Diana Marques is a freelancer scientific illustrator and animator from Portugal, with over 10 years of experience in visual science communitation.
She is now working on her PhD in Digital Media in an international collaboration between Universidade of Oporto and UT Austin. Also working at the Smithsonian Museum (NMNH) in Washington, DC, with a team of media professionals on augmented reality, software development and imaging technology.
Sciencemotionology: How was it to move from a major in biology to work in scientific illustration?
Diana: It was an easy decision to make. There wasn’t much of a prospect of a career in biology, at least not in the area that I wanted to work on (Entomology, the study of insects), and scientific illustration was an equally appealing career to me, maybe even more attractive. I don’t see it necessarily as a move though, in retrospect it feels like a very natural course of events.
Sciencemotionology: Was this transition easy to do in Portugal? Would it be easier if you had a course dedicated to scientific illustration, as you can find in the USA for some years now?
Diana: I actually did take a graduate certificate program in the United States, at the University of California in Santa Cruz. It is one of the best programs in scientific illustration available, and it was certainly critical in getting me into the field and in instructing about all the fundamentals of the profession.
Sciencemotionology: You essentially started in scientific illustration but now you’re expanding towards mobile apps and animation. What is your perception on the evolution of scientific illustration and where do you think it will be in 2020?
Diana: The field of scientific illustration has been in constant mutation since its beginnings, for it accompanies the advancement of scientific knowledge and the advancement of visualization tools. At the pre-photography period, all artists had to rely exclusively on drawing directly from nature and specimens, or interpreting written information about what cannot be seen (and hence photographed). At the pre-computer period, all artists had to use were traditional drawing and painting techniques. But neither the camera nor the computer have eradicated scientific illustration, they have instead transformed it. And the transformation is reflected on the way that science is communicated visually. We should no longer think of illustration or animation or mobile technology as water-tight, but as methods that inform and permeate each other and jointly work towards disseminating science in an appealing and informative way. As such, the expansion of the methods that I work on is the natural accompaniment of the flow of the field.
Sciencemotionology: How do you think new technologies (such as holograms and augmented reality) will be incorporated into scientific illustration or even push it to another level?
Diana: As I said above, I think it is science that is driving the methods that are used to communicate it visually, not digital technology pushing scientific illustration or the other way around. Sometimes they’ll be used separately, some others they’ll be blended, to a point where the method becomes irrelevant, only the message is important.
Sciencemotionology: An illustrator works essentially alone. However, this is almost impossible to do in animation. How are you handling this?
Diana: The work that I have been doing lately definitely involves a team with specialized roles; I’ve been playing as an artist but I’ve also been acting as a project manager, guaranteeing that all pieces fit together. It’s a different mind set, frustrating at times when the timelines don’t evolve as expected, but also rewarding to feel the team is passionate about common goals.
Sciencemotionology: A provocative question: Do you think there is space for creativity in scientific illustration? How is it more than a “hand crafted” photograph of a jelly fish or a horse?
Diana: Any scientific illustration can be placed within a large spectrum. There is one end where illustrations do not add a whole lot to the information visible in a photograph – they make the subject more attractive by repairing anatomical details, bring it all to focus, display what is the idealized specimen, all features sometimes quite important for including in scientific publications, but they are arguably one-organism representations that can be shown, albeit inferiorly, by a photograph. At the other end of the spectrum however, we find illustrations that represent subjects that cannot be photographed – multi-organism environments, scientific concepts, non-existing or non-visible themes (think dinosaurs). In addition, the artist’s creativity can be reflected in many ways, not just on the subject itself, but on the composition of the illustration, the color palette used, the use of the media, etc.
Sciencemotionology: What would be your dream project to illustrate?
Diana: I don’t think I have one dream project. But there are definitely illustration applications that appeal to me, like any kind of visual production to museum exhibits, which I’ve done quite a bit of (e.g. here); and stamps. I have never formally collected stamps but I love the tiny pieces of art and the challenge of designing for them. The United Nations invitation to design the 20th anniversary of the Endangered Species stamp collection was a special project to participate in.
Sciencemotionology: May you disclose a little bit about your current projects?
Diana: I am currently very much focused on my doctoral research with augmented reality and mobile technology in the context of museum exhibits. It has given me the opportunity to be on my usual perch - illustrating, designing, working with technology - during the production of the mobile app Skin & Bones for the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. But it also leading me to study the consumer side, the users of the app, the visitors of the museum, to understand what their experience is with the visuals and technology that we produce. It is a much more encompassing position to be in and I believe will ultimately make me a better artist and technologist because I understand my audience better.
Sciencemotionology: You must get this question many times: how is it working at the Smithsonian among all the skeletons and the spider webs?
Diana: It’s pretty special. I’ve been collaborating with the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, in various capacities, for close to 10 years now. People are more familiar with the public side of the museum and its countless permanent and temporary exhibits; it is the second most visited in the world, only second to the Louvre. But the research side is quite impressive as well, with collections that contain over 120 million objects and specimens, and scientists that are some of the world experts in their research subject. There is a shared feeling of pride and dedication among all Smithsonian staff, that is very understandable and easy to relate to.
Sciencemotionology: What is Skin & Bones? Will it bring a new life to the "Smithsonian experience"?
Diana: Skin & Bones is a mobile app we developed for the Bone Hall of the Museum, a permanent skeleton exhibit that contains some of the oldest displays in the institution, dating back to the 1880s. The current design of the Bone Hall is from the 60s with very particular aesthetics and reduced visitor dwelling-time, given the long and scholarly text panels and repetitiveness of the close to 300 skeletons on display. So technology was a good solution to add a layer to the exhibit, literally bringing 13 skeletons to life, through augmented reality, videos and games – you will see a Vampire Bat skeleton come off its mount and start running away (they’re the only bats that can walk on the ground), a 5m long extinct Steller's Sea Cow being skinned, interviews with Smithsonian scientists, among many other features. Skin & Bones was released in January and the feedback from the visitors to the museum and our colleagues has been very positive.
Sciencemotionology: I noticed you're applying to take S&B to the SXSW interactive festival in Texas for 2016. What is the importance of S&B being selected for this festival?
Diana: We sent a proposal to go to Austin TX and present at SXSW Interactive 2016. Part of the selection process is through public voting which will be going on until September 4 2015, and then the SXSW staff and an expert panel have a saying in the final program. SXSW has become an important annual gathering for artists and technologists, with profuse attendance of reference speakers and companies, and influencing technology, film and music trends. It’s a great opportunity to network, learn what our colleagues are doing and share our own work and findings.
Sciencemotionology: Where can we find you and your work in the future?
Diana: I can always be found at www.dianamarques.com and @diana_c_marques, it’s the best way to find what I’m up to. Do get in touch, I’d love to hear from you!
"...no longer think of illustration or animation (...) as water-tight"
"...to feel the team is passionate about common goals"
"...How is it working (...) among all the skeletons and the spider webs?
- It's pretty special."
A mobile app to revolutionize the Smithsonian museum experience.