Neanderthal DNA

Geneticists at Hebrew University have been studying DNA from Neanderthals and Denisovans to determine some of the differences between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. The paper, featured in the May 2014 issue of Science Magazine, focuses on how genes are regulated, rather than what proteins they code for. This method shines a new light on the differences between our species, enabling finer distinctions between what can otherwise appear to be remarkably similar genes. For more, be sure to check out the article here!

David Gokhman and Liran Carmel contacted me about creating a conceptual illustration for their work. I thought I’d show you a bit of the process involved in making this piece.

The aim was to draw the viewer in, and create an interest in the paper for a wider audience. Understanding the scientists’ vision for the image was challenging, but it was a really interesting process to come up with something that would be recognized as “DNA” without going too far into the lowest common denominator. Here is an early draft, before the concept was fully fleshed out:

Early concept draft.

Early concept draft

But their idea was really to have a figure above water made out of DNA, and have a rendered reflection of a Neanderthal in the water. The DNA-man was to be the main focus of the composition, but to create him I needed a template to work with. Enter my model…

The identity of this neanderthal cannot be revealed

The identity of this neanderthal cannot be revealed

I got my lovely partner to pose for the reflection image using a mirror to get the position right. We didn’t have a large enough mirror at home, so we made the classic mistake of using one at his parents’ house. His family had a good laugh about it, teasing him for modeling as a neanderthal. As it turned out, he wasn’t quite right for the part.
His siblings’ amusement got cut short when the comments I got back were things like: “he looks too human” and: “make his arms bigger and his forehead smaller.” I guess my model can rest assured that he’s clearly a modern human, despite his cave-man status at home. The researchers could tell this was not a certified neanderthal posing for me, and I made the necessary adjustments.

To create the DNA “texture” I tried several types of drawings of the double helix. It was important that the fill be recognizable as DNA, but a minimal double helix was too defined to fit well into the shape of our DNA-man. Here are some of the options I tried:

DNA roughs

DNA roughs

The chosen DNA drawing (center) was manipulated in photoshop to create the shape of the figure.  The background and neanderthal reflection were drawn separately in graphite and composited, then painted in photoshop.
To give the DNA figure some volume and make the silhouette more substantial I painted lighted areas only, maintaining the transparency of the neanderthal above water.

Here is the finished piece:

Neanderthal DNA

Neanderthal DNA, Graphite and Photoshop, 2014.

This project was a great challenge and truly exciting for me. This study is an important step in telling a wonderfully mysterious story; one that we can’t help but be curious about: the story of ancient humans.

By Posted in Digital on May 2, 2014