Derek Caetano-Anolles, evolutionary biologist and illustrator. Derek Caetano-Anolles, scientist-artist. Derek Caetano-Anolles, drawer-at-heart. Finding a label for this Max Planck Institute-researcher can be tricky. But as we shall see, there doesn’t have to be a conflict between the rational cold facts in the microscope and the creative hand holding the pen.
When not studying the evolutionary development of the skulls of rats and mice, Derek tries his hand at various art forms, predominantly illustrations. Presented in this issue are a mix of his work: Modern takes on the traditional Japanese woodblock, retro-sticker pieces, portraiture of both a pleasant and a disturbing nature, and a scientific illustration showing the evolution of the ribosome inside the cell. The latter gives a hint how Derek came into the art world:
“Whenever I needed to create a scientific illustration for my research, I approached it the same way a designer might approach any visual problem—how can I quickly and accurately represent the given information in a way that captures the viewer’s attention?
“Over time, people began taking note and recruiting me into their various design projects. Later on, I decided to explore subjects outside of the academic sphere, just because I realised that I could. I started making stupid illustrations on notecards and hiding them around my hometown as a ’reward’ for people observant enough to find them. I received positive feedback from those activities, so I guess that is where I became emboldened to branch out into more traditional creative pursuits.”
Furthermore, Derek believes that “biology has always had at least some basis in art.” Biologists throughout the past 500 years would use drawings to convey that which was difficult to express in writing (typically pictures of their discoveries in nature) which could be appreciated by both scientists as well as the everyday man. These days, as science grows ever-more complex, Derek believes it is critical that design can be used to explain the findings to those outside the specific research fields.
“The challenges that scientists and artists face may seem very different on the surface, but at their core, both involve using the available tools to interpret and describe the world around us.”
Continuing on the nature and scientific practicality of illustration, Derek quotes ”Fathers and Sons” by Ivan Turgenev:
“’The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book.’ This is something that I think is very true of illustration – it is a method of communicating something to the observer much faster and more efficiently than the equivalent information written in text.”
Undoubtably possessing an esthetic nerve, Derek’s answers are richly sprinkled with artistic and literary references – though correctly and neatly spelled out as one could expect from one who has written a few research papers! His Japanese nudes, for example, presents an homage to an unlikely artist: Susan Kare – creator of the original Apple OS user interface. Kare used the software MacPaint, released with the very first Macintosh 128k, to recreate traditional Japanese woodblock prints to show off the software’s power (googling ”macpaint” will bring up this image). Derek, in turn, has extended the work by making his own ukiyo-e (woodblock print), 30 years after Kare but with the very same program.
This theme returns in Derek’s answers – an influence of an influence of an influence. “Pablo Picasso said that ’good artists copy, great artists steal,’ and while I don’t know if I’d call myself ’good,’ that doesn’t mean that I am not making plans for my heist,” he quips. But do not think Derek a thief – he is simply pointing out the simple fact that all art is inspired by something before it.
Derek develops his illustration by experimenting with new software and techniques (“it doesn’t always work out,”) and, as the first Garde magazine interviewee to say so, by looking up online tutorials! In fact, he considers learning how to find these his most important lesson in the design/illustration teaching process.
With a positive outlook and an open mind, it seems clear Derek will continue to create and grow as an illustrator – as he says, “any project can be a dream project, so long as you have fun doing it.”
As a final tip for our readers, Derek has something to say that we can all take to heart:
“People are remembered for what they create, not what they consume—it’s very easy to sit back and passively absorb the media that other people produce, but I think it is much more rewarding to take part in that creative process yourself. For that reason, I do not really care what I create, so long as I am creating something.”