Accidental biology

A self-taught artist discovered the world of biology by dabbling in watercolors

By | September 24, 2010

Painter Michele Banks wasn't intending to delve into the realm of science with her work when she began dabbling in watercolors. But when the Washington D.C.-based artist dripped a spot of wet paint onto a larger splotch of different-colored paint, she did just that. And she hasn't looked back since. Thirty years ago, linkurl:Benoit Mandelbrot; described how natural forms -- from trees and ferns to coastlines -- could be described by fractals. Two recent papers in linkurl:__Science__; and linkurl:__The EMBO Journal__; propose that fractals can also explain the three-dimensional structure of chromatin within the cell's nucleus. The repeating patterns of fractals can also lend themselves to art, as Banks discovered when she learned to paint with watercolors. Strikingly, the fractal patterns she created looked, to scientists she met, like cellular processes. Banks trained neither as an artist nor a scientist. Rather, she studied Russian, and even lived and worked in Russia for a while. But she eventually felt her artistic side yearning for an outlet, and when she and her husband moved to Bermuda for his job, she didn't have a work permit and took the opportunity to paint. She took a couple of art classes, and in one lesson learned the 'wet in wet' technique, where a drop of color is added to a wash of a different color. The paint bleeds out, naturally yielding fractal patterns. Banks was hooked on the technique. Soon, admirers began recognizing similarities between Banks' paintings and biological phenomena. Someone from the Children's National Medical Center in Washington saw her work at a show and said, "Wow, these really look like things under a microscope," Banks recalls, "specifically things that looked like dividing cells." So she refined her technique, and read up on biology so she could understand what exactly what she was painting. Although she didn't set out to create biological images in the first place, "that's what the paint wanted to do and I just kind of interpreted it," she says. Since then, she's found that she can guide the paint to create the objects she's interested in: from mitotic spindles to bacteria and viruses, and lately brain cells. Banks feels that a lot of artists look down on the use of watercolors, because they are often used to paint "boring" landscapes or bowls of fruit, but she thinks watercolors are uniquely suited to the style of painting she's creating, because of the subtle colour variety and transparency effects that she can create. She is taking the classic watercolor landscape or bowl of fruit and going "down a few levels," she says. "I'm just seeing what's going on inside that tree, or inside that banana." Apart from the fractals, Banks finds the transparency of watercolors useful in her work. She uses a bare wash of paint to represent the cytoplasm, and creates subcellular structures like mitotic spindles and cytoskeletal components on top of it. She is amazed by how much micrographs of cells, which are ubiquitous online, look like her own work. She puts this down to the fractal patterns that are everywhere. "They naturally occur when you put wet paint on wet paint." Banks started selling her paintings on the internet just this year, and she's been able to connect with an entire community interested in the intersection of art and science. Previously, she doesn't think she would have met these people, and neither would they have seen her work, if it were limited to local shows. "It's been a great thing for me," she says, "I'm getting input from them and they're enjoying my work." The people who buy her paintings are overwhelmingly scientists, Banks adds. Some works she sells directly to university departments and hospitals. Doctors like pictures of heart rhythms, and a patient with arrhythmia has even bought one, she says. "It's something that's personal for him. It's actually what's going on inside his heart." Banks even takes commissions: She'll do a custom heart rhythm from your own electrocardiogram, and some people have asked her to try brainwaves next. "I'm very much open to suggestions," she says. Despite her love for watercolors, Banks isn't going to limit herself to just the one medium. Washington is a center for artists who work with glass, and friends have gotten her interested in using the medium to represent biological images. The transparency of glass is particularly well suited to biology, she feels, because it lets you see inside. "It's definitely something I'm going to explore." Michele Banks' online shop is called linkurl:Artologica,; and she'll be showing her latest work at an exhibition in West Gallery 8 of the linkurl:Clinical Center; at the NIH in Bethesda, MD, from 14th January, 2011 through 5th March, 2011.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Totipotent art;
[23rd July 2010]*linkurl:Brain paintings;
[11th June 2010]*linkurl:Painting climate change;
[5th March 2010]


Avatar of: Andrew Russo

Andrew Russo

Posts: 5

September 24, 2010

Very interesting article but what a tease. Where are some examples of the pictures?
Avatar of: Bob Grant

Bob Grant

Posts: 22

September 24, 2010

Hello Andrew,\n\nThanks for reading. Please view the YouTube video to see examples of Banks' work and to hear her describe it herself!\n\nTake care,\n\nBob Grant - Associate Editor, The Scientist
Avatar of: Michael Garfield

Michael Garfield

Posts: 1

October 1, 2010

What a delight to find this article! I went from scientific illustrator at the National Biodiversity Research Center Dept. of Herpetology to a live performance painter at concerts, and took the subject matter along with me for the ride...\n\nEvery once in a while I meet a college professor or passionate amateur scientist who recognizes the biological themes in my work (fractality, genetic algorithms, embryogenesis, microbial diversity) and commissions one of these cross-over "psychedelic science" paintings. But for the most part, I have the unique opportunity to teach people about science at electronic dance parties, jam band shows, and the like...a truly unique venue for this kind of information.\n\nHere is a timelapse video I made while painting DNA as it folds into chromatin - narrated with a bit of Genetics 101. I deeply enjoy this kind of cross-disciplinary multimedia presentation:\n\n\n\nI would love to meet anyone else as passionate about destroying this obsolete notion that Science and Art are two incommensurable cultures...let's connect!\n\nHere's my art/science blog:\n

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