AIVisual Art

AI: Art Class for Techies?

Gears - Leonardo Da Vinci

I have recently been approached to teach art to engineering students. It’s a new idea at my school and we’re still very much in the brainstorming stage. The goal is to have them be able to: a) Communicate ideas visually and b) Communicate effectively with artists. What we’re currently hammering out is what, exactly, we should focus on.  I thought that the discussion was worthy of opening up to the world. Have at it.

Artists, what do you wish technical people knew about art, graphic design, etc?
Technical People, what do you wish you could do? What artistic skills would most benefit you? What do artists do that doesn’t make sense to you?

The ART Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. It’s an interesting topic. I’m a chemical engineer and an artist. I guess how you go about it depends largely on the goals. As an engineer I do no drawing, we have people called drafters that use programs like auto-cad to make 2 D representations.

    However we are constantly drawing if you include 5 second sketches on a spare piece of paper to convey an idea.

    The other area of engineering where drawing comes in is for conceptual designs. However most companies would have an art department for that sort of thing.

    The most important things to communicate to engineers would probably be a better understanding of perspective.

    And the most important thing for engineers to understand when communicating with an artist would be (A) explain clearly what parts are not negotiable. (B) Just because the artist had only 2 hours of compulsory classes a week at university, does not make them any less of a person.

    If you were gonna be getting them to learn to draw I would get them to copy some old master work that contains perspective. Trust me when I say none of the students want to draw another F#ck!ng heat exchanger.

  2. As a future chemist I’d love to be able to draw what I see in my mind’s eye when trying to understand how molecules interact. I haven’t seen much good visualization of this stuff, mostly because you really can’t say “This is what it would look like if we could take a photograph of it.” Stuff at that level is almost too abstract to depict visually, but I’d love to see how an artist who knew chemistry and physics could depict that sort of stuff, with one eye on the physical reality and another on artistic interpretation.

  3. Interestingly, I am an artist who mostly does Natural History pen-and-ink illustration, and I have been taking a Paleobiology Training Program at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. This has been an amazing experience for me for many reasons, but especially hearing lectures from top scientists in their fields (Paleontology and Paleobotany mostly) griping about the way artists depict their specialties. These gripes were mostly asides in their lectures. They weren’t thinking specifically that there were artists in the room. They were warning laymen to beware of artists representations because they are often way off base. The scientists seem to feel that the artists too often try to get creative (go figure) and aren’t focused enough on the facts. So they find the eventual end result unsatisfying, scientifically.

    But on the flip side, these same scientists are comfortable with gaps in their own research, and don’t seem to understand that that doesn’t work that well, visually speaking. For example, a scientist wants an artist to draw a scene with a certain type of late Cretaceous plant. He has some fossil leaves and bark and tells the artist roughly the size and shape of the plant. The following conversation ensues:

    Artist: How far down the trunk would these leaves have gone?
    Scientist: We don’t know that right now.
    Artist: How far apart would these have grown?
    Scientist: We aren’t sure
    Artist: Would these structures have grown in clusters? Or individually?
    Scientist: That’s inconclusive.

    Scientist (to class): Can you believe this depiction? No way would these trees have ever fallen over like this with the kinds of root structures we now think they have!

    I feel like more artists (if they want to do this kind of work) need to get more familiarity in the science or specialty they are working on. But scientists also need to take seriously the needs of art as a discipline. Artists (especially scientific illustrators) are not magicians and we aren’t all woo-addled space cadets. We actually care (mostly) about depicting things as accurately and as detailed as possible. But you have to meet us part way if you expect positive results. It’s weird to tell a story about how an artist was pressing you for details to make the most accurate picture she could, and then scoff at how artists “don’t get it.” Maybe we can’t always do what you do, but if you could do what we do you wouldn’t be asking us for help, so respect your artists!

  4. I am a big believer in getting the basics right. if you have basic artistic tools at your disposal, you can turn that to anything. Composition, colour, light & perspective would serve anyone well regardless of application.

  5. I wish that I had the sense of flow I see my artist friends have…when I draw something and mess one little line up I become discouraged and run off. It took my girlfriend hours to get that that one little line doesn’t necessarily mean much on the whole. When you work in a field where you need to be exact, but also want to try to express yourself artistically, you need to learn to relax and go with it.

    I recommend giving them something to do with their hands. When I first tried using a potters wheel I was so focused on the experience that I forgot about messing up or making one mistake that ruined the whole.

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