In 2005, I put my painting on the back-burner while I learnt about life. Not by back-packing around the world, but by studying how our body tissues and cells work. The inspiration for my painting had dried up and it became difficult to continue to make work while I studied.
Mid-way through my undergraduate degree, I learnt how to use the molecular visualisation program, RasMol. One of the first projects I used it for was to make diagrams for a web page about the PP2Ac phosphatase domain. In this I was playing with colour and composition, activities resonant of drawing and putting together sketchbooks or scrapbooks of ideas. From here I progressed easily onto PyMOL, which has a wider range of visual effects in its toolbox, and a better user interface. This image is taken from my PhD thesis.
In making scientific diagrams, I have thought a lot about the divisions between the categories assigned to visual pieces of work. An illustration is a pictorial representation of something. It can therefore be used to describe an object or process. The diagrams above illustrate the binding of the lipids, phosphatidylinositol (PI) or phosphatidylcholine (PC), in the lipid-binding cavity of the PITP domain. The activity of ‘drawing’ can be expanded to encompass, not only the act of putting pencil to paper, but also of working through ideas, which may be in any media. In contrast to illustration, which describes something to its viewer, a drawing therefore is a process related to the maker. In producing the diagrams above, I also sought to understand how the lipids were secured in the cavity. In this sense, they are also drawings.
I have purposefully not reproduced the figure legend here, nor intend to explain further what a PITP domain is. So often I see visitors to art galleries engrossed in reading the blurb next to a work of art. There’s always an agglomeration of people around the text at the beginning of each room in a major exhibition. Words are familiar; we don’t expect to see words on the piece itself.
I wonder whether, if the numbers and letters were removed from the image above, would it look less like a ‘diagram’ and more like a ‘drawing’? If the harsh white background were replaced with a neutral tone, and each lipid and its associated residues were reproduced on a separate canvas, in oil paint, would the paintings be worthy of hanging in a gallery, as fine art? Removed of the constraints of roman characters, these images might then take on new life, as organisms in their own right perhaps.
The image below is really a series of drawings, but again I wanted to reproduce it here as it is printed in my thesis. This figure describes, (A) how the PITP features in the sequence of PITP domain-containing proteins, and (B-D) the component parts of the PITP domain itself. Here the use of primary colours are reminiscent of toy building bricks.