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Biology's technical illustrator brings
precision and beauty to her work
January 25, 1999

The & quot;eyes of a scientist& quot; is how Mary Jane Spring describes her role as technical illustrator for UConn's Biology Central Services.

"It's a very specialized job," she says. "I am the eyes of a scientist depicting for them what they think they see. You have to have the patience of Job, because it takes hours and hours."

Spring has been a science illustrator for the University for 23 years, originally one of two but now the only one remaining. Her main clients are the scientists of the three biology departments - ecology and evolutionary biology, molecular and cell biology, and physiology and neurobiology - for whom she does illustrations for journal articles and books.

Her work has appeared in more than 50 scholarly journals, including Science, Systematic Botany, Nature, Biochemical PharmacoToxicology & Applied Pharmacology, International Journal of logy, Toxicology & Applied Pharmacology, International Journal of Entomology, Evolution, The Auk, and Journal of Neuroscience.

Spring illustrates whatever the scientists need. & quot;Everybody I'm working for is working on something interesting,& quot; she says. & quot;I don't think I've ever been bored doing this, nor has any science illustrator I know. You're always faced with something new.& quot;

A key ability, she thinks, is being able to see things three-dimensionally. & quot;You can't see through tissue and muscle fiber to what's happening beneath, so you've got to picture it in your mind.& quot;

She works from slides, photographs, dissected material or living specimens, never other art work or even a verbal explanation. Reference books fill a bookcase in her studio in the Torrey Life Sciences Building, and she and the scientists stay in close touch as she proceeds.

"The illustrator works here, the artist works at home. In this job I'm a tool for them, not an artist as a creative person," she explains. "But I can bring clarity and depth, and sometimes beauty, to what I'm working on."

Her drawing must be not only precise, but a perfect specimen of what is being represented. A tiny change, such as the veining of an insect's wing, may differentiate one species from another. She often works under a microscope, and figures, on average, a drawing takes about 20 hours.

Mostly she uses pencil, building up tone upon tone to create depth and contours. A favorite technique is to add stippling - millions of tiny dots, done by hand - that also provide contour and shade.

"They take hours and hours to do, but when you get them to work really well, you get these incredible patterns of dark against light, light against dark. I can't tell you how much fun this is to do," she says. The result, in its precision, can look like a photograph.

One of the scientists Spring works for, Kurt Schwenk, a morphologist, says simply, & quot;She's extraordinarily talented. We are so fortunate to have someone like her in house. Especially in my field, good figures are the heart of the paper.& quot;

Currently, Schwenk is at work on a book about lizard feeding, and he hopes Spring's illustration - the head of a lizard, an insect trapped on its extended tongue - will be on the cover.

"I took her a photograph," he remembers. "I expected a very simple drawing. I didn't anticipate what, to me, is a piece of art, so finely rendered."

The value of illustrations over photographs, he explains, is twofold. & quot;The first is clarity. A photograph has extraneous information, whereas an illustration can focus in on the subject, leaving out or downplaying what is not needed.

Secondly, an illustration can show what is impossible to show otherwise, such as a structure within a structure,& quot; he adds. For instance, by depicting an outer layer in an almost transparent way, an illustrator can show what is beneath, as well as the relationship of the whole, something a photograph cannot do.

Computer technology gives Spring more control, and also demands that she be directly involved with production. She now works on film instead of paper, scanning images into the computer, where she can refine her work.

She now also talks directly to the pressman, who will advise her on such technicalities as line weight and dot gain. If the latter is wrong, she explains, the stippling will fill in and the result will be a black blotch.

In some instances, technology has sped up jobs enormously. At work on a Guide to Connecticut Dragonflies with David Wagner, also of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, she has been able to take torpid examples of the species (there will be 40 in all), weight their wings, and scan their images into the computer. Any damage to the wings can be repaired in the PhotoShop program. Then a print is made and she adds color, using gouache and watercolor. Finished time: two to four hours.

An active member of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators in Washington, D.C., Spring agrees that she and her colleagues are a rare breed, numbering - at least in terms of membership - only about 1,000 nationally.

At UConn, she works one-on-one with art students who are interested in the field, sharing her studio space with interns and with students working on independent study projects.

For Spring, there is also the artist's life, at home in Mystic, which she shares with husband Alan Brush, a recently retired professor of physiology and neurobiology at UConn. There she works in a variety of media, using the same subjects, more artistically rendered.

It was a bronze casting of an owl, which she first sculpted in clay in front of the owl's cage, that gave her the greatest compliment on her work. Bringing the bronze version back to show the subject, she elicited a hiss.

"That was the best reaction I've ever gotten to anything," she says. "If the owl thinks it looks like an owl, then I'm fine."

Janet Barrett