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SciArt profile: Maja Mielke

Posted by , on 10 April 2024

In this SciArt profile, we meet Maja Mielke, who is doing a PhD in functional morphology and enjoys making nature-inspired drawings.

Can you tell us about your background and what you work on now?

Currently, I’m pursuing a PhD in functional morphology at the University of Antwerp (Belgium), but originally, I’m from Germany. I did my bachelor’s in Molecular Biophysics in Berlin but switched to Biology & Evolution for my master’s because I wanted to study animals rather than molecules. This way, I discovered my fascination for the functional morphology and biomechanics of vertebrates. I studied squirrels for my master’s thesis and switched to birds for my PhD. I’m exploring how they move their beak while processing, cracking, and husking seeds.

Were you always going to be a scientist?

Pretty much, yes. Especially the natural sciences have always sparked my interest and fascination for the world around us. Becoming a scientist was the logical step after finishing school. The hardest part was to choose a field of study! But the interdisciplinary Biophysics bachelor program was the perfect fit at that time.

And what about art – have you always enjoyed it?

I have practiced and enjoyed art a lot during my school years. But once I started my bachelor studies, I was so occupied with lectures, practicals, and exams that there was hardly any room for creating art. Only during my masters did I attempt to re-integrate an art practice into my life. Unfortunately, while managing work, family, and other hobbies, I still haven’t managed to practice art on a regular basis until now. But whenever I finish a piece, it makes me really happy.

What or who are your most important artistic influences?

First, my art is primarily inspired by nature and my fascination for the animal world. That determines my ideas on what to illustrate in the first place. Second, I’m inspired by the work of both professional artists (like Ben Rothery, Alphonso Dunn, Denise Soden, and Raoul Deleo) and fellow hobby artists that share their work online. Studying their art influences my own artistic approaches and inspires me a lot. Third, my art is highly influenced by the work of wildlife photographers, whose beautiful work I use as references for my drawing practice. Last, I’ve been highly influenced by drawing and painting courses that I attended during my life, be it a painting class for children during primary school, more advanced naturalistic drawing classes during high school, or a scientific illustration course I attended two years ago during my PhD.

How do you make your art?

Most of the time, I draw from reference photos. I usually work in pencil or ink, sometimes with watercolor, and very rarely digitally. Because of my limited free time during normal working days, I often finish a drawing during multiple sessions spread over the evenings of several days. If I’m not working on an elaborate piece, I mostly just practice some basic drawing skills with quick sketches in my sketchbook.

Does your art influence your science at all, or are they separate worlds?

Sometimes, it’s more the other way around: my science influences my art. I create my own scientific illustrations, e.g., for conference presentations or papers. Also, because I study birds, I particularly enjoy drawing them. But most of the time, my art is doing its own thing, just exploring the animal world and pausing for a sketch whenever inspiration hits.

What are you thinking of working on next?

I would like to further improve my pen and ink drawing skills and explore drawing with dip pens. I love the minimalistic approach of using only black ink as a medium instead of dozens of colors. Visualizing different textures like feathers, fur, and scales with only ink lines or dots is challenging but also so much fun.

Find out more about Maja:


Mastodon (art):

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