We sat down with freelance illustrator, artist and lecturer Jo Berry to find out about her work in the field of scientific imaging, what she’s working on right now, and the technology she uses to bring her creations to life…
What have you been working on recently?
I’ve been working with scientists a lot over the past few years. And I’m working on some different case study projects right now with five different research institutions. One of them is Sahlgrenska Academy in Gothenburg. I went over there last September to work with them in their laboratory, as I’m really interested in microscopy and advanced imaging. So what I’ve been doing is going into different labs, observing research scientists in action and participating in scientific experiments over a range of different subjects.
A couple of years ago, I went down to the Natural History Museum and I worked with their electron microscopes to examine natural objects such as butterfly wings and radiolarian – lots of things that were really, really tiny and you could only see through an electron microscope. I’ve been doing quite a lot of work with the images and data that I obtained there.
I’m also working with the University of Nottingham. I’ve been working with the med school there for a number of years, collaborating with their cell signalling and pharmacology department. They also have a top of the range SLIM (School of Life Sciences Imaging) department, where they image all sorts of biological cell samples to find out how they operate. They’ve been working to find out more about the heart, diabetes and obesity. So I’ve been taking film and static images of scientists at work and collecting a range of data to create new interpretations of science and art-data visualisations.
How do you use creative technology like Mac or Adobe Creative Cloud?
The scientific department at the University of Nottingham has PCs, so I don’t use Macs there. However, at home I have two Macs – including a brand new one – and an Apple laptop, and I used Macs while I was working in Sweden. For me, working on Mac feels more natural and it’s just something that I’ve gotten used to. The only thing I’d like is a bit more flexibility for the programs that I use to be able to move across PC and Mac.
At the university, I take the information and data I’ve gathered and load it into the scientific software they use on their PCs, and then I export it so it can be used in Adobe software. I mainly use Photoshop to crop and to layer, and I spend a lot of time doing digital drawing in Illustrator. I do my drawing very specifically as I do a lot of laser cutting – so it’s done for the purpose of being laser cut or exported into another 3D program. However, I love the simplicity of these drawings and see them as artworks in their own right.
What aspect of digital design and drawing are you interested in?
I’m really interested in the pixilation that is part of the imagery that comes out of these scientific computations. Of course, they look like really slick, beautiful images but they’re actually made up of hundreds of thousands of pixels. So I’m interested in simplifying the pattern that you get with the different colours and layers of these images. In Adobe Illustrator, I’ve been using squares and rectangles a lot recently, and I match them together with Pathfinder. I do this to create intricate drawings that are sourced and created digitally, and then can be moved into another program to be reprocessed as laser cut images at a later date. I take a long time drawing, and I aim to be able to show real depth and intricacy in the images. I’m also interested in making things that combine science and design, and creating something that is another interpretation of science.
You mentioned your work with film earlier. What does that involve?
I capture moving images of cells, then export them into Quicktime and use them to make stills. But I make movies, too. I’m doing a lot of work with Premiere Pro at the moment, and I’m looking to doing even more of those sorts of projects going forward. I’m currently studying part-time for a PhD, so I’ve been documenting what I’ve been doing while I’ve been going into these labs with a handheld Panasonic camera. So, I’m getting all of this data from these experiments – still images and film – and I’m trying to put them together so I’ve got footage of scientists actually working. Then I’ve been combining this footage with these beautiful, moving scientific images to create a sort of montage documenting exactly what I’ve been doing and observing.
What has your experience with Premiere Pro been like?
It’s quite simple and I find it a bit like putting together a collage of sorts. But of course, even after you’ve sorted out your timeline, you’ve still got to do the audio to go with the images. I think it just takes time to sit and do it, and learn it all properly. To be honest, everything I’ve ever learned on a computer I’ve done by just getting hands-on. I also like to learn software based on how I think I can work with it.
Could you tell me about your work as a lecturer?
I lecture in illustration at Birmingham City University in the department of visual communication. I teach illustration to first and final year students and I also train them in Adobe Illustrator. Obviously, I really like working in a cross-disciplinary manner as I’m interested in both drawing and technology, and there are opportunities within the department to do that. I enjoy finding out how you can use a computer and digital programs to create things such as drawings, movies and whatever else.
What technology has had the biggest impact on your work as an illustrator?
Adobe. Working in Illustrator has had a profound effect. About ten or fifteen years ago when I first started working in Adobe Illustrator, that completely changed the nature of my work. At the time, I was doing an advanced research fellowship at Loughborough University, and I was trying to make light drawings in unusual ways. I was making light boxes where I was drilling holes into perspex and lighting them. But then as soon as I started working in Illustrator and I could laser cut, everything became so much more sophisticated. It moved away from craft, and became design. I really liked the purity of Illustrator, because you can work in a very linear way with shapes and Pathfinder, and include the computational source material.
What creative and design trends are you thinking about as we head into 2018?
I don’t follow trends – I’m not really bothered about them. I mean, I read and follow a lot of different things, and I’ll go to exhibitions and people will say “are you thinking about doing this” or “have you read this or that”, but I think you’ve got to find your own individual voice. Of course, this involves research and a design process, but it’s important to really think about what you want your work to be about. And that’s what I encourage my students to do. I tell them to come up with their own ideas and concepts, and not to copy anybody else or be too heavily influenced. I suppose we’re all a bit like sponges – we soak everything in, but it really is essential to find your own voice while grounding it in knowledge.
Exhibiting regularly and widely throughout the country and internationally, Jo’s work is highly regarded, with pieces in the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), Arts Council England (ACE) East Midland Collections, Nottingham University Medical School and Zeiss, Munich. Residencies include the Florence Trust Studios, London, the Natural History Museum, London and Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham University.
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