November 2008

Holiday Show Catalog

For those of you who can’t make it to the show, I’m putting a catalog of the art for sale online.  You can download the compressed version here.  The uncompressed version is here, but be careful–it’s really big.  If you’d like to see a larger version of any of the pieces just email me.

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Holiday show!

If you’ll be in the Boston area the first week of December, please stop by!

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A clock for song timing…update

Sadly, Nature decided to run a photograph of tadpoles rather than my painting. Oh well. But MIT did put it on the front page of their web site.

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A clock for song timing

A clock for song timing

I recently completed my first real commission, for Mike Long and Michale Fee at MIT.  Mike had seen the cover I did for my Neuron paper and asked me to design a cover submission for his paper.

Michale’s lab wants to understand the mechanics of how bird brains produce song.  What pushes on what to produce a particular note at a particular time?  People have known for a while that two areas of the brain are important, one called “HVc” and one called “RA.”  Michale has argued that HVc acts as a clock, setting the song tempo without determining the details of each note.

Their new paper makes one of the strongest cases for this view.  The rate of a biological reaction is set by temperature.  Warm things up and they run faster; cool them and they slow down.  So Mike and Michale designed a miniature refrigerator that could cool just HVc.  Cooling this area caused the birds to sing slower, without changing the pattern of their song.

Illustrating these ideas turned out to be a lot of fun, mostly because my clients had such strong ideas about what they were looking for.  At our first meeting, they showed me examples of cover illustrations they admired, all of which had a strong “fine art” feeling and a restrained way of telling their story.

After brainstorming together we came up with two ideas.  The first, shown here, was a play on Dali’s “Persistence of Memory,” where the melting clock is replaced by a stretched song spectrogram.  

The second idea was to show HVc as a clock.

Michale liked the second sketch, but it was important to him that the drawing reflect the way they think the system works.  In their model, the clock doesn’t know anything about the song structure, so it doesn’t make sense to put the song spectrogram on the mainspring.  Instead he suggested I put it around the clock face, so that the clock sets only the speed at which the notes emerge.

Pleased with this second sketch, I then played around with different ways of inking and coloring the image.  I settled on my favorite earth-tone trio for the background (raw sienna, red ochre, turquoise), a sienna brush pen for the spring, ruffle, and tail, and white gouache and black ink for the clock face.  The final result can be seen at the top of the post.

Mike’s paper will come out soon in the journal Nature.  We haven’t heard yet if they will use our cover.

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