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Why Scientists Should Embrace Their Inner Child

A conversation with issue 50 cover artist James Yang

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James Yang is a Brooklyn-based artist whose illustrations have appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, and Wired, to name just a few. He’s also an award-winning children’s book author with three titles under his belt and a self-described “science-fiction nerd.” Yang’s commissions often tackle real-world issues, but invite viewers to reflect on them—and themselves—from a more whimsical perspective. Which was why Nautilus decided he was the perfect fit to illustrate the cover of the magazine’s 50th print issue and its “50 Facts So Romantic” feature. 

Yang was kind enough to sit down for an interview via email and answer our questions about his creative process, what science can learn from art, and the rise of artificial intelligence (he also gave us some great sci-fi recommendations).

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When did you decide pursuing art was the path you wanted to take? Was there a “eureka moment,” or was it more of a journey?

There were a couple clues early on: In second grade my art school teacher told my parents that she couldn’t teach me anything because I already knew more than her, so my parents decided they had to support me creatively. In high school in the 1970s, a former student, Stan Watts, had made it huge as an illustrator in L.A. and came to art class talking about the life as an illustrator, and it sounded very exciting. That was the moment I decided illustration was the life for me.

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In addition to our cover, you created the illustrations for Nautilus’ “50 Facts So Romantic” feature, which takes its title from a Jules Verne quote. Has science fiction inspired any of your work or influenced your style?

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I was a big science-fiction nerd and loved short story anthologies—Ray Bradbury, that sort of thing. Arthur C. Clarke was my favorite, and I was the biggest Star Trek (the original series) nerd. A lot of the visual language of The Jetsons seeps into my work, and I love creating fanciful robots or devices for metaphors. 

Was there any particular fact on the list that you found particularly surprising?

How long sharks have existed in pretty much their same form. I kind of knew it, it makes sense now when looking at them, but that was a big surprise.

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Scientific American: The race to create artificial life. Photo courtesy of James Yang.
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A lot of people think of science as the discovery of knowledge about the natural world, but an equally important component of science is the transmission of that knowledge. Your artwork brilliantly communicates complicated topics with simple, evocative imagery. Walk us through your process.

Thank you! I’ve always been drawn to simpler graphic ideas even as a child because they seemed so smart. The best metaphor I can use for ideas is that they are like jokes which don’t have to be funny. So a lot of my ideas after reading a story start with, “the timelessness of sharks is like …” and then I finish out the image. 

I’ll quickly do thumbnails of whatever pops into my head even if they don’t make sense then start selecting the ones which have more promise. The sketches are then scanned as a template, and I have a selection of custom brushes and textures which I use to create the final image in Photoshop. 

I think of Photoshop as a silk screen process on steroids, which helps me wrap my head around the program. All the elements are on different layers, which is a huge benefit because I’m constantly changing my mind about color or compositions. 

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Do you see any parallels between your own creative process and scientific discovery?

Absolutely. There is a lot of trial and error, many “tricks” or processes learned happen accidentally. My work has gradually evolved through the years because I am like a sponge and soak in new ideas and influences which make their way into my work. Especially when doing books, I’ll do test versions of art before diving into the final book. It’s the same process NASA used to get to the moon.

What do you think scientists can learn from artists—and vice versa?

Depending on the science, I think science and engineers can learn about the humanity and randomness that artists appreciate which make us human. I love the Turing test in Blade Runner. What a perfect metaphor for the line between humans and technology. 

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I think a lot of artists’ work can benefit from the knowledge of science to make their work have more resonance. For example the writers for the television show The Expanse explained how they used the limitations of the physics of being in space to tell the story instead of using fantastical cheats. They said it actually made the tension in the drama much richer.

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A Boy Named Isamu, Viking Books 2020. Photo courtesy of James Yang.

Carl Sagan once said, “Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them.” You’ve written award-winning children’s books and recently illustrated an educational picture book about light, Spark, Shine, Glow! What role can art play in helping kids and adults hold on to their childlike wonder about the natural world?

What a coincidence, Carl Sagan is one of my heroes! I did a picture book about artist Isamu Noguchi, and during research I stumbled across a quote where Noguchi said, “When an artist stops being a child, he would stop being an artist.” My wife jokes that she married a giant kid, and a lot of it is “seeing” the world as you would see it for the first time without the standard preconceptions but with impressions that seem new. 

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There is also an emotional resonance that hits as a kid which translates well in creating art as an adult. I agree with Noguchi. I’ve known plenty of creatives who have all the knowledge of the world but lost their childlike element, and it shows in the work.

On your blog you describe yourself as “a bit of a geek,” and a lot of your work deals with technology. Software like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator and other tech advancements have had a seismic impact on how art is created. Has technology changed your style or general creative process?

Absolutely. I’m not a believer in having to know everything in various programs, you just need to know the tools which help the way you create your art. Layers in all the programs were a revelation and allowed me to be more complex or refined with the way I compose elements since you were able to move them around like cut paper. 

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My career started out with traditional media, and I always hated that once you committed to the final, you were stuck making a direction work. Technology helped take that pressure off and ironically made me more creative since I could save many variations of an idea. 

I did also have a fascinating thing happen where I did painting for a show for the first time in forever, and my painting process changed to fit how I worked in Photoshop. They were actually nice paintings and were fresher than my old analog art.

One technological development that’s causing controversy in the artistic community is the rise of generative AI image services like Midjourney. Artists are concerned their work is being used to train these programs and that the widespread use of AI could mean fewer opportunities for human artists. Do you share any of these concerns?

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I’m a golf nut and bought new clubs which were designed by AI, and they are a technological wonder. As far as art, I’m very skeptical of its quality, much like the Turing test in Blade Runner, and I have huge issues with companies and programmers sampling work of artists without permission. 

There is also a subset of AI fans who mock the creative process artists use to create a unique voice and don’t understand that a few keywords does not have the same value that people learn from the process. There is a lot to learn from the creative process that can’t be translated into words. 

A journalist asked Picasso if he knew what he was going to paint when he was painting. He replied that he didn’t know what he wanted to paint but he knew what he wasn’t going to paint. He also said half of art is knowing when to quit. I guess in a nutshell I’m a hard no regarding AI for art but an enthusiastic yes for golf clubs.

Have you experimented with any of these programs or do you see a role for AI in your work?

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I haven’t experimented with them yet, and I’m not sure I see a role at the moment, but I’ve learned to never say never. I rarely use references because part of my art is “misremembering” things, which adds a fun element to the images.

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Plansponsor Magazine: Creating more choices for retirement. Photo courtesy of James Yang.

Before we let you go, you’re a sci-fi fan. Do you have any recommendations for our readers?

I’m a big fan of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and The Expanse—both have different tones but are wonderful. As far as books, I loved the anthologies of short stories curated by Robert Silverman, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and from Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End

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Since we talked about AI, people have to watch the original Star Trek episode “The Ultimate Computer,” which aired in 1968. Not only do you get two actors doing wonderful over-the-top Shatner-like acting, but it hits so many concerns about AI that we’re having today. That’s the wonderful thing about good science fiction. It talks about issues that we deal with decades later.

Check the Nautilus Shop for a print of our 50th issue signed by James Yang.

Interview by Jake Currie.

Lead image courtesy of James Yang.

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