Illustrator Keeps Artistic Vision Despite Eye Injury

Alice Tangerini got her job illustrating plants for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History straight out of college in 1972. Her boss, botanist Warren Wagner, thinks she's now the best botanical illustrator in the U.S. — even with just one good eye.

  • Alice Tangerini is a scientific illustrator at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. She got a job illustrating plants there straight out of college in 1972.
    Hide caption
    Alice Tangerini is a scientific illustrator at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. She got a job illustrating plants there straight out of college in 1972.
    All photos by Ted Robbins/NPR/NPR
  • Botanical illustrators work from photographs and dried specimens gathered in the field by scientists. This specimen is Curatella americana, collected in 1990 in Guyana. It's commonly called "Sandpaper Tree" because its leaves are used as sandpaper. Its flowers are being studied for medicinal use as an anti-inflammatory.
    Hide caption
    Botanical illustrators work from photographs and dried specimens gathered in the field by scientists. This specimen is Curatella americana, collected in 1990 in Guyana. It's commonly called "Sandpaper Tree" because its leaves are used as sandpaper. Its flowers are being studied for medicinal use as an anti-inflammatory.
    Ted Robbins/NPR
  • Tangerini draws the fresh flowers in detail, even though the specimen is dried. Each flower is about the size of a kernel of barley.
    Hide caption
    Tangerini draws the fresh flowers in detail, even though the specimen is dried. Each flower is about the size of a kernel of barley.
    Ted Robbins/NPR
  • A scientific illustrator often uses tools of other trades. Tangerini uses surgical tweezers, picks and X-Acto knives to pull apart and examine her specimens.
    Hide caption
    A scientific illustrator often uses tools of other trades. Tangerini uses surgical tweezers, picks and X-Acto knives to pull apart and examine her specimens.
    Ted Robbins/NPR
  • Tangerini looks through a microscope to sketch the flowers. She is aided by the round mirror fastened to the side of the instrument, which reflects the image of her hand into her field of vision as she draws.
    Hide caption
    Tangerini looks through a microscope to sketch the flowers. She is aided by the round mirror fastened to the side of the instrument, which reflects the image of her hand into her field of vision as she draws.
    Ted Robbins/NPR
  • The dried flowers are reconstituted in a solution of distilled water, ethanol and a chemical that expands the material. The sample is heated briefly. The process helps the flowers look more like they did when they were alive.
    Hide caption
    The dried flowers are reconstituted in a solution of distilled water, ethanol and a chemical that expands the material. The sample is heated briefly. The process helps the flowers look more like they did when they were alive.
    Ted Robbins/NPR
  • In 2004, Tangerini injured the retina in her right eye. Her vision in that eye became distorted, making  it difficult to create accurate illustrations. She wears an eye patch (with a skull and crossbones for fun) so she can see and draw clearly using her left eye alone.
    Hide caption
    In 2004, Tangerini injured the retina in her right eye. Her vision in that eye became distorted, making it difficult to create accurate illustrations. She wears an eye patch (with a skull and crossbones for fun) so she can see and draw clearly using her left eye alone.
    Ted Robbins/NPR
  • Tangerini says she loves the feel of pen on paper, as well as the  challenge of drawing clean lines. Here, she uses a brush with only a few hairs for accuracy, drawing the final inked image of a flower.
    Hide caption
    Tangerini says she loves the feel of pen on paper, as well as the challenge of drawing clean lines. Here, she uses a brush with only a few hairs for accuracy, drawing the final inked image of a flower.
    Ted Robbins/NPR
  • Despite her love for pen and paper, Tangerini has begun using a computer. This allows her to blow up images, making them easier to see and, she hopes, prolonging her career. Here, she stipples a drawing of the seed of a  Tetracera asperula, also from  Guyana. Stippling is a technique that uses dots to create shading.
    Hide caption
    Despite her love for pen and paper, Tangerini has begun using a computer. This allows her to blow up images, making them easier to see and, she hopes, prolonging her career. Here, she stipples a drawing of the seed of a Tetracera asperula, also from Guyana. Stippling is a technique that uses dots to create shading.
    Ted Robbins/NPR
  • The finished drawing of the Tetracera asperula, showing leaves, buds and flowers, will become a plate in the scientific journal The Flora of the Guianas.
    Hide caption
    The finished drawing of the Tetracera asperula, showing leaves, buds and flowers, will become a plate in the scientific journal The Flora of the Guianas.
    Ted Robbins/NPR

1 of 10

View slideshow i

Wagner has asked the slender, dark-haired artist not to retire, calling her "irreplaceable." She says she absolutely loves her job: Hours can go by, she says, as she draws the long, smooth lines that capture the nature of a leaf or a branch. After nearly four decades on the job, Tangerini is still trying to get it just right.

"Every drawing is that attempt to reach perfection," says Tangerini, who is also the curator of the Smithsonian's 5 million plant drawings. "The attempt to really make that one line that you say, 'That's exactly the way I wanted to make that line.'"

Botanical illustrator Alice Tangerini i i

Botanical illustrator Alice Tangerini's right eye was injured, so she wears an eye patch to help her focus with the left. Ted Robbins/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ted Robbins/NPR
Botanical illustrator Alice Tangerini

Botanical illustrator Alice Tangerini's right eye was injured, so she wears an eye patch to help her focus with the left.

Ted Robbins/NPR

Tangerini's work appears in scientific journals such as The Flora of the Guianas. She is as much scientist as artist. Her office several floors above the museum's exhibits is filled with old pens, fine brushes, even surgical tools she uses to dissect tiny plants such as the grain-sized flowers of the sandpaper tree from Guyana. She works from dried brown specimens collected in the 1990s and sewn to a large piece of acid-free paper. She must rehydrate the flowers, then look at them under a microscope. Then she makes sketches of the hairs on the magnified flower.

A New Way Of Looking At Things

But it's getting tougher for Tangerini to see things. Her right eye was injured four and a half years ago.

"They don't have a diagnosis for it, they just say it's bad luck. You just worked so many years and one eye gave out," she says. "And in this field, you can't have any distortion. You can't put up with it."

Tangerini had surgery, but it left her with double-vision in her right eye. So she faced a potentially career-ending obstacle. Her boss tried to help. Wagner suggested she use only her good eye and wear an eye patch over her injured eye.

"I gave her my son's pirate patch," he says, "so she can cover one eye and she still focus in and see things. So she's figured out ways to go past her disability with her eye and still do first-rate art."

That's not the only accommodation Tangerini had to make to stay on top of her game in a field that demands detail, skill and patience. She recently began using a large graphics tablet, a monitor she can draw directly on. The software program Photoshop makes the small drawings larger. It's especially useful for techniques like stippling — using dots to create a shadow effect.

"It's a little bit of an eye relief for me to be able to enlarge the drawings on a monitor to where I don't have to really strain my eye," she says.

It works. But wearing an eye patch and using only one eye for as much as 10 hours a day is tiring. So, little by little, Tangerini is being forced to go digital. She doesn't mind if it will keep her on the job.

"As long as my eyes hold out," she laughs. "As long as I can still use my good eye I will still be drawing here."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.