Hana Ayoob – science illustrator (#16)

Creative producer of science events, science communicator and illustrator. She’s particularly interested in the intersection between art and science, and is passionate about bringing people together to explore the world around them.

Hana is a co-host of the podcast Why Aren’t You A Doctor Yet, a trustee of the Vagina Museum and a co-founder of Minorities in STEM, a UK network to support and showcase BAME individuals working and studying in STEM fields.

Her illustration style brings together traditional Indian mandalas and other patterns, with a love of anatomy and the weirder animals we share our planet with.

Twitter: @HanaAyoob

Instagram: @Hana.Ayoob

Web: www.hanaayoob.co.uk and www.curiousoctopus.co.uk

Shop: www.redbubble.com/people/hanaayoob

Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

I recently visited Singapore’s National Orchid Garden, which is part of the Botanic Gardens and was amazed by the diversity of flowers around us. There were hundreds of different colours, shapes and patterns, and the different species were even growing in different ways – out of the ground, attached to trees and more. We were lucky to have a botanist relative who works at the gardens showing us around too, pandering to my mum’s love of plants and my geeky curiosity.

The combination of being surrounded by artistic inspiration, and learning so much about the fascinating plants around us made me come alive, with a rather silly grin on my face all the way around. All I really wanted to do was sit and draw for hours in the garden but unfortunately it was a particularly roasting day in tropical Singapore!


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

For me, curiosity is the drive to discover more about myself and the world around me – something which manifests itself in my love of art and science. Wonder and awe is how I feel about the things I discover – which can in turn drive me to be more curious. They’re all intertwined with each other.


What inspires you to be creative?

So much! I’m inspired by wildlife and plants, fashion, traditional and modern art, and other people. If I had to pick one thing which inspires me the most it’s some of the weirder animals we share a planet with. There’s something which really fascinates me about the colours and patterns found in nature – which is why I’m on a mission to draw 100 sea slugs. They make such good art practice.


Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?

To be honest, it’s a lack of ritual and changing the environment I work in which aids my creativity – which is a part of why I recently chose to go freelance. Being able to choose where and how I work each day really fuels my creativity. I can work in different areas of the house, in cafes, museums, libraries and more. I’m currently sat typing this in an aquarium in Singapore.

One really important creativity aid for me is regularly going analogue, and getting away from my digital screens. All my art begins on paper or canvas, and even as I strive to improve my digital skills I can’t see myself ever going fully digital. Even when I’m working on event production, planning training sessions or writing comedy sets, if I’m stuck in a rut I need to get back to pen and paper – usually with as many different coloured pens as I can get my hands on.


[The WONDER image above can be bought here ]

What do you love about magic?

The reveal. Is that an acceptable answer? I always want to understand what’s happening in front of me, and have always been more fascinated with learning how a trick works than simply observing it.


What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?

This question’s a tough one. Part of me wants to say trying to understand the tricks and illusions, but personally that only adds to my sense of wonder and awe. But I do think any reveal or explanation needs to be separate from the delivery – I feel the most wonder when I see someone perform something which appears seamless and impossible, and only find out how it worked afterwards.


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

I think our sense of wonder is innate – that we’re born feeling curiosity and wonder for the world around us. I’ve always loved the Picasso quote “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” – and I think it’s also true that every child is a scientist.

To cultivate wonder, I try to keep exploring and keep discovering. Every time I draw something I get another 100 ideas for pieces of art. Every time I learn something new I want to learn another hundred things.


You draw exquisite mandalas with a range of subjects. What’s the appeal for you in this discipline? What has it taught you?

When I was 12 I picked up a henna cone for the first time – henna is a paste produced from a plant, which is traditionally used to create temporary tattoos in cultures all around the world. As I became more skilled with a cone, I began filling sketchbooks with traditional Indian henna designs – which were dominated with mandalas, paisleys and other patterns. There’s something about the intricacy and repetition of these traditional patterns that soothes me while also firing up my creativity.

Eventually these drawings became a hobby in themselves, rather as potential henna tattoos. Then as I got older, drawing took a back seat for a few years as I shifted focus from art and design to biology. A few years ago I started drawing religiously again and it seemed natural to combine my love and knowledge of animals, anatomy and other biological subject matters with the mandalas I still felt compelled to doodle. Getting in to the habit of sharing these drawings on social media, and getting amazing feedback has helped motivate me to keep drawing and to begin turning my art into an income stream.


There are two main lessons I can take from my style of drawing. The first is how patience and slog can produce something beautiful and valued – some of my drawings can take weeks or even months to complete especially when life is busy. My ‘Steffie the Stegosaurus’ design took two months alongside working full time, and the busy Christmas period.

The second lesson is that too much perfectionism cripples my creativity – learning my style of drawing by piping henna paste (not the most consistent or predictable medium) on to other people (who inevitably wobble and move) really drilled this lesson into me. People regularly comment on how ‘perfect’ my drawings are or how I ‘never make a mistake’ with the repeating patterns. But there are inconsistencies in every one of my drawings – something which only makes me appreciate them more.


What’s your view on putting the A (arts) into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths)?

Unsurprisingly, I’m 100% behind valuing arts as well as STEM subjects, and breaking down the barriers that exist between the two. I spent my teenage years torn between the two and it wasn’t a pleasant experience. I would love to see an education system and culture that really breaks down the art/science divide.

I think creative thinking as well as the technical skills of visual art e.g. observational drawing can enhance STEM subjects. I am still surprised by how much a strength being able to draw was during my biology degree. Appreciating how history and philosophy interacts with STEM subjects can produce better critical thinking. But I worry that far too much of the STEAM movements I see still place STEM on a pedestal above the arts – and see the arts as a tool for STEM to use rather than a valuable set of disciplines in their own right.

I also see a lot of projects around that seem to assume adding art to science automatically produces communication, which isn’t necessarily true. There’s also the worry that both art and science can feel elitist or ‘not for me’ for many – by combining the two we may be narrowing down the audience we’re appealing to rather than expanding.

If I remember correctly, Jonathan Sanderson spoke at the recent BIG conference about his discomfort with turning STEM into STEAM, and the acronyms we might get if we keep adding more subjects until fundamentally we’re just talking about learning. I agree with his sentiment, and think we need to be discussing interdisciplinary learning and modes of working in the broadest sense rather than focusing on adding a token bit of art to STEM.

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