Feb. 5, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 9

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    Drawing on instinct, artist finds her niche

    By Diana Steele
    News Office

    When Carol Abraczinskas was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago 10 years ago, a teacher tried to get her to break out of her neat, controlled style of drawing, to work on a large scale, to get herself and the canvas dirty. Abraczinskas, now a scientific illustrator in Organismal Biology & Anatomy, was uncomfortable with that style.

    "I like to be tight and precise in my drawing, I like to be clean and I like the paper to be clean. Eventually I did learn to draw on a very large scale, but I never really enjoyed it," she said. When her professor suggested she might be good at scientific illustration, she took a class. "Instead of fighting my instinct, I ran with it, and I was very good at it. I didn't have to fight to try to break out of being precise and perfect and clean."

    Abraczinskas, who graduated from the School of the Art Institute in 1990, first came to the University of Chicago in 1989 as part of a cooperative program between the Art Institute and the Oriental Institute. She documented Egyptian and Nubian artifacts, developed reconstructions of pottery and artifacts and drafted site surveys for cemeteries and tombs.

    Just as her duties were winding down at the OI, a job for a scientific illustrator became available in the lab of Paul Sereno, Associate Professor in Organismal Biology & Anatomy, and Abraczinskas was hired. Now she illustrates dinosaur bones, large and small, and her work has appeared in scientific journals, newspapers, magazines (including Newsweek and National Geographic), documentaries and museum exhibits.

    Since 1994, she also has taught a graduate-level course in scientific illustration in the Biological Sciences Division. Her most recent class concluded at the end of the fall quarter, and an exhibition of her students' artwork is currently on display in the first floor hallway of the Anatomy Building. It will be on display through the end of the academic year.

    Why is a drawing of a dinosaur bone, or an Egyptian artifact, better than a photograph? That is the number one question I get asked. To take a photograph, you need both light and shadow to make the object look realistic. But by doing a drawing, you can manipulate the light in order to emphasize the information that normally would be lost in the shadow.

    Often with specimens there is discoloration, cracks, or other information that you don't need, so a drawing can simplify an object. You can also reconstruct broken areas with a dashed line to show the actual outline of the object.

    The drawing is a way of getting across the most important information about an object -- you can't always do that with a photograph.

    What are some of the tools that you use? One of the most important tools that I use to enlarge a small specimen is called a "camera lucida microscope." It is a stereo microscope that has a prism that projects the image of a specimen onto a drawing surface. Mainly I use the projection to get an accurate tracing of the outline of the specimen. By using the stereo feature when I am drawing, I can see the specimen in one eye, and with the other I can see both the drawing and the specimen at the same time. It used to give me headaches, but now I can use it for as long as 10 hours in a day.

    You don't draw the types of drawings that many people associate with dinosaur illustrators -- the type that bring dinosaurs to life, so to speak, with flesh and realistic postures. You draw the bones exactly as you see them, right? I draw what's exactly there to a point. I take out things that are going to distract or aren't relevant.

    In some cases, I'm trying to enlarge a small specimen to see the details, and other times I am reducing the size of a large specimen so that it can be drawn to fit on a page. Many times I take individual pieces -- perhaps broken or separated -- and reconstruct them as they might once have been.

    Sometimes I actually discover things. When you are studying or examining a specimen for hours on end because you have to draw it, you notice more details than if you are just looking at it. So sometimes I discover information that the scientist didn't realize was there.

    What has been the most satisfying thing about your work? The most amazing thing is to be able to hold one-of-a-kind objects that are millions of years old, to be able to work with those objects and to be able to discover things about them. And if something is crushed and broken or discolored, the fact that I can restore that object through a drawing is satisfying.

    How did you get interested in teaching? The teaching opportunity has been fantastic. Three years ago, several graduate students got together and decided they needed to learn how to do scientific drawings for their research. They wrote up a proposal and went to the chairs of the BSD departments and said, "We need to do this." So different departments chipped in and brought me on board. I teach, on average, once every year and a half, and have had about 10 students each time.

    Almost every student in the biological sciences has at least attempted to do a drawing for their notes. I would say the artistic level of the students when they started the class was pretty average for most people who haven't had any formal art training.

    And after they finish? I think I have some competition! In 11 weeks, the level of expertise the students acquire has bypassed what is in a lot of scientific journals today.

    I think anybody can learn to draw. There are so many tricks to making something look realistic. Once you learn the tricks, drawing is easy. In my class, I reveal all!