.

Though all of Kuper’s work is remarkably dimensional, brimming with social, cultural, and political commentary, among his most striking pieces is this irrepressibly unsettling, viscerally disquieting image of the raw, debilitating trauma that 9/11 inflicted on the city:

Pair Drawn to New York: An Illustrated Chronicle of Three Decades in New York City with 10 favorite nonfiction reads on NYC.

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09 OCTOBER, 2013

Salvador Dalí Illustrates Don Quixote

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The art of fighting surrealist windmills.

Salvador Dalí was no stranger to literary illustration, from his heliogravures for Alice in Wonderland to his drawings for Montaigne’s essays. But arguably his most elegant take on a literary classic comes from this rare 1946 edition of Don Quixote De La Mancha (public library) by Miguel de Cervantes. (Cervantes’s exact birthday remains uncertain — September 29, 1547 is the commonly agreed upon date, but there are no surviving birth records; the only official record is that of his baptism on October 9, 1547.)

Scrumptiously surrealist, Dalí’s drawings — a combination of black-and-white sketches and watercolors — are the best visual take on the Cervantes classic since Spanish graphic design pioneer Roc Riera Rojas’s 1969 illustrations.

Complement with Dalí’s 1967 illustrations of the signs of the zodiac, then revisit Matisse’s etchings for Ulysses.

Thanks, Wendy

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.