Fall City woman’s craft is blend of art and science

FALL CITY - If art expresses reality, Dawn Nelson has the perfect set of skills.

FALL CITY – If art expresses reality, Dawn Nelson has the perfect set of skills.

As a science illustrator, Nelson creates work that resembles subjects in such detail it is used for papers and articles that appear in science publications.

But it also is art and Nelson brings imagination to her work that enables her to represent the realistic with an imaginative eye, which encourages people to explore the natural world she finds so fascinating.

“It lets people think beyond subjects [of a work of art],” she said. “There is more to look into.”

Nelson’s skills are a hybrid of science and art. Growing up, she found that she liked to draw animals and a continuing interest in nature motivated her to study environmental toxicology at the University of California at Davis, where she graduated with honors in 1988. After graduating, Nelson took a course in biological art at the College of Marin in California as well. She continued to draw in her free time and after moving to Washington, got a certificate in scientific illustration from the University of Washington in 1998.

It was then she started to freelance her work. Her drawings and clients vary. She recently completed an illustration of a new species of insect for an article that appeared in a Smithsonian Institute publication. Presently she is working on a watercolor of salmon for the state fish hatchery in Issaquah.

To get the subject right, Nelson uses either scratchboard, pen and ink, watercolor or pencil. When it comes to the central subjects of Nelson’s work, there is no room for abstraction. Everything from mountain flowers to mountain lions are depicted as closely to the real thing as possible. In order to represent the right colors and textures, Nelson studies pictures, microscope slides and talks to scientists over the phone about the most minute details of a subject.

The best inspiration, however, is to see the subjects herself and Nelson has spent hours at arboretums looking at plants, at museums looking at stuffed and mounted animals and just roaming around the outdoors looking at wildlife. To get a salmon illustration just right, she recently bought a salmon steak from the Pike Place Market to study its pin bones.

“To me, the drawing is what is most important,” she said.

Although Nelson (and her clients) want her work to be as accurate as possible, her artistic license is what makes them engaging. Nelson’s work can do what a photograph can’t, whether that is to present a salmon turned a certain way, or make a cross section of an animal’s anatomy visually pleasing. She can also take a subject out of its natural habitat and set it against a background that is full of colors not found in a forest or ocean.

By combining the two elements of education and art, Nelson said she can engage people with the facts of the natural world in way they can’t be by just glancing at a picture. Her favorite projects are interpretive centers because her work is an equal amount of fact and fun, with detailed information and illustrations over a creative medium and background.

“I want them [the public] to understand more about it [subject],” she said. “People can look at it [subject] and read about what environmental issues surround it or where they came from or how they got there.”

It was the artistic side to Nelson’s work that caught the attention of the parks and recreation department in Enumclaw, which was soliciting work for an art exhibit they started last year. Nelson’s oil paintings, taken from the walls of her home in Fall City, may be viewed at Enumclaw City Hall until next month.

Nelson has been a toxicologist for 14 years, but would like to some day be a full-time illustrator. Over the years she has realized that if she wants to study the natural world with the rigor of a scientist and with the wonder of an artist, being an illustrator is the best way to do both.

* Dawn Nelson’s work will be on exhibit at Enumclaw City Hall at 1339 Griffin Ave. until Feb. 4. Call (360) 802-0239 for information.

Ben Cape can be reached at (425) 888-2311 or by e-mail at ben.cape@valleyrecord.com.