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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 4

Creative Spark: Neuroscientist-Turned-Artist Shares His Process

Painter Greg Dunn describes how an aha moment kicked off his artistic career
Greg Dunn painting



Painting by Greg Dunn

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Greg Dunn knows firsthand the twists and turns of the creative process. After finishing his graduate studies in neuroscience, he switched careers and became a painter. But it was an insect’s unwanted visit that triggered the flash of inspiration for what has since become one of his signature techniques. He now often paints scientific subjects in a sumi-e style, in which the artist applies dark ink over washes of color. Today, Dunn combines his interests by portraying the beautiful intricacies of neurons and circuit boards through his own hybridized artistic techniques.  

[An edited transcript of the interview follows]

NB: What led you to make the switch from science to art?
GD: As a researcher, I never felt like I was producing work that others could not have produced. That became even more apparent to me when I started to produce neuroscience art. The art seemed to uniquely combine my interests and create something of value that was not just satisfying for me but for the world as well. And I felt that my voice was being better heard there than it had been in research.     

My wife convinced me to take a shot at art as a career and I am very grateful for her input on that. I am not sure I would have had the guts to do it, actually.

NB: Can you describe the moment when you first realized that you could use Asian sumi-e style painting techniques to depict neurons?
GD: I had been painting wisteria with a sumi-e style brush and a bug landed on the page. I blew on the page when the ink was still wet. It spread out in a way that instantly indicated to me that this would be a great way to depict neurons. And so that initial spark of inspiration, which was an incredibly subtle moment, has cascaded into so much of what has unfolded in my life. That moment of inspiration really led me to honing my technique and improving and practicing.

NB: Once you had this idea, how did you proceed? What was your first neuron painting like?
GD: I think I did my first painting in this technique pretty soon thereafter. Obviously it was pretty rough compared to what I am able to do now, but it still pretty clearly communicated the ideas and the potential behind the technique.

NB: Was there much trial and error in implementing your ideas?
GD: Quite a bit. I experimented with the chemistry of the ink, by changing the viscosity of it and the types of paper that I used. Sumi-e painting is done on Xuan paper, a rice paper. It is very absorbent, it does not allow you to puddle ink on the page. So I experimented with different papers treated with a gelatin called aluminum sulfate, which decreases the absorptivity of the paper and allows the ink to run.

NB: You’ve worked in multiple media now, including gold leaf and microetching, and depicted other scientific topics such as zebrafish and cortical circuit boards. Where do you look for inspiration for new projects?
GD: I draw on a lot of my experience from graduate school and undergrad study. The cutting edge of science is an inexhaustible source of inspiration. That is one of the reasons I want to start an arts science lab, because I think that there is just an infinite variety of interesting topics to be painting.

NB: Do you draw inspiration from scientists and artist like Santiago Ramón y Cajal?
GD: Oh, of course. Cajal was really the pioneer, he had contemporaries whom I am also interested in. Seeing their staining techniques, it just clicked with me how well this subject was suited to sumi-e style painting. Even the branching structure of neurons was so similar to themes that had been painted in that style for hundreds if not thousands of years.

NB: How do you hope your artwork will help viewers understand or relate to neuroscience?
GD: There are two aspects to my own personal mission. One of them is that I would like to give the general public, people who otherwise wouldn’t have much of an interest in the brain, an “in.” I want to use artistic ability to capture people’s emotions and have them ask questions about what it is, and generally be able to appreciate our brain. I feel that artwork has a capacity to communicate with people that science doesn’t have. I like being that liaison.

The second aspect of my personal mission has to do with the scientific audience. I get a lot of appreciation from the scientific community in that they see me as someone who is giving them a voice, taking their work seriously and making a real effort to take it into the realm of fine art.

NB: How has creating these paintings changed your own understanding of the brain?
GD: One thing that I have been thinking about recently is how in the world does it all grow together. When I am painting axons, for example, and they are navigating across the painting, through this forest of dendrites, I am just thinking to myself, how is this possibly finding a way with everything growing in all at once? I think it has just given me a greater appreciation for the development of the brain. What an absolutely mind-blowing process that is, that everything gets connected properly.

This article was originally published with the title "The Aha! Moment."

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