Biology in watercolor

May 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Gold mitochondria” caught my eye as I was scrolling through Twitter one day. By clicking on the link, I discovered the art of Michele Banks,  an artist based in Washington, D.C., who has the online store artologica on Etsy.  She bases a lot of her work on science and medical themes. Just check out her colorful renditions of Petri dishes, neurons, viruses and mitosis. As she says in her Etsy profile, “I’m not a scientist, I just love and am fascinated by the natural world, especially at the microscopic level.”

I reached out to Banks to find out more about who she is and how she blends science and medicine with art. Below are excerpts of the interview, edited for length and clarity.

What’s your day job? Tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are today.

I’m a full-time artist. Of course, that doesn’t mean I paint 40 hours a week. It’s a business: I have to order supplies, photograph my work, list it online, mount, frame, package and ship paintings, apply for shows, set up at festivals, do the taxes and much more.

I became an artist in a very circuitous way. I studied political science and Russian, and I got a job as a management consultant in Russia, working on privatization and economic-development projects. After five years of that, I was pretty bored and disillusioned, and I got married and came back to D.C. Shortly after that, my husband got offered a job in Bermuda, so I went along, but I was not given a work permit. I used the free time to have a baby and mess around with some artwork. After we moved back to Washington, I started showing my work in the usual places that beginning artists do — coffee shops and community festivals. And I basically plugged away at it in a small way for years, until about two years ago, when I started selling online,  and my business expanded a lot.

So there you have it — I don’t have a background in either art or science. Life is funny sometimes.


What gave you the inspiration to create art from biology?

I started out making abstract paintings using the wet-in-wet watercolor technique, and so many people told me they looked like things under a microscope that I decided to investigate. I read books and articles about basic biology, and I was amazed at the visual forms of cells, bacteria and viruses.

Many of my paintings use a wet-in-wet technique, which means that I put down a background color and then add another color while the first one is still wet. The paint “bleeds” naturally and forms amazing fractal patterns, just like tree branches, blood vessels and brain cells. This quality makes it ideal for mimicking forms in science and nature.

Watercolor is also good for biology because it can be translucent, which allows you to show things that are going on beneath the surface.


When and how did you learn to paint?

I taught myself, just messing around with watercolor until I got what I wanted. I took a few classes to learn some basic techniques, and then I just practiced a lot. Apparently there are a lot of “rules” for watercolor painting. I don’t really even want to know them.

There’s one exception to my no-rules policy: I do use high-quality archival paper and paints. It makes a huge difference in how paintings look and how long they will last.


How do you keep up with advances in biology? Do you consult with any scientists?

Many of my paintings deal with really basic stuff like cell division, which has been known for ages. I do incorporate more current ideas into my work thematically, though. A lot of what I’ve been doing lately has been influenced by work on the microbiome, the idea that living creatures are not just a collection of our own cells but an ecosystem for millions of microbes.

I read a lot of articles in science magazines and on blogs. I love the Nikon Small World site and The Cell Library for images. I do talk to scientists a lot online, but more about ideas than about technical stuff. I’m not an illustrator — I don’t have that responsibility to get the details perfect. I simplify forms a lot in my work.

That said, the “brainbows” work of Jeff Lichtman, Jean Livet and Joshua Sanes has been a big influence on me. It’s just fantastic how their techniques have “lit up” brain cells, showing the structure and functions while creating gorgeous images.


Has anything from the biological world frustrated you in trying to render it in paint?

Yes! One of the coolest shapes in biology is the ribbon. I think they’re beautiful and amazing, and unfortunately I stink at painting them. Mine always look stiff, never flowing!


How much does your artwork go for, and how much have you sold so far?

My work is very reasonably priced, ranging from $40 to a few thousand for a large piece. Between Etsy, art shows and commissions, I sell a couple hundred pieces a year now.


What are you working on next?

Exciting things! One of my paintings, of malaria in red blood cells, is on the cover of a novel coming out this fall.   Another one is on the cover of the EMBO Journal.

Last year I made petri dish Christmas ornaments with bacteria and parasites in them — they were a hit, and I plan on bringing them back even better this year. I’m also working on some other new products incorporating my images. Stay tuned!

In January, I went to the 2012 Science Online conference in North Carolina, where I met hundreds of inspiring scientists, writers, artists, illustrators and science communicators. I learned a lot, made great contacts and got tons of ideas. I can’t wait to go back next year.

In the meantime, I’m writing about science and art for Guru magazine, blogging at my site and at the Finch and Pea  doing shows locally and painting, painting, painting. Oh, and Twitter. Way too much Twitter.


What do you love about science? Where do you see art and science coming together?

What I love about science is the opportunity to understand how things work.  Artists and scientists have very different approaches, but fundamentally we’re doing the same thing — trying to understand and explain the world around us. Also, the world inside us!

If you are in Washington, D.C., between May 18 and June 24, you can check out Bank’s work in person at Artomatic 2012, the area’s biggest free arts event.

All image rights and permission go to Michele Banks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What’s this?

You are currently reading Biology in watercolor at Wild Types.