Odra Noel trained as a doctor at the University of the Basque Country and gained a PhD in basic science at the University of London. Her research activities exposed her to cell culture, organ dissection, tissue analysis and morphological studies with both optic and electron microscopes.
Her art training includes a BA degree in aesthetics and music, and a certificate in computing. Her preferred creative mediums are mosaics, tiles and silks.
An enthusiastic interest in scientific art developed as a natural merging of scientific observation and artistic appreciation of the natural world. Her main subjects are healthy human organs and tissues, cell structure and mitochondria.
Odra Noel combines scientific work with scientific art creation. She lives in London.
Most of my paintings themes are biological, frequently medical. I have a particular interest in healthy human tissues and cells. Most of my works are microscopic images, ranging from low magnification (ova or blood cells magnified 40 times with a regular optical microscope) to very high resolution electron microscope (2,000 enlarged mitochondria and other organelles). Other works depict biological structures that we can’t see clearly (yet), like the ATP synthase or the mitochondrial permeability transitional pore.
I also have a good collection of microorganisms: virus, bacteria and harmless pond water microbes like euglena. Plants and algae are also great themes to work on. I love chloroplasts, and I have also done a series of transversally cut roots, and lichens.
Occasionally I do a tree of life, a few banded iron formations, or some hydrothermal vents.
Material and technique
I paint on silk. I find the material well suited to organic paintings; the running colours can be relatively controlled, and the resulting waves can create great effects that I use to represent the fluidity of cytoplasm and other biological elements. I experiment with the speed of drying to get sharp or soft lines at the interface between different colours.
For well-defined lines (for membranes for example) I use gutta, which allows me to draw a clear line. Gold and silver work best, but I have used all colours. Gutta only over black or coloured silk can be very effective, and I like to do structures with lots of membranes such as the endoplasmic reticulum. But most of my works have vibrant colours. I use heat-sensitive tints. Frequently I go through several cycles of wet and dry layers.
Once all is finished and thoroughly dry, I fix the piece using an iron. That makes the work permanent, and brings out the vibrancy of the colours.
Most of my research is done in books and online. I read around the subject to get a good feeling for what it is known on the subject I want to capture. Some subjects are very well known; I just have to get the information that allows me to ‘see’ it in my mind. That frequently takes quite a lot of reading.
Most of the time I want to know what the organ/tissue/cell/structure does, how does it functions or why it functions in the way it does. Physiology is necessary to understand morphology. This phase can take a couple of days or months.
Once I ‘have’ the subject in my head I plan what information I want to transmit. It could be a simple idea and have a clear and obvious message. It may have a lot of physiology and action. It may be explaining a concept rather than a form.
I do some sketches if I have to decide between a couple of composition options, and try them with pencil on paper. Those sketches don’t look anything like the final work; the outlines of the cells or tissues are very schematic and it would be difficult to match them with the finished painting.
When the full image is clear in my mind, and all the big decisions have been taken (size, arrangement, orientation, colour mix etc.), I stretch the silk on its frame. Around 90% of the time, what comes out is what I saw in my head. 10% it doesn’t, and it takes me a while to accept the unexpected outcome. On very rare occasions that unexpected outcome has been good, but mostly I destroy or cut them into small pieces. These can be used for odd decoration jobs.
Very few pieces take me months to complete. Once they have started to move from mind’s eye to blank silk they want to come out completely. I have to wait over night at several points for drying, but otherwise they call me to let them out and only calm down after the piece is finished. I then hang them to dry from a bookshelf and keep looking at them to make sure the message is coming out loud and clear.
After the work is completed it may still be playing in my head for a long time and I frequently do more variations over the following weeks. That does not mean that I am not happy with the previous output. But I may have decided on a detail that was not visible in the first work. Or I want to do it from the opposite angle. Or I may need several ‘cousins’ to really explain what I want to explain.
Whatever I do, it has to be beautiful. I want people to look at it and to want to take it home, regardless of how much biology they understand. I want people to stop and look at it, because it is striking and attractive. If they also understand and appreciate the science, it can feel even more beautiful.
But, even for the non-initiated, the fact that my paintings are loaded with information gives them a mysterious air. When the message is not evident, most careful observers can still tell that there is something in there. Like those medieval mural paintings explaining crusaders feats and leaving clues as to where the holy grail may be hiding.