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Juliana D. Spahr

Published:

Not many people can probably say they found their life’s work at the town garbage dump … After getting my bachelor’s degree in art history and environmental studies, I was torn between two worlds. As an artist, I didn’t think I had very much to say. Simultaneously, I was afraid to get trapped in the tunnel of hyper-focused scientific research. I felt adrift. One day, I found a human anatomy and physiology textbook abandoned in a pile of recycling at the town dump that changed everything. 

Even before college, I was passionate about sharing the beauty and peculiarity of the natural world with people in the hope of inspiring them to conserve the environment. Since childhood, I have enjoyed painting and drawing in a realistic style, and in my art history training, I was drawn to the exquisite realism of Dutch still life paintings. College showed me that I wanted to help make a positive change in the scientific community, but I didn’t want to stop creating. I was scared to become an art historian and forget about the side of myself that was so fascinated by science; and yet, a career in the sciences seemed to spell the end of my time for creativity. 

The anatomy textbook I stumbled on encouraged me to see the world of medical and scientific illustration as a potential pathway. What if my art could be a platform on which to speak about conservation and biodiversity? I started a drawing project inspired by the textbook. Through this project, I discovered that my interest in the delicate functioning of the human body was as strong as my existing passions for zoology and environmental science. 

I began to apply to master’s programs in scientific illustration. Two years later, I graduated from the Maastricht University & Zuyd Hogeschool dual master’s program in medical and scientific illustration. It was a perfect fit for me, featuring an unusually hands-on teaching method, including self-directed human and animal dissections, anatomy classes, and a wonderfully diverse small group of students. 

I learned to clearly convey complex scientific information using my own illustrations and design. Using scientific illustration, I could be painting and creating but in a field I really cared about: art in the service of science. 

What are the chances that three years later, I would meet my partner at that same garbage dump? I moved to Buffalo, New York, with him in 2019, where I now create scientific illustrations for science centers, scientific journals, and other agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. My job mostly consists of drawing digital illustrations for articles in a variety of international scientific research journals ranging in topic from human heart attack prevention to ethics in hunting Scandinavian wildlife. 

It is my ultimate goal to create illustrations for popular science magazines such as National Geographic or Nature. In the meantime, I work in my home studio painting watercolor illustrations and designing infographics for clients around the world. Our wonderful beagle rescue dog, Hubert, eases my anxiety and loneliness in these uncertain times. The spare simplicity of my bright, plant-packed studio helps to settle my mind. 

My absolute favorite illustrations to create are outdoor infographics: the sort that dot the visitor pathways at science centers and botanical gardens. Sharing the fragile and intricate world of living things around us with the general public is my favorite way to utilize scientific illustration. Although scientific illustrations are often used to communicate research among fellow scientists, I believe that these illustrations have a unique ability to inspire regular people to treat our planet with respect, protect endangered species, and be thoughtful about their surroundings. Using realism and eye-catching detail, I try to spark curiosity and engagement in my viewers. 

One recent project I have been working on is a series of 12 giant outdoor infographics destined for the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in New Hampshire. Nearly 100 separate watercolor paintings have gone into the production of these graphics: fish, birds, raspberries, etc. One of the infographics I am creating is a phylogenetic tree (an evolutionary family tree) of bird species. 

Each bird on the family tree is hand painted and then brought into the digital infographic layout I designed for them. Although I painted 26 birds for this graphic, I chose to focus here on my painting of the Harpy Eagle (Harpia Harpyja) for several reasons. First, it is a truly beautiful and majestic eagle, the biggest by weight of any eagle, with talons that can grow twice as long as those of the Bald Eagle! I also wanted to spotlight this species because it’s under threat in its South American homeland. Persecuted over fears that they may attack livestock, shot out of curiosity or fear, and prized for their giant talons, the Harpy Eagle is in a precarious position. Preservation programs that have been attempted have suffered from lack of funding and interest. So here is one soapbox I can perch the Harpy Eagle on for a moment. 

In order to create my watercolor illustrations, I begin with background research and image collection. I like to do preliminary research about the species to help me speak with my client more specifically and develop accurate illustrations. Many species that I paint can look different depending on my reference images. As a scientific illustrator, it’s my goal to illustrate an “ideal” of the species. Together, my client and I cho

ose the gender, color morph, and seasonal appearance of the animal in order to portray a perfect specimen. 

For the illustration that I will be painting here, I began by making a folder on my computer of over 30 reference images of Harpy Eagles. Next, I drew multiple sketches of the Eagle; this helps me familiarize myself with the bird’s proportions and decide on an angle for the illustration. Because I have already painted 25 birds for this final graphic, I know that I want the bird to be chest forward, perched, and in profile. I am painting this Eagle larger than I typically would to help display my process. 

I compile up to ten images into a Frankenstein “ideal” of the species on my computer and begin to sketch a final version of the bird based on those references. Once I am happy with my sketch, I trace it onto tracing paper for final adjustments. I love the smooth, almost greasy feel of tracing paper under my pencil. 

When I am satisfied with the tracing paper sketch, I transfer it onto soaked Arches watercolor paper by rubbing the sketched surface down onto the paper with a stylus. This makes a light, ghostly image of my sketch on the paper, so I won’t have any dark or deep pencil lines in my watercolor. Because of this light method of working, I begin with details, as broad washes of color can brush away the graphite dust. I have a tendency to start with faces (despite much scolding in graduate school), and then I move to larger washes over the body and finish with more details. I love to use watercolor washes to shade, convincing the soft feathery tendrils of pigment to represent realistic patterns. 

Harpy Eagle (Harpia Harpyja)

My palette is always very messy. I prefer this to using paint pans or larger separated palettes. I find that mixing small amounts of pigment to match my references allows for slight variations in color that create more realistic tones in my paintings. Small batch mixing lacks that “out of the tube” look that using too many non-primary tube colors can bring to a painting. 

One of the biggest challenges in my watercolor and digital painting (which I haven’t learned to combat yet) is detail. I LOVE detail! The more detailed, the better. I often have to reel myself in from getting too minute because it isn’t necessary for the size of the final product. 

Once the painting is finished, I scan it and edit it using Adobe Photoshop. There, I adjust exposure, so it looks precisely like my painting and references, and add in the whitest whites and darkest blacks. Even with bright white paper and mars black paint, I cannot quite reach these extremes, so highlights in eyes are added, and pupils or talons are darkened. 

When I am satisfied with the Photoshop file, I add it to my infographic layout, which I designed in Adobe Illustrator. Creating these didactic layouts is often the most challenging portion of a project. 

Finally, when I think the infographic is finished, I have my client look it over. This can mean many small edits before the final version, so I try not to get attached to my original design concept. 

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” — Robert Swan, polar explorer

When everyone is content, my client will have the infographic professionally printed on an outdoor coated wooden panel. This graphic will be found in one of Squam Lakes Natural Science Center’s Bird of Prey houses. It is so wonderful to see my infographics come to life in their “natural habitats.” Here I printed a smaller version so you could see how the graphic will look in its totality, as it’s not installed yet. You’ll have to go to the Science Center to see the final version! Can you spy the Harpy Eagle?!

Not many people can probably say they found their life’s work at the town garbage dump … After getting my bachelor’s degree in art history and environmental studies, I was torn between two worlds. As an artist, I didn’t think I had very much to say. Simultaneously, I was afraid to get trapped in the tunnel of hyper-focused scientific research. I felt adrift. One day, I found a human anatomy and physiology textbook abandoned in a pile of recycling at the town dump that changed everything. 

Even before college, I was passionate about sharing the beauty and peculiarity of the natural world with people in the hope of inspiring them to conserve the environment. Since childhood, I have enjoyed painting and drawing in a realistic style, and in my art history training, I was drawn to the exquisite realism of Dutch still life paintings. College showed me that I wanted to help make a positive change in the scientific community, but I didn’t want to stop creating. I was scared to become an art historian and forget about the side of myself that was so fascinated by science; and yet, a career in the sciences seemed to spell the end of my time for creativity. 

The anatomy textbook I stumbled on encouraged me to see the world of medical and scientific illustration as a potential pathway. What if my art could be a platform on which to speak about conservation and biodiversity? I started a drawing project inspired by the textbook. Through this project, I discovered that my interest in the delicate functioning of the human body was as strong as my existing passions for zoology and environmental science. 

I began to apply to master’s programs in scientific illustration. Two years later, I graduated from the Maastricht University & Zuyd Hogeschool dual master’s program in medical and scientific illustration. It was a perfect fit for me, featuring an unusually hands-on teaching method, including self-directed human and animal dissections, anatomy classes, and a wonderfully diverse small group of students. 

I learned to clearly convey complex scientific information using my own illustrations and design. Using scientific illustration, I could be painting and creating but in a field I really cared about: art in the service of science. 

What are the chances that three years later, I would meet my partner at that same garbage dump? I moved to Buffalo, New York, with him in 2019, where I now create scientific illustrations for science centers, scientific journals, and other agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. My job mostly consists of drawing digital illustrations for articles in a variety of international scientific research journals ranging in topic from human heart attack prevention to ethics in hunting Scandinavian wildlife. 

It is my ultimate goal to create illustrations for popular science magazines such as National Geographic or Nature. In the meantime, I work in my home studio painting watercolor illustrations and designing infographics for clients around the world. Our wonderful beagle rescue dog, Hubert, eases my anxiety and loneliness in these uncertain times. The spare simplicity of my bright, plant-packed studio helps to settle my mind. 

My absolute favorite illustrations to create are outdoor infographics: the sort that dot the visitor pathways at science centers and botanical gardens. Sharing the fragile and intricate world of living things around us with the general public is my favorite way to utilize scientific illustration. Although scientific illustrations are often used to communicate research among fellow scientists, I believe that these illustrations have a unique ability to inspire regular people to treat our planet with respect, protect endangered species, and be thoughtful about their surroundings. Using realism and eye-catching detail, I try to spark curiosity and engagement in my viewers. 

One recent project I have been working on is a series of 12 giant outdoor infographics destined for the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in New Hampshire. Nearly 100 separate watercolor paintings have gone into the production of these graphics: fish, birds, raspberries, etc. One of the infographics I am creating is a phylogenetic tree (an evolutionary family tree) of bird species. 

Each bird on the family tree is hand painted and then brought into the digital infographic layout I designed for them. Although I painted 26 birds for this graphic, I chose to focus here on my painting of the Harpy Eagle (Harpia Harpyja) for several reasons. First, it is a truly beautiful and majestic eagle, the biggest by weight of any eagle, with talons that can grow twice as long as those of the Bald Eagle! I also wanted to spotlight this species because it’s under threat in its South American homeland. Persecuted over fears that they may attack livestock, shot out of curiosity or fear, and prized for their giant talons, the Harpy Eagle is in a precarious position. Preservation programs that have been attempted have suffered from lack of funding and interest. So here is one soapbox I can perch the Harpy Eagle on for a moment. 

In order to create my watercolor illustrations, I begin with background research and image collection. I like to do preliminary research about the species to help me speak with my client more specifically and develop accurate illustrations. Many species that I paint can look different depending on my reference images. As a scientific illustrator, it’s my goal to illustrate an “ideal” of the species. Together, my client and I cho

ose the gender, color morph, and seasonal appearance of the animal in order to portray a perfect specimen. 

For the illustration that I will be painting here, I began by making a folder on my computer of over 30 reference images of Harpy Eagles. Next, I drew multiple sketches of the Eagle; this helps me familiarize myself with the bird’s proportions and decide on an angle for the illustration. Because I have already painted 25 birds for this final graphic, I know that I want the bird to be chest forward, perched, and in profile. I am painting this Eagle larger than I typically would to help display my process. 

I compile up to ten images into a Frankenstein “ideal” of the species on my computer and begin to sketch a final version of the bird based on those references. Once I am happy with my sketch, I trace it onto tracing paper for final adjustments. I love the smooth, almost greasy feel of tracing paper under my pencil. 

When I am satisfied with the tracing paper sketch, I transfer it onto soaked Arches watercolor paper by rubbing the sketched surface down onto the paper with a stylus. This makes a light, ghostly image of my sketch on the paper, so I won’t have any dark or deep pencil lines in my watercolor. Because of this light method of working, I begin with details, as broad washes of color can brush away the graphite dust. I have a tendency to start with faces (despite much scolding in graduate school), and then I move to larger washes over the body and finish with more details. I love to use watercolor washes to shade, convincing the soft feathery tendrils of pigment to represent realistic patterns. 

Harpy Eagle (Harpia Harpyja)

My palette is always very messy. I prefer this to using paint pans or larger separated palettes. I find that mixing small amounts of pigment to match my references allows for slight variations in color that create more realistic tones in my paintings. Small batch mixing lacks that “out of the tube” look that using too many non-primary tube colors can bring to a painting. 

One of the biggest challenges in my watercolor and digital painting (which I haven’t learned to combat yet) is detail. I LOVE detail! The more detailed, the better. I often have to reel myself in from getting too minute because it isn’t necessary for the size of the final product. 

Once the painting is finished, I scan it and edit it using Adobe Photoshop. There, I adjust exposure, so it looks precisely like my painting and references, and add in the whitest whites and darkest blacks. Even with bright white paper and mars black paint, I cannot quite reach these extremes, so highlights in eyes are added, and pupils or talons are darkened. 

When I am satisfied with the Photoshop file, I add it to my infographic layout, which I designed in Adobe Illustrator. Creating these didactic layouts is often the most challenging portion of a project. 

Finally, when I think the infographic is finished, I have my client look it over. This can mean many small edits before the final version, so I try not to get attached to my original design concept. 

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” — Robert Swan, polar explorer

When everyone is content, my client will have the infographic professionally printed on an outdoor coated wooden panel. This graphic will be found in one of Squam Lakes Natural Science Center’s Bird of Prey houses. It is so wonderful to see my infographics come to life in their “natural habitats.” Here I printed a smaller version so you could see how the graphic will look in its totality, as it’s not installed yet. You’ll have to go to the Science Center to see the final version! Can you spy the Harpy Eagle?!