Q&A with Scientific Illustrator Amy H. Gross

Amy H. Gross is a scientific illustrator whose work can be found in the Amphibian and Reptile Atlas of Peninsular California (a.k.a. the Herp Atlas), a database of our region’s amphibians and reptiles powered by the contributions of citizen scientists. Amy is also featured as a citizen scientist in our permanent exhibition Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science, which opened its doors to the public August 20, 2016. We talked with Amy about her work with the Herp Atlas project and how she came to merge her mutual loves of science and art.

Q: What's your background—did you study art or science in school?

A: A little bit of both! When I first started at Humboldt State University, I studied wildlife science. I’ve always been passionate about animals and conservation, so that seemed like a natural fit. However, it was also at Humboldt that I took my very first art class. I have drawn all of my life, but I never thought of it as more than a hobby until one of my art professors changed my mind. He was a great mentor, and he convinced me that I had a talent that should be pursued. After a few art classes, I made the leap and switched my major to studio art. I received my B.A. degree and went on to study painting conservation, museum studies, fine art reproduction, and finally, scientific illustration, which I believe is the perfect bridge between my dual passions for art and science.

Q: How did you get involved with doing scientific illustration for theNAT’s Herp Atlas?

A: I had been working at theNAT as a visitor services associate. In my spare time, I was building a portfolio of illustrations. A good friend and coworker suggested that I contact the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias (BRCC), the science arm of the Museum, to see if anyone might need a scientific illustrator. I emailed some samples of my work to BRCC staff, and Curator of Herpetology Dr. Bradford Hollingsworth got back to me right away. He told me about the Herp Atlas, and about how there were a few entries that were incomplete because the species were so rare that they were either undocumented in photos or the few photos that did exist were unusable. Brad’s idea was to create illustrations as placeholders until the species could be documented and photographed. So that’s what I’ve been working on for the past two years.

Q: Describe the process of illustrating a species. How do you and Brad work together?

A: We start with Brad giving me information about the species along with images of closely related species—the animal I am illustrating is usually very similar to a related species, so photos of its close relatives are great references. Then, Brad describes the important distinctions as best he can. Brad and I email back-and-forth a lot in the beginning to ensure that I am getting the details right—the face shape, scale pattern, or any other important traits that define the species. Brad has been very patient with me! I knew very little about the anatomy of reptiles and amphibians, but I’m learning more and more with each illustration.

Q: What's the biggest challenge of doing illustrations for the Herp Atlas?

A: I would say the biggest challenge is ensuring that the species I am drawing looks accurate—and that's the whole point of my job! I thought I knew a lot about reptiles and amphibians until I started working with a herpetologist. Brad is great at spotting tiny details that can make a species I am illustrating look like a totally different, but related, species. This is something I want to get better at, but in the meantime it’s great having an experienced herpetologist as a second set of eyes.

All in all, I want to be sure that my illustrations can stand alongside the other images in the Amphibian and Reptile Atlas of Peninsular California. The Atlas is such a fantastic resource for herpetologists, citizen scientists, and anyone who lives in the southern California/Baja California region, and I want to be sure that I represent these unique species as best I can. It's not always the easiest work, but it is fun, interesting, and rewarding. Plus, I love a good challenge.

Visit the Amphibian and Reptile Atlas of Peninsular California to see Amy’s illustrations of the Isla San Marcos Barefoot Gecko, Isla Cerralvo Long-nosed Snake, and other rare species. You can also learn more about her and her work in our new permanent exhibition on Level 3 of the Museum, Extraordinary Ideas from Ordinary People: A History of Citizen Science.

Posted By Exhibit Developer Erica Kelly.

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