Painting for the first time

This past week I had the chance of doing my first watercolor workshop. Although I have some experience teaching (undergrad science classes) I had never taught any watercolor painting topic before. The workshop ended up being a fantastic experience where everybody had a lot of fun (me included!) exploring the art of letting water flow in paper and letting go any fears of a blank page and not knowing the “right technique”.

Me with my successful students and their paintings!

Me with my successful students and their paintings!

When you have so much fun I think is inevitable not to try to share with everyone. So here I am sharing with what do you need if you want to get started : first thing is to get the right materials. If you ask me, yes expensive materials will work better than cheap ones. However, to paint well you don’t necessary need to get all the fancy gear at once.

The most important thing for you to succeed is definitely the paper. You could have the most expensive paint and brush but if your paper is not the right one you will be frustrated right away. In fact, you may even feel like watercolor isn’t for you! But once you have the right paper the paint just flows in the most beautiful way.

Despite I like some brands more than others, the most important thing is to make sure your paper is 100% cotton. Yes, they are different weights and the heavier the paper the less it will bend and it will absorb more water but, if they are 100% cotton you’re guaranteed with the best paper regardless of the weight of the paper. A standard weight to start would be a 300gms or 140lb paper. There are two kinds of paper cold and hot press. Briefly, the cold press will have a little bit of roughness to it, you’ll feel the texture while the hot press is completely smooth. It is up to you to choose whatever you feel more confortable with, but if you’re just getting started I would recommend the cold press. Here’s an image of the brands I’ve tried and have worked nicely: Arches, Stonehenge, Sennelier and Windsor and Newton. All the ones here are cold press 140lb just in different sizes.

Different brands of paper that works well with watercolor.

Different brands of paper that works well with watercolor.

Once you have the right paper, the next thing to consider is the brush. Normally one would think of getting a more affordable full set of 4 to 5 brushes will be more helpful than just one. However, I’ve found with time that is better to spend more money on one good brush and it will be good for any kind of work. Although, there are many types of brushes I recommend a round brush. If you get a good kolinsky sable round brush, you’re all set! You can do thick strokes as well as tiny details with the point of the brush. If not, a squirrel brush will do the trick with much less investment.

Finally, but not less important is the paint. To get started I would recommend the Cotman series by Windsor and Newton, they are very affordable and colors are great. If you want invest more you can go for the professional one from the same brand but the cost scales up pretty quickly. To avoid high costs you can get only the primary set and mix from there. My favorite primaries are: French Ultramarine, Quinacridone gold and Scarlet Red. In addition, handmade watercolors are delightful specially for earth tones, Case for Making is a nice watercolor shop in San Francisco that sells great handmade watercolors including the cochineal carmin red (my favorite) as well as other materials necessary to paint.


There’s a lot of other little things you can add to your gear but the basics involve: an HB pencil, a kneaded eraser, a good sharpener, painter’s tape and a mixing tray,ceramic works better than plastic, if you don’t have one just get a plate from your kitchen ;) to start having fun with watercolors!

Normally I don’t do blog posts about watercolor itself but more informative/infographic type. If you like this post leave a comment! I can do a series of small lessons for you to get started to paint. Maybe you’ll end up doing your own scientific images by hand!

The human circulatory system

This post is a small infographic to depict the beauty of the human body.  Our blood vessels are distributed around our body in an intricate pattern that seems like design by a professional artist. 

Hypothetically if we laid out all of our blood vessels they would be around 100,000 miles long. As part of the blood vessels there are arteries (in red) and veins (in blue). The arteries carry oxygenated blood away from the heart through the body while veins carry the blood (with poor oxygen) back to the heart. All together, the circulatory system is responsible for the flow of blood, nutrients, oxygen and other gases to and from the cells.

You can read more here.

Mendel DNA wall

In one of my early posts of this blog I shared whit you a painting I did in honor of Mendel and Genetics called”Secrets of Life”. This painting was commissioned for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to be part of the decoration and invitations for the Women’s Partnership for Science Luncheon. 

This particular painting is one of my favorites: it’s delicate and sends a scientific message. It represents two different types of peas ( the ones Mendel studied) that intercalate each other in the shape of a DNA double helix. In my eyes, an artistic way of heritage and genetics together! Since I love this painting so much I decided to make it my first mural! Commissioned by a lovely couple ( a.k.a. my parents) I painted their dining room wall with this motif. This was first time working with acrylics and I have to say it’s pretty different from watercolors so getting things to work was non-trivial. However, I think it was a fun experience and I can’t wait to paint more walls! I think eventually the acrylics and I will be friends, it is still a weird relationship between us . 

Here’s a couple of snapshots of the process and the finished piece. Oh, and also a picture of me while I was painting it :) 

The process...

The process...

A snapshot of me while painting.

A snapshot of me while painting.

Final piece

Final piece

Display in the room

Display in the room

Me! with the final painting :)

Me! with the final painting :)

Also, in case you have missed it, this year I’m doing miniatures again! Besides the typical Tuesday’s of Opuntia Visual I’m also doing: #CulturalThursday with miniature paintings every Thursday of everything that makes a culture rich: food, places, folk art, etc. I’ll start with countries that are more familiar to me like Mexico and Brazil but I’ll cover other like Japan and the US. In addition there will be #PlantSaturday where I’ll be painting a miniature plant ( can’t stop painting plants ). Here’s what I’ve done so far for the first week of 2018, you can follow the rest on my instagram profile @annaneko

I hope you enjoy them and I would love to get some feedback from you! What would you like me to paint? 

#CulturalThursday: Miniature from Rufino Tamayo's mural at MNA.

#CulturalThursday: Miniature from Rufino Tamayo's mural at MNA.

#PlantSaturday: Pinus devoniana

#PlantSaturday: Pinus devoniana

Nasturtium: Tropaeolum majus

This week I’m sharing with you a special commission I did recently: A botanical painting  (vintage style) of the plant called Nasturtium which scientific name is: Tropaeolum majus. This type of plants are characterized by intensely bright flowers, and rounded (shies-shaped) leaves. 

it can be cultivated at home during the summer since it does well in sun. When the soil is rich it tends to produce much leafy growth and few flowers. Flower colors include cream, yellow, orange and red. All parts of Tropaeolum majus are edible with a slightly peppery taste. Nasturtium has been used with antiseptic purposes. In fact, in Germany physicians are allowed to prescribe a herbal antibiotic made from nasturtiums.

Enjoy this watercolor with a photoshop edited background in black.

Award-winning tools to study the molecular machinery of the cells

Imagine you could see how our cells work at the molecular level? Kind of taking a tour around the cell and see how each of the machines that compose the factory called cell are in synchrony. Sounds like science fiction but in fact there have been several efforts to understand how these tiny little machines, called proteins, work. 

For decades, the most traditional technique to study proteins at their atomic level was X-ray crystallography. The name gives a hint of how it works: you make crystals and then shoot them with X-rays (there is a place called “synchrotron” where a powerful beam of X-rays is generated for these types of studies) to get the coordinates or each atom that composes the protein of the study. Many protein structures have been solved in the last century giving us tons of information about these sophisticated machines. Mechanisms of action, drug design and the discovery of the DNA has come along thanks to X-ray crystallography. And of course many Nobel prizes have been awarded to discoveries related to this powerful technique.

Another technique that has been around for a while is called cryo-Electron Microscopy (cryo-EM). The idea is to freeze (where the “cryo” name comes from) your protein on a support called a grid (that is 3mm wide) in what it would be a “natural” state. Then the protein is hit with electrons to take a picture on film that reveals the shape of the protein. However, only recently it became more popular due to technological advances that allowed to record movies, rather than taking pictures, to reduce the blurriness of the image. Think of it as recording a movie of a runner rather than taking a picture where you can’t see any details of the runner. 

Since some motion occurs when electrons hit the protein, the possibility of recording movies and having better cameras allowed for higher resolution (basically you can see more details of the protein shape). With these new features there was an explosion of new protein structures and the so called resolution revolution with cryo-EM started. In fact, this year the Nobel prize in chemistry was awarded in honor of three of the main contributors to the development of cryo-EM. 

This watercolor describes both of these techniques going from the protein in solution to the final structure. 

Plant love

This watercolor is a tribute to the beauty of plants.  The painting  “I love plants” was done with watercolor painting of an Anthurium clarinervium leaf.  Known in Mexico as Hoja de Corazón, this plant was perfect to depict a heart.  Lettering was done by digital calligraphy.

I love plants

Brains and Neurons

For today's post I decided to go for something more artistic, rather than accurate infographics. I did three different approaches inspired by the neuroscience field.

First, an image of a mouse brain. I used a sagittal mouse brain stained with Nissl staining as a reference but I changed some of the colors to make it more vibrant.

Mouse brain

My second piece is a painting of pyramidal neurons.  I wanted to do a more artistic representation and play more with digital touches, so I created a GIF of the image. My abstract representation of the neuronal firing and that’s why you see them lighting.

Pyramidal neurons firing

Pyramidal neurons firing

Blowfly vision neurons

Lastly, for my third painting I decided to go away from accuracy (compared to the first painting shown here) and have a piece of abstract art. This painting is inspired by the visual system of the male blowfly, which has a mushroom/tree shape. The image that you see is actually a color inverse image of the actual painting.

Comment below, what do you think about these different paintings? Which one do you like more, abstract or more realistic? 

Cellular portraits

I had the opportunity to teach a small class for kids, about the intersection of science and art, at the DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, two weeks ago. The main idea was to teach a couple of watercolor painting techniques while learning about the eukaryotic animal and plant cells.

What I did was to show a couple of cellular micrographs obtained with an Electron Microscope (see images for credits) so the kids could have an idea of what they actually look like. Later, I explained the importance of illustration in science, where it’s possible to enhance certain features for better understanding. 

Electron micrograph of an animal cell.  Image credit: UCSF School of Medicine.

Electron micrograph of a plant cell.  Image credit: University of Wisconsin, Botany department.

For the watercolor painting activity with the kids, I drew a plant and an animal cell that later were used as templates for the kids to create their own drawings to finally be watercolor painted. You can see below some examples of cells that I painted. I also added some labels so you have an idea of the parts of the cell. 

Plant cell.

Plant cell labeled

Parts of a cell.

Parts of a cell. Labeled.

Today I want to share with you my cell drawings so you can actually download them, print them and color them yourself! Nowadays it’s highly popular to do coloring pages activities and here’s my contribution so you can have fun. Please be aware that they are only for personal use.  All you have to do is download the PDFs here and here.

Once you have colored them, I would be very happy to see them and share them on my social media!

Can we understand memories at the molecular level?

When we talk about memories, we immediately associate it with some sort of neural activity. Learning a language includes being exposed to a massive quantity of new information, where our brains try to save as much as it can. But have you ever wondered how does this process happen?

A natural comparison would be to think of our brains as computers that save all the information that they receive. But that doesn’t happen quite often, sometimes we forget what we have learned unless we are actively exposed to it. Then, you might wonder, how do brain cells actually form memories?

Connections between brain cells happen through junctions called synapses. The word synapse comes from the Greek synapsis, meaning “conjunction”. Neurons are always communicating to each other through synapses, and the strengthening of these connections is associated with memory formation through a process called Long Term Potentiation (LTP). 

Synapses are classified in pre- and post- synapses, which correspond to the cell sending the message (pre-synapse) and the cell receiving the message (post-synapse). When a neuron tries to send a message, a change in the membrane voltage occurs. This change induces the release of the amino acid glutamate (the message), which activates a series of proteins located at the recipient cell called glutamate receptors. Once glutamate receptors are turned on, ions such as sodium are able to enter into the post synapse producing a change in postsynaptic membrane voltage. However, sodium itself doesn't trigger any machinery to strength memory formation.  In order to induce memory formation, calcium needs to enter the recipient cell to activate the machinery for LTP. Think about it as glutamate being the message from the pre-synapse and calcium representing the translated message at the post-synapse.  There is one kind of glutamate receptors, which are unique among other receptors because they are the only doors for calcium to get into the post-synapse. These unique receptors are called NMDA receptors and they are the main molecular character involved in memory formation.

The synapse. Communication between neurons occurs through the synapse. NMDA receptors trigger LTP by permeation of calcium.

NMDA receptors are quite peculiar not only because of their calcium permeability, but also because of their role as “coincidence detectors”, since they will only respond when simultaneous events are happening in both sides of the synapse. These two events are: 1) the cell sending the message has to release the glutamate, and 2) a change in the postsynaptic membrane voltage has to happen.  Once these two events occur in the synapse, the connection between the neurons is strengthened. Strengthening and weakening of neuronal bonds is a phenomenon called synaptic plasticity, where regulation of synapse communication represents our memories. Synaptic plasticity is frequently associated with remodeling and growing of new neural connections, which we could translate in terms of how many new words we can memorize while practicing a new language.

Since NMDA receptors are the molecular machinery of our memories, scientists have been interested in them since their classification back in late 1970’s. Studying the shape of these receptors has been useful to understand their mode of activation. Also, it has been found that when these receptors do not function properly they can lead to neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Research has been focused on the design of new drugs to target NMDA receptors involved in brain diseases. As the scientific knowledge advances, scientists understand better the molecular processes that lead to the formation of our memories. Its exciting to think that one day we could control what memories we want to remember based on how our NMDA receptors respond, and therefore being able to learn a new language in a more efficient way than we do today. 

Morris, R.G. (2013). NMDA receptors and memory encoding. Neuropharmacology 74, 32-40

Mayford, M., Siegelbaum, S.A., and Kandel, E.R. (2012). Synapses and memory storage. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol 4.

DNA Plant genome visualization

New genomes are being sequenced everyday. Therefore, nowadays, the amount of information keeps growing and only big data analysis allows the visualization of all of this material. However I wanted to give it a twist. I decided to visualize all the complete plant genome sequences showing something characteristic of each specimen (a leaf, a fruit, or a flower) with a traditional botanical painting, vintage style.

My source of information was Phytozome v11, which comprises a hub for plant genomes and gene family and data analysis. This painting includes 64 different plant specimens ranging from pineapple and grape to Arabidopsis and Volvox.

I hope you enjoy this old school painting that represents new data.

Source: Phytozome v11

Special thanks to Irene Liao (Duke University) for her help in regards to this painting.

Evelyn Witkin: Wonderful inspiration for women in science

This past Sunday, September 11th, was a special day for me. I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Evelyn Witkin at the 15th Women’s Partnership for Science Luncheon held at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Every year, several female philanthropists from New York come to the event to support biomedical research in the lab. This year, the event had Evelyn Witkin as the guest speaker. She is a professor emerita at Rutgers University, and has been an important geneticist who recently was awarded the Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for her important work on DNA repair.

Through her talk entitled ”Serendipity in Spades: My crooked path to Cold Spring Harbor “ she told the story of how she joined the lab and her discoveries there. A particular story started when she was an undergraduate at New York University. Back in 1940, she and several students had a petition protesting against racism to black athletes. The university suspended all the students involved including her. So, she went up to Columbia University and asked Dr. Dobzhansky to join his lab. Later in 1944 she came to Cold Spring Harbor where she isolated UV radiation-resistance mutants of E. coli  (read more here and here), which became a main focus of her PhD research. She was a key researcher in the field of DNA repair in bacteria (read more here).

In her honor, I was commissioned to do a couple of paintings that were part of the event: invitations, party favors and a special gift for Evelyn.  I want to share with you two paintings that were part of the event, the first one is called “Secrets of Life” and it represents Mendel’s peas and classic genetics interlaced in the shape of DNA.

Secrets of Life

 The other painting is called “Autumn Colors” and it features a magical spot at Cold Spring Harbor, the view of the harbor through the gazebo during the fall. The original painting was a lab gift to Evelyn. 

Autumn Colors

Evelyn Witkin with her gift from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Photo: Constance Brukin.

She is a fantastic inspiration for women that are pursing a career in science. She was a pioneer scientist when it was not common to find women at the bench. So if you want to, or are currently pursing a career in science, whether you're a man or a woman, think of her as an inspiration to keep up on your dreams.

Structural Color: When light transforms into art

Have you ever thought about how nature creates truly masterpieces of art? Butterflies wings are a great example of nature’s beauty; full of unique colors, they have captivated the human eye for centuries.

But, what makes those beautiful colors?

Is a special pigment? Nope, there is no pigment involved.

So, then what is it? It is called Structural Color.

Here’s a short infographic about how butterflies get that phenomenal iridescent blue in their wings.