The Minimalist Brain

Artist Greg Dunn combines his two passions: neuroscience and Asian-inspired painting.

Halfway through his PhD program in neuroscience at UPenn, Greg Dunn was inspired to try a new experiment: using the brain structures he was seeing in the lab as the subject matter for his minimalist Asian-inspired paintings.

“In grad school, I would be looking at these images all day, and I was already on an Asian-art wavelength,” Dunn says. “One day I saw some images of Golgi-stained neurons, and I thought, ‘They’re sort of similar to these Zen paintings I’ve done.’  So I started experimenting, blowing ink around on a page. And it looked like neurons to me.”

“Two Pyramidals.” Pyramidal cells are neurons found in the brain that integrate information received from their dendrites (the branches at the bottom of the cell), process it, and transmit it to other cells through their axons (the large branches emerging upward from each cell). Enamel on composition gold leaf, 18″ X 24.” © Greg Dunn, 2009. Commissioned by the Center of the Neural Basis of Cognition, Carnegie Mellon University

Dunn says that was his “aha moment,” when it occured to him that he could combine his two interests—neuroscience and art—into one pursuit.

To create a painting such as Cortex in Metallic Pastels, shown above, Dunn starts with a piece of stainless steel sheeting or metal-leafed acrylic panel. The surface is scratched, so light bounces off of it in a polarized way, Dunn says. “This allows you to control how light will be reflected.” Dunn then paints that scratched surface with a series of transparent dyes, finishing the piece with protective coatings.

One of Dunn’s paintings that is not brain-related, “Crepe Myrtle II.” Enamel on composition gold and copper leaf, 24″ x 36.” © Gregg Dunn, 2009

Since graduating in 2011, Dunn has supported himself as an artist, but he says he’s still very much a scientist. “These are complicated paintings, with many layers. I do a full scale mock up in Photoshop and set up a protocol to follow,” Dunn says. “I’m not doing ‘science art’ because I am painting neurons. I’m approaching art scientifically, using my knowledge of physics and chemistry.”

To see more of Dunn’s work, check out his website and the slideshow above.

Meet the Writer

About Annette Heist

Annette Heist is a former senior producer for Science Friday.