Artist Interview Series - Elfy Chiang

The Lifeology team has been busy working with health professionals, from mindfulness coaches to fitness experts to medical specialists. We have been creating a series of Lifeology courses for LIFE Ascent, a wellness program that gives subscribers the tools needed to improve their health. It is a program based on learning, measuring and establishing habits across multiple areas of health.

Subscribers establish habits that result in a greater understanding of how their body functions and why it responds the way it does to provide a foundation of sustainable weight management, improved fitness, and more. Lifeology courses are part of this program. We have tapped into our community of writers, reviewers, and illustrators to help develop these courses. 

Recently, I contacted some of the artists and illustrators that were tasked with creating the visuals for these courses. Over the coming weeks, I will be creating a series of bi-weekly interviews focusing on the various artists, their backgrounds, and illustration style. This blog features the amazing work of Elfy Chiang.

Can you tell us a little about your background?

I’m a freelance illustrator from Taiwan with a background in Biological Sciences. Science and Arts have always been my greatest passions in life. As a visual learner, I love telling science stories with pictures. I studied Biological Sciences and Technology at university and later did an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London. A big part of my training in science is related to medical research, so I am most interested in creating art in these topics. But I am also generally curious about other fields of science and love sharing the latest discoveries with people by creating fun and engaging visuals. 

How did you initially find Lifeology?

I was connected with Lifology via another sci-art platform called ‘Sciencefindsart’. I found out about them by connecting with the author of the article ‘Science–graphic art partnerships to increase research impact’ which I came across on social media. 

Have you illustrated a Lifeology card deck before?

Yes, luckily I have illustrated about 9 courses before!

Lifeology Course Cover
Lifeology Course Cover
Lifeology Course Cover
Lifeology Course Cover
Lifeology Course Cover
Lifeology Course Cover
Nanoparticles Course Cover
Metabolic Health Lifeology Course Cover
Fasting Lifeology Course Cover

Would you consider yourself a SciArtist?

Yes, I do consider myself a SciArtist. But I like to think that sci-art is one of the many arts that I create. In a broader sense, I identify myself more as a science communicator specialised in communicating science with visual media. 

Apart from illustrating Lifeology courses, I also create graphics for scientists in research publications. This may include graphical abstracts that sums up their research in one image, signalling pathways showcasing the complex relationships of different genes or proteins they study, or visualising data like text-based tables and much more. All with the goal to benefit both the scientists and their peers in communicating more efficiently and effectively with each other. I have also worked with lecturers in creating multimedia materials for graduate students to help create a more interesting and engaging learning experience. 
My sci-art journey began when I took on my first job fresh out of university working on an admin role at a science research centre in Taiwan. Being surrounded by scientists and with the urge to be creative, I looked for opportunities to create scientific graphics for scientist colleagues. I also volunteered to create posters and handbooks for science conferences as well as design logos and websites for research groups. Since then, I have always enjoyed creating visuals in science for different audiences and for different purposes. 

When looking at the script for the course what were your initial impressions?

Despite my training in science, I always enjoy reading through the scripts as a fresh mind while prepared to learn something new. I’m always impressed by how the writing can provide practical and useful information with simple and concise words with little reading time required.

Are visual notes a useful starting point? Did you make any decisions to develop ideas further?

Yes, I find visual notes very useful. I like to see it as the writers are exchanging their thought process with me which makes the creative process on my end engaging from the start. Sometimes, the notes also help explain why the text is planned out as it is and help me plan the visual design for each course as a whole.
The notes also help me explore different extended ideas. They are like the seeds of new ideas. Very often, I use the notes to grow my thought process into branches of extended ideas and later I would mix and match these ideas to find the best combinations and finally turn them into my final work. 

Do you use storyboarding in other work?

Yes, I also use storyboarding when creating comics or animations. To me, storyboarding helps a great deal in planning out the artwork as a whole. This is especially true when creating something that is made out of smaller fragments or sections like the Lifeology courses or comics and animations. Having a storyboard can help me step back from the details of different sections and see if the final work would make sense all together. It’s also a great way for me to communicate my ideas with people I’m working with and to get feedback from them.

Can you tell us a little more about how you get from visual idea to storyboard image to final rendered piece?

Very often I would use analogies or metaphors for visualisation. I would read through the course and highlight keywords that are related to the core messages of each course and brainstorm for any other words from there for visual ideas. For example, in the ‘Overnight Fasting for Metabolic Health’ course where the circadian cycle and the biological clock was mentioned a lot, there was already a built-in analogy- our metabolism works in a rhythm around the day-night cycle like a clock. It was obvious to include images of clocks in this course which something most of us are familiar with and can easily relate to. 

In card 13 where it says a master clock in our brain regulates the clocks in our other organs got me thinking how I can link all these clocks together. So having thought about how clocks work, the gears inside the clock were a good choice. In the illustrations, there are gears extending from the different clocks to link them together to bring out the concept that our organs are connected to a rhythm that drives each other.

An outline of a man with the image of a master clock in his brain, regulating all the other clocks belonging to organs in the body
The body clock affected by random meals.

This visual concept extended to card 18 where having random meals would result in the clocks going off-sync hence the drawing of one of the clocks looking broken with small parts flying out and disrupting the gears connecting with other clocks.

What are your illustration tools of choice and why? Any recommendations to those starting out?

For digital illustrations, I am more used to working in Adobe Illustrator. It is vector-based, meaning the art is composed of shapes and lines where I can move around and adjust freely which is a working process I feel more comfortable with. Also, it was one of the first professional tools I learned to use so I’m just more familiar with it. I also like to use Adobe After Effects to create simple animations from my illustrations. Illustrator and After Effects are compatible for this purpose. 

Apart from digital art, I also like creating art with traditional tools on paper. The ‘What does the coronavirus do in my body?’ course and the comic, ‘How to keep covid away’ are examples of my work in watercolour. I would edit and enhance these drawings in Photoshop.
However, Adobe programmes come with a subscription fee. For beginners who are not ready to pay for advanced tools, I would recommend starting with tools immediately available. For working digitally, start using the most basic tools you already have in your computer like PowerPoint or Keynote etc. Watch free online tutorial videos and get familiar with these tools as much as you can. Many advanced programmes are extended versions of these basic tools so being good at them is preparing yourself for the more advanced ones. I created some of my earliest animations in PowerPoint! The same with creating art on paper, you don’t need artist-grade pencils or paper to create good art. Grab a pen and paper next to you and start creating like you have nothing to lose.

Being open-minded and willing to explore or even combine different tools and techniques is a good way to find which tools suit you best. Browse artwork by other artists and try to find out what tools they use. Watch tutorials and try them out yourself. Many digital art programmes offer a free trial so take the opportunity to give it a go and see whether it’s something you feel comfortable working with. Always remember, it does take some time to learn and get used to new tools and creating something you are happy with, so be patient with yourself!

Tell us a little more about your other types of Art. Do you sell art?

Ink drawing of a beaver showing cross hatching techniques in ink

Since I wasn’t traditionally trained in Art, I like to get myself into practising more traditional drawing techniques on paper like cross hatching with pen and ink or watercolour paintings of plants and animals. 

An embroidery of lungs

I also like to get crafty and recently picked up embroidery. I made some shirts with embroidered human lungs for a scientist friend. She is planning to wear them at work or at conference meetings to get people asking about her research. Some of these are shared on my website or instagram page @elfylandstudios. 

A Science Graph illustration on a computer screen

One of the reasons I like creating on paper or doing crafts is to take myself off screens and be more flexible with my hands. The other reason is that it’s more difficult to mend mistakes when drawing on paper and that helps me in learning to make better decisions. There isn’t an undo button and I can’t change the colours or layout anytime I like along the process. I also have an Instagram page @elfyland.scientifik dedicated to sci-art where I update Lifeology courses or scientific graphics I created. I don’t have an online shop yet but I’m looking forward to getting commissions for drawings or embroidery and starting a shop soon!

Photo of Elfy Chiang

Elfy is an artist and science communicator from Taiwan with a background in Biological Sciences. She works with scientists and educators creating professional and engaging visuals to communicate science.

Find out more about Elfy by following her on social media!
Instagram account: elfyland.scientifik or elfylandstudios
Twitter account: @elfylandstudios