Friday, February 8, 2013

"Science Enthusiast"

Our own local version of Neal deGrasse Tyson/Carl Sagan/Bill Nye is Alaskan rocket scientist Neal Brown, self-proclaimed "science enthusiast" of the first order. He frequently lectures on topics such as the aurora borealis, rocketry and remote mapping for such organizations as Osher Life Long Learning (which I maight be teaching a section on drawing comics for the local group later this spring), Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel), and groups like The Planetary Society from Los Angeles and Astronomy magazine. Formerly a professor with UAF Geological Institute and director of Poker Flats Research Range, he infuses his talks with a passion for science and a sense of humor, and like all great teachers, instills a sense of wonder about his work.
"Curious that we spend more time congratulating people who have succeeded than encouraging people who have not." – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neal's long used some of my earlier cartoon panels from yore in his presentations about the aurora borealis, and proposed a commission for me to create an illustration for accompanying his newest round of public lectures.
Above is the client-provided concept, which has the general gist and enough of the key components to set about doodling a preliminary digital rough, as seen arranged below.

Problem was, it didn't really look all that much like him, and so we arranged a coffee break at my office the local bookstore where I could sketch, observe and snap a few reference photos to use in conjuring up a caricature (besides the hat-tip to the Sorcerer's Apprentice hand-gesture).
Another crucial concern was addressed about the expressions of the Alaskan menagerie conveying a sense of wondrous, enraptured awe re: “science enthusiast” - as opposed to the doleful ones they usually sport. On a related note, it was a sincere pleasure to caricature someone smiling for once, an altogether refreshing break from drawing folks like politicians.
“The more you find out about the world, the more opportunities there are to laugh at it.” ― Bill Nye

Fueled by the thoroughly appropriate soundtrack of Prometheus: two stellar themes, "Earth" and "Life," composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, and the theme by Marc Streitenfeld, which as of late accompanies the first cup of coffee in the morning before picking up a pencil.
Speaking of, the pencil stage, as seen below, was the next phase to set about arranging a good composition. And mostly what's meant by that would be not overcrowding the literal stage by judicious editing of elements and rearrangement of the characters in such a way so as to allow for some visual breathing room. Hence the shifting and swapping to arrive at a more balanced composition.
Keen eyes will also discern the inclusion of a different, unique set of peaks in the backdrop: as per request, that's Mount Sukapak from a different perspective (the view from the north, rather than the more commonly seen Milepost centerfold viewed from the south while traveling up the Haul Road).

It felt great to pick up the pen and almost ink everything in without incident (one notable disaster occurring in the raven's face), but as is more often the case than not, there's always a little speed-bump along the way. Lately I've been obsessing over getting the original drawing as close as possible to the end result, and while this sharpens focus on the aspect of craft, there's fortunately some allowance for digital solutions to fix the finished versions, which will be used in other formats (print and on-line) as opposed to selling originals.
So a last-minute request to put a bit of snow on the left + middle peaks was easy to do on the fly, and tweaking the position of the stars that comprise Ursa Major and the symbolic North Star.

Fortunately my cartoon rendition of the aurora borealis wasn't too garish and abstracted for either a discerning scientist or fine artist like the Significant Otter, who lobbied to color shift the bands to red, in part to balance out the red on the parka. On the other hand it's a decision based on basic color theory - in this case utilizing a deliberate spotlighting effect so as to highlight the focal point, that being Mr. Brown, and to offset the comparative busyness of the detailed sky and balance the composition from top to bottom.
The end result was a really fun image to both produce and to look at, and one that will serve its purpose well. Which made for the best possible outcome that any artist would want.

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were.
But without it we go nowhere.”
- Carl Sagan


  1. What a joy to read about how you compose an illustration, and it's even more fun since I know Neal in person! (He's my uncle).

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  2. You are welcome, and thanks for the comment - it really was a treat and genuine pleasure to create!

  3. Hi Jamie, Paula Long read part of your blog to introduce me to a Road Scholar group in Cold Foot the other night. I had not seen it before and am humbled by what you wrote. I sent the URL for this to my extended family. I enjoyed working with you too.

  4. Thanks Neal - really glad it's been made a part of your presentations, which are always a hit - one of the few inspirations as of late to make me actually look up from the drawing board at the sky!