A conversation with Marni Fylling

Photo by Rowan Ellison

The Heyday offices are abuzz with excitement over Fylling’s Illustrated Guide to Pacific Coast Tide Pools. This delightful guidebook is packed with beautiful illustrations and lively descriptions by Marni Fylling, who has captured the essence of the Pacific Coast’s otherworldly creatures all the way from her home in Hoboken, New Jersey. I recently spoke with Marni about tide pools, writing with both exuberance and accuracy, science illustration as a field in the twenty-first century, and the intensely focused (and intensely rewarding) act of drawing.

How did you become interested in tide pools?

I was an undeclared major at UC Davis for the first three years I was there because I loved everything. I thought about math, I thought about English, and I just couldn’t choose because I really just loved to learn. It was all interesting to me.

I can’t even remember why I took zoology. The first lab that we had was a kelp holdfast. They cut out a chunk of the root-like fingers that hold onto the rocks, so you have all these kind of tangled structures in a little glass dish under a dissecting scope. It just looked like a dead piece of brown whatever.

As I looked through the scope, all of a sudden these tiny little snails started creeping around. A little worm poked out its miniature tentacles, and a brittle star’s tentacle emerged, looking for food. The whole thing just came alive with all these bizarre creatures. I had never seen anything like any of them before. It’s so different from a terrestrial environment. It was a magical world. Then I learned about marine invertebrate life cycles, which include stages that are almost like space creatures. They’re so alien and beautiful and fascinating. I couldn’t get enough.

After taking zoology at Davis, I took a six-week field class at the Bodega Marine Laboratory. The first time I ever saw a tide pool was in that class. I just thought I would see what a marine lab was like, and it was one of those defining moments of my life.

After I took that class in Bodega Bay, I TA’ed other classes the following two summers. The rest of the time I was at Davis, I helped maintain the marine tanks there and I would go on collecting trips. A couple times a month we went to Bodega to collect creatures for the labs there, so I have a lot of experience with those animals. Even when I lived in Santa Cruz, I TA’ed a botany class and we would take trips out to the shore to look at different marine algae.

I live in Hoboken, New Jersey, so I’m about as far away from Pacific coast tide pools as I could be, but all my family and friends are in California. I bring my son out three times a year, and if there’s a good tide, we’ll go tide pooling. UC Santa Cruz’s marine lab has a nice interpretative center, and the Seymour Marine Discovery Center has some really nice tanks. I’ve also been able to get to Monterey Bay Aquarium a couple of times in the last few years.

How did Fylling’s Illustrated Guide come to be? Did you start out with an idea to make a guidebook and go from there?

No, it was a friend of mine, Chris [Giorni], who wrote the foreword of the book. I’ve been friends with Chris ever since we took that class at the Bodega Marine Laboratory. He started an outdoor education program in San Francisco, and he does after-school and summer programs, he takes people on hikes over the weekend, you name it. He uses your John Muir Laws’ pocket guides. You can just open them up and you can see everything that’s in front of you, and you can pick out things really easily. They’re waterproof, so if it rains, they don’t get ruined.

Chris called me up and said, “We use these guides for many of our trips. I love them, but they don’t have one for tide pools.” He actually talked to Jack Laws and Jack said, “I started working on one, but I haven’t gotten very far with it, so if you guys want to do something, go ahead.”

With any kind of experience in nature where you’re really engaging with it, I think it can’t help but give you a desire to want to take care of that environment.

Chris said to me, “Would you be interested in doing something like that?” I loved the idea. If I could come up with a dream job, that would be it, but I thought, “Well, Chris has never produced anything like this before on his own and I haven’t either.” I’ve always done illustration work and my writing work for other people who have their own ideas. I have mostly been a stay-at-home mom, doing occasional freelance work. I just thought wow, it can’t hurt to do. I have time to do some illustrations.

I spent about a year and a half, after I had come up with a species list, doing those illustrations. When I finished, we thought of places that we could take them and Chris said, “Well, let’s try Heyday first, because they make these Jack Laws guides.” He took my illustrations to you and whoever he talked to loved them. I think they told us that Heyday wasn’t interested in doing just a single guide. They said, “If you have your heart set on that foldout guide, we’re probably not the one for you, but if you’re interested in expanding it into a book, we would love to publish it.” I thought, I’d better expand it out into a book because I felt so comfortable with Heyday—it just felt great. I spent the next couple months writing the book.

Jack makes a pretty strong case for a link between the sustained attention of drawing and environmental stewardship. I wanted to know if you agreed with that or if you had anything to add to that.

I think any kind of experience in nature where you’re really engaging with it, I think it can’t help but give you a desire to want to take care of that environment.

We live in a super-urban environment here—we can see New York City across the river. I get my son out as much as I can, it’s not as much as I’d like, but I do try to get him out into nature so it’s not a strange crazy thing for him. We went on a field trip last year, and it was kind of like an urban park with trees and little paths. The whole class was walking along, and one of the moms said to me, “I’ve never gone on a hike before.” She’d never been for a walk in nature before, and it made me…it was really humbling. Growing up like I did and having the friends that I have, it just seems such a natural part of our life to go for a hike or to go camping, or just to get out of the city.

I feel like any kind of experience where you are engaging with nature is really important. I’m hoping this book will introduce the incredible world of the tide pools, and encourage people to get outside.

What was your step-by-step process for creating an entry in the guidebook for one creature?

Each one was a little bit different. I took pictures of whatever creatures I could take pictures of, either going to the tide pool or aquarium or marine lab.

I also have a lot of books, and I used this book project as an excuse to buy even more books, and there’s a lot of reference online. Between a billion different images, I would create a position that I liked and flesh it out using all those resources. Amazingly, a lot of the information I had retained from years of being in tide pools. I also used the books and online resources to fact-check or to get little details that I didn’t know or couldn’t remember for sure, like the number of eggs a creature lays.

How did you decide on a particular angle or position for each of your entries? Was it just what looked the most attractive or what showed off the most of its features or…

Kind of both. When you’re doing a project that’s all on your own, you have to come up with your own standards. For something like for the crabs, I think it’s interesting to look at their faces and see what they look like when you peek into a crack and see the claws out in front, the little eyes looking at you, but it doesn’t really show you the identifying features of the crab. It was a no-brainer to show them from the top down so you can see their markings and the shape of the carapace. For things like the nudibranchs, that’s tough, because it’s really best to see those in person. They’re so stunningly beautiful, and they look different from every angle, but a three-quarter view gives you the best idea of how they look.

The octopus is kind of funny. When I was in the illustration program in Santa Cruz, we went on a field trip to Monterey Bay Aquarium and I apparently got a super-awesome view of an octopus, because I did that sketch at the aquarium. When I was looking for references for octopus, it was really hard. You think you know what an octopus looks like, but that image that you have in your head, it’s not really right. Their legs are kind of squishy, gooshy all over the place. Their head can take on almost any shape, they can contract it into almost nothing, they can expand it really big, it can be upright or behind the legs.

I was looking through images in books and online, and there was no single image that really captured an octopus: some parts might look good, but other parts of the body looked weird or were smushed into a corner of a tank. Then I was flipping through my old sketchbooks and I saw that old sketch, and I knew that was it. I redrew it, but that sketch was my reference.

Something I really like about the writing is that it’s scientifically accurate, but it does kind of revel in, as you say, the squishy, gooshy, kind of the grotesque element.

Since I was originally planning on just doing a visual guide, I wasn’t intending to have much text at all. I wrote out a couple of sentences to introduce each group. I really got all my direction for the tone of the book from Heyday, especially from Gayle, who was so enthusiastic. She took the first chapters I wrote, and she put the spin that just made it a little more fun and light.

The part that I got hung up a lot with during the editing process was the scientific desire to be as accurate as possible. Any sentence that makes any kind of generalization, “All the nudibranchs…something,” anything like that, you want to do that but you can’t. I couldn’t, and there were a couple times when the editing made it sound like that and I would be like, “Well, it’s got to say ‘usually,’ it’s got to say ‘many of them.'”

Sometimes the edits replaced terms that weren’t quite right. There are some things like the nematocysts of the sea anemones which have a portion that shoots out—some of them have toxins and some of them are sticky—they’re very exciting, but most people call them stinging cells. Not all of them sting, and they also are not cells. “Stinging structures” doesn’t sound as good as stinging cells, but I just couldn’t change it.

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That’s completely understandable. We want to do accurate work. It’s got to be right, it’s got to be true, it’s got to be real.

None of my suggestions got shot down ever. We had some discussions, but we were always able to come up with a good compromise. All of the editors were wonderful about all of that stuff.

Going away from the book and a little more general again, would you recommend nature sketching as a way to better appreciate these incredibly complex habitats?

I think a drawing is a wonderful way to understand anything. As an illustrator you’re forced to stop and slow down and focus on nothing but the object that you’re drawing. Whatever it might be—your room, a flower, or a piece of fruit or something in a tide pool—you notice things when you have to really study it to reproduce it. Especially when you’re learning how to draw, you feel like you know what it looks like and so you start to draw the lines. Then when you look back at the object, you realize, “Oh, that apple isn’t just a round ball. It kind of goes out a little bit here and comes in here and there’s a little flat spot here.”

People are losing their eye for visual things just from being bombarded so much.

You find things. My husband is also an illustrator and both he and I, in drawing things that scientists are working on, have discovered things that even the scientists didn’t notice, because they’re not looking at it in the same way. You’ll see a spine part that’s shaped slightly differently from the others, or a shadowy pattern that turns out to be a new structure. When you draw, you also have to look at everything—not just at the main features, like a leg or an arm, but every contour of that leg or that arm.

The other thing about doing a drawing is that since you’re so focused, when you look at the drawing later, it brings back the whole experience. You remember the weather, the smells, what it felt like that day. It’s a magical memory thing.

Do you have any advice for people who want to become scientific illustrators professionally?

It’s a harder and harder field to find work in because of the digital revolution and the prevalence of cameras now. Everybody has a camera on their phone, so everybody thinks they’re a photographer and everybody can make images or get them on the internet. The pictures are not always great—often, they are terrible. They’re not in focus, not lit well, not composed very well, but they suffice.

Most people don’t know any different because that’s just what they’re used to seeing. They’re used to the distortion from the lens of the camera. People are losing their eye for visual things just from being bombarded so much, I think. I’m hoping that there’s, it’s not a backlash, what’s it called when the pendulum swings?

I hope the pendulum will swing a little bit, as the look of hand-drawn illustrations is starting to become more unique. A beautiful illustration is really different from a photo. I think it catches people’s attention.

There are a couple of really great science illustration programs. One of them is at Cal State, Monterey Bay—it’s the latest iteration of the Santa Cruz program that I took back in the day. There’s one in Georgia and one in Maryland, and there are probably others that I don’t know of, but those three are really big. Going through a graduate program like that is very helpful, because it’s almost like a trade school: you actually learn practical skills. Not just the theory: you learn techniques, you learn how to get a job, and negotiate for a contract. Interestingly, no one ever asks you for credentials. Potential employers want to see your work, and that’s how they decide whether to hire you or not.

Another invaluable resource for anybody who is interested in science illustration is the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators. The people in this group freely share techniques and ideas and they love to see what you’re working on. They have an annual conference, a listserv, an online portfolio sharing site, and they’re very open to people who are new and learning. It’s really a wonderful bunch of people.

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