Navigating between the arts and the sciences has been a lifelong journey for me. While I currently spend my days pursuing a PhD in cell and molecular biology, I have considered myself an artist long before I identified as a scientist. Nowadays as I pursue both simultaneously, I’ve come to realize that there are more similarities in how I approach my visual art practice and my science research than what one might initially think.
Start with a plan
With any project, be it in art or science, I always start with a plan. In the sciences, we are trained to consider the existing evidence to form hypotheses and design experiments to test them. This requires analyzing how to tackle a question first, thinking through all the materials we need, planning out a schedule for all the steps, and anticipating other ways to examine the question. With painting, similar research and planning also occurs before we pick up a brush. Finding reference images, learning about the subject(s) or theme, training your eye to evaluate the colors and shapes of an image, and thinking through how to convey a certain message are all part of the forethought required to create a design. In the case of murals or large-scale installations, space and location are additional factors to consider that affect planning, and as in science, I like to be prepared with some backup plans to execute the project.
But…Keep an open mind
Now while it’s helpful to have a plan, I do so with the caveat of holding space for the unexpected. We’ve all heard about scientific discoveries that came from serendipitous accidents or surprising data that has led to uncovering new phenomena or materials. From Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin to the unintended creation of various plastics and materials, being open to curveballs in our plans can yield new directions. Being flexible while painting to allow for unrestrained brushstrokes, accepting unplanned behaviors in the medium, and embracing mistakes can lead to beautiful visual details that can add or change the direction of a piece.
Getting comfortable with failure and the unknown
Speaking of mistakes, I’ve learned that exploring new questions and pushing against comfort zones always means running into roadblocks or failure of some sort. The idea of failed science experiments and troubleshooting why things aren’t working in the lab is commonplace. Chemical reactions gone wrong, computers and machines giving error messages – these are the scenarios that easily come to mind when people think of working as a scientist. The idea of science naturally lends itself to the general image of figuring out problems or making discoveries. However, although it’s less apparent, when I think about my creative practice and the process of making art, I find that I often confront the same sense of troubleshooting and peering into the unknown. In creating visual based art, learning how to use new materials, making choices on how to structure two dimensional compositions, or figuring out how to arrange elements in a three dimensional space all require embracing failed attempts.
It is this freedom to play among our failures and discover through trial and error that lies at the heart of both the arts and sciences. It frames not only my own relationship with my painting and science research, but also how I approach making sense of the world that surrounds us. I’d like to think that, looking at the bigger picture, we can boil down the differences of our idea of arts and sciences as separate things and reframe it as simply finding joy in exploring. Perhaps ultimately, this can free us all to see past the labels and redefine ourselves as our own everyday artists and scientists.