An Artist in an Engineer’s Body

   Posted by: BJ Johnson in art, engineering

Or is it the other way around? Every so often, I receive queries in my mailbox asking about various topics. Today, I was asked a question about the path that I took and how it affected my life's work:

"I am a freshman at Brigham Young University Idaho, and I've wanted to be an artist all my life. However I've never had any problems with math or science and love problem solving. My brother informed me that I might look into engineering rather than art. I really do like the idea however here is the problem, I LOVE ART, and I don't know what field of engineering I could go into that would involve both. How did you get started? Was it as an artist or an engineer? I really need some advice. Please help."

Often an interesting conundrum. Interesting enough that I decided to answer as a blog post, so that many folks might benefit.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

I "started out" in engineering, but I originally wanted to do art. A counselor said that I couldn't make a good living doing art and suggested that I find another vocation to pursue. I looked around and opted to take a course in Mechanical Drawing (drafting) and Descriptive Geometry, part of the engineering curriculum, as it would still allow working in imagery but in a mainstream (read: "accepted") field.

I knew I could hold an object in my head, flipping it around to see it from any angle. I knew I understood mechanics and physics. Combining those two, I can see a machine working from the inside; "feel" the forces on each component as it runs. Being able to translate those to visual communication may be valuable, so I went for that. I found it fun and won a couple of bets on whether I had drawn a particular auxiliary view of an object correctly. If they were being stubborn, to prove it, I made a model. Pay up.

Back then, new cars were a Big Deal. The designs changed significantly from year to year, such that the first transporters delivering new models to the showrooms had the cars covered to keep them from view before announcement day. This excited me no end. I had visions of going to General Motors Institute and working in the Design Center on futuristic cars.

The Commander's Seat of Space Shuttle DiscoveryLife takes you in other directions, however. Not that this was necessarily a bad thing—I've been fortunate to have done some Really Cool Stuff, go some Really Cool Places and meet & work with some Really Cool People; all because of what I can do and who I am.

Just when I thought it was safe to go back into the office...

While working in the engineering field years later, art came back; slowly at first. I had never really gotten the chance to do anything with it before I was diverted, so was pretty bad. Maybe that was the reason my counselor suggested I do something else, I don't know, but I soon realized that art hadn't gone away; it had only been dormant. Some things are not to be denied—especially how you happen to be wired. Rather than eschewing one for the other, as I was counseled to do earlier, I combined them further still.

I'm very logical; some would say to a fault. How can a "logical" person be an artist? Convention says that it's not probable. Maybe so—but possible it is. I approached art from a scientific perspective, not to make a pun. Got all kinds of media and materials, tested them all and noted my findings as to that which worked, that which worked in unexpected ways and that which failed miserably and, sometimes, spectacularly. Not your normal vision of how an artist works, is it?

Some of the best engineers I know are artists in the way that they approach their craft; whether they realize it or not. They think about their machine in a fluid or abstract way, while weighing possibilities of design direction.

Coke Float - The Flight of the First Space CanSome of the best artists I know are very technical in their craft; even ones whose work appears to be serendipitous, loose and free-wheeling. Realism artists pay great attention to detail. If you don't do that as an engineer, you don't design good machines. If you don't do that as a realist, well, it doesn't look very real.

Marstropolis - DawnArchitects are essentially artists in engineer bodies or vice versa. No one knows which—and does it matter? Mom shared with me later in life that she envisioned my becoming an architect one day. Guess I have.

I don't do drafting in the strictest sense anymore. I do have two 6 foot drafting boards with drafting machines and sometimes go that route to flesh something out quickly. If it is found to have merit, then more detailed and complete drawings are in order. That's when a mode change is called for, because of the further benefits available. 3D and CAD programs are used now to great advantage. Having the traditional "pencil and slide rule" training as a basis, and being comfortable with digital technology, I quickly embraced the 3D world—once it became affordable that is.

Louis Henry Sullivan and his then assistant, Frank Lloyd Wright, coined and furthered the concept of "Form Follows Function":

"It is the pervading law of all things organic, and inorganic,
of all things physical and metaphysical,
of all things human and all things super-human,
of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law."

To a large extent, this is still true; but in this age not always the case; at least as far as the design process is concerned. Sometimes the roles are reversed or, at the very least, intermixed and intertwined to some great degree.

United States Geospatial Intelligence Lifetime Achievement Award Sculpture 3D ModelUnited States Geospatial Intelligence Lifetime Achievement Award Blown Glass SculptureAll of our large artworks, and some smaller ones, are fully modeled prior to beginning work on them. We design for the aesthetic values first, while making sure that it will be successful in the physical world. No point in designing something that can't be built or, if built, not stand up as intended. By the same token, building something that works as it should and stands up, but isn't pleasing to the eye, isn't good either. Just like the stylists in the Design Center, we have full-scale models to be able to see into the future and make refinements to the design; both for how it will look and for how it will function. It makes for a better product.

Essentially, it's already built. We're "copying" it from the virtual into the physical; in much the same way that a painting is "copied" from out of our minds onto the canvas for others to see. While we are tackling a particular section, we can consult the 3D model for reference and to see just how large or how shaped a part must be in order to fit properly.

If need be, each part of the whole can be individually extracted and traditional orthographic projections generated if an outside contractor will be employed to make it. In that sense, I am still doing drafting but not in the traditional way or order.

Additionally, if we choose we can now animate our design "drawings" either to see them work or to see them from many points of view. Couldn't do that before.

Along the path, I learned that I was wired as an Artist and as an Engineer. If that counselor hadn't set me on a course other than the one I was on, would I have done the things that I have?

I truly have followed the message in my favorite poem; one that still chokes me up when reading aloud at my speaking engagements:
The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

...Robert Frost - 1915

Usually, about half way through, I can no longer read the page; but continue from memory. The poem as it relates to me is not about choosing art over engineering or vice versa. Taking the road less traveled by is about choosing both; which most people do not do, because they think it can't be done. Well, this and a lot of other brains attest to the fact that it can—and quite effectively.

There are plenty of areas in which to employ multi-disciplinary minds—in fact, it's essential to possess one in order to work in them. You'll discover them once you have chosen the road. Think about it. Disneyland wouldn't exist if it weren't for Imagineers, and people like us, to make things thought to be impossible come true.

Be a Renaissance Person. Some people will not understand and hate you for it, some people will recognize and identify immediately and love you for it; but the real choice is that you will love you for it and look back upon this fork in the road with warm fondness.

What's your take? Do you think in ways that others don't? Have you considered breaking out into something totally different; "going against the grain"? Let me know.

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14 Responses to An Artist in an Engineer’s Body


    I would like to say, nice webpage. Im not sure if it has been addressed, however when using Firefox I can never get the entire page to load without refreshing alot of times. Could just be my modem. Appreciate your work

    June 23, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    BJ, thanks for this article--it was exactly what I needed to read at the moment. I had an interview last Friday with a company looking for a 'Front End Web Developer'. Unfortunately, that term is ill-defined. For some, it means strictly being an engineer, and for others it means being a designer (albeit with HTML/CSS/Javascript coding skills). I look at it as both, but in this case, all they cared about were the engineering aspects. It left me feeling like the world only wanted specialists, not multi-disciplinary individuals. Reading Robert Frost's poem again with your take on it was reassuring. Sometimes it can be a lonely place to not fit into just one hole. In those moments, it's nice to know others like myself are out there!

    September 24, 2013 at 1:20 pm

      Happy to have helped give a small boost. As they say: It's lonely at the top. Enjoy it. Revel in it. One day things will begin to sing and you'll know that this is where you belong.

      September 14, 2014 at 10:45 pm

    Just what I needed to read. I googled " I am an engineer but an artist too" to find this blog. Been feeling a little 'trapped' in the ocean of numbers and analyses I work with daily. I actually have a wonderful job and workplace, and wonderful people to work with. I see that gratitude and art in some form (poetry, singing, dance, physical art) every day is how I can find balance. However, I am creating the possibility of having 30-40 hours a week to art and 20 or so to engineering projects , rather than the other way around. I am pursuing my MS in Engineering through my company, and I see the difference I want to make on the planet (healing Earth and all People) can come through engineering, art , and my energy healing work all in harmony.

    when you said "Be a Renaissance Person. Some people will not understand and hate you for it, some people will recognize and identify immediately and love you for it; but the real choice is that you will love you for it and look back upon this fork in the road with warm fondness."

    this hit home for me. Especially since my 'artist name' is Doe Renee, and Renee means renaissance. thank you!!

    September 9, 2014 at 7:47 am

      You are certainly welcome. Some of this stuff has been rattling around in my cranium for years and it was past time that I spit it out. Having been fortunate to have come into contact and work with some very well known individuals, I thought it time to start something of a series on creation in all its forms of which we as humans are capable. After all, it is that which one creates that lasts far after we are gone.

      September 14, 2014 at 10:39 pm

        thank you! 🙂 so true, we all have a legacy if we choose

        September 15, 2014 at 6:49 am

        We can transform what it means to be an Engineer! balance the brain..

        September 15, 2014 at 6:50 am

          Too few people are capable of doing that.

          September 16, 2014 at 10:40 pm

    Just came across your article. I am a Civil Engineer who also has a Masters level education in Art. I agree that some Engineers are Artists in a way and they don't necessarily realise it themselves. I think these two disciplines require lots of thinking and that's why I find doing both fulfilling as I very much enjoy the thought process. In fact, Contemporary Art does require some form of logic especially when the work is conceptual. I also agree that some people hate to see or don't get what we do while some show huge appreciation and the latter are usually artistic in a way even though they may not be Artists. For me, I am proud of being able to do both. Keep it up.

    September 9, 2014 at 3:17 pm

      Thanks, Liv. Sure has been interesting, doing all of these things. I am happy to have been contacted by so many like individuals. Seems that I've struck a chord. This article has become one of the most searched.

      September 14, 2014 at 10:33 pm
    david whittinghill

    What's your take? Do you think in ways that others don't?

    In 2022, we know humans are soft wired. That which makes us unique is the same that makes us the same. Our ideas, whether they be artistic or feats of engineering are not ours. Instead, they pop into our minds and we decide to pay attention to them or not. We decided whether to bring them into this world or allow them to die quietly as we drink our early morning tea. So are you an artist or engineer? I posit you are neither and both but am sure that you will have ideas. Some brilliant ones.

    December 18, 2022 at 9:03 am

      I do think in ways that others don't. Not by choice. It just happens. I have stated: "I can find something wrong with nearly everything."

      When I started out, I wanted to be an artist. My highschool guidance counsellor said: "You can't make a living as an artist. Find something else." I considered this and found mechanical drawing; orthographic projections of objects so that others could make them. I found that I could flip the object around in my head and more fully understand how it was shaped. Even taught my instructor a few things. When he said I did a test object incorrectly, I went to the shop, made the object and brought it back in. Upon examination and comparing the object to my drawing of it, the instructor failed the rest of the class.

      Then along came professional racing. Analysis is my strong point. I can look at a machine and feel the forces within it as it runs. Never really understood how. It just is. First Indy 500 win and the Can-Am Championship in the first year at Penske Racing. Took a crack team to do it and I'm forever grateful to have contributed a small part.

      Then along came computers. Took to it immediately. It was as if I already knew this. Just seemed strangely familiar somehow. Attended a programming class after poring through various language manuals from the raised floor, air conditioned computer room full of disk and tape drives whirring away. Instructor had a pet problem for students to solve in the fewest statements possible. Back then, computer time was extremely expensive. More statements translated to more time trnslated to more money charged to one's account. Efficiency was paramount. I looked at the problem and immediately felt that there was something basic that I was missing, so I thought about it for quite a while. Instructor came by and saw no code on my paper and asked if I hadn't understood the problem; as others had already begun coding, creating complex arrays, testing and sorting them, etc. Once I identified the basic issue, I coded in a few minutes and handed my sheet in. Instructor said: "This won't work." I said: "Yes it will." After a couple of go-rounds of that, he said to go to the computer room and run it. Still nagging at my subconscious, but confident nonetheless, I went in, punched up some cards, entered my program and ran it. Checked the output and I was right. Took the sheets back in and he took a long time examining them. Eventually said: "Shuffle the cards and run it again.", evidently confident that the first was a fluke. Shuffled them while standing there and went back to run it. Worked again. Worked a third time. He stood up and announced to the class: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new record." Previous record was 38 statements. I did it in 11.

      I tend to approach art in the same way. Prior to having Photoshop, where there's layers, undo and Save-As, I worked with an airbrush. One original, no second chances. Often part way through a commission I would wish that I had placed things a little bit differently, but by that time it was too late. So, I began thinking as far into an image as I could prior to beginning, because moving elements in a realistic airbrush painting is near to impossible. Sometimes I found myself up against a wall, though. Frustrated, I just let things fly with abandon. Art in its purest form. No analysis, no planning, no going back. This created the Public Enemy "Fear Of A Black Planet" cover. Without that abject comparative recklessness, that cover would not have been so successful.

      Su, yes, I do think differently. Sometimes it gets in the way, sometimes it doesn't. It's a blessing... and a curse, but it's very often rewarding either way.

      January 1, 2023 at 6:38 pm
    Ingrid V

    Do you ever find yourself struggling to describe your thoughts to others when working on complex problems? This could be other artists, engineers, or artist-engineers. Do you have any advice on overcoming these communication gaps?
    I am working on a capstone project for a Materials Engineering degree, yet often find myself clashing with my teammates because I can't find the words to describe the solution in my head - yet I can "see" it so clearly. I have had mentors both in engineering and art spaces tell me that I walk between worlds, but its moments like these where I feel I don't belong in either space.

    February 27, 2024 at 1:28 am

      Hello Ingrid,

      Thank you for your question. Yes, I do sometimes have difficulty in conveying ideas to others when I can know the intricacies so well; whether it be in engineering or art as well.

      "Why don't they understand this, it's so clear?"

      One of my abilities that has served me well through the years has been to think things through. I can look at a machine and "feel" it running. Sense the pressures it is enduring as it runs. Then make necessary changes to let it run easier with less stress. It is difficult to explain this ability to anyone. I don't even know how it is possible myself; yet I do it. How can I explain something that just is? I suppose that is what makes a good engineer. We are seeing into the future.

      In art, I do much the same thing. My tool of choice is air brush. Intricate masks of thin tacky material called "frisket" are cut and placed on the work to shield areas while adjacent areas are painted in acrylic or watercolor. I usually cover the panel completely with it and cut gently with a #11 scalpel. Once the entire area of shapes has been cut, I then remove portions in sequence to paint and when dry replace them and move on to other areas. Because of this tedious process, I think into the work for days prior to starting the actual work. Once begun, it is near to impossible to make any changes in position of anything. The outcome must be known before beginning. The downside of this is loss of spontaneity. Many times I have progressed into a work for some days only to have a new approach come to mind and wish that I had thought of it earlier. Sometimes, a change at that point is possible, but not often.

      It all comes down to this: If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

      I'll have to think a bit on how to approach a further answer, however. Perhaps I'll sleep on it, having now put your question into my mind, and see what presents itself upon awakening.

      February 27, 2024 at 3:45 am
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