Secret life

Art imitating life

From face painting to cat portraits and life-like illustrations of ocular pathology, neuroscientist Sam Strong is an artist with many talents

Sam Strong

I’ve always loved drawing. I did art at GCSE and A-level and was about to start an art degree but I changed my mind at the last second and studied psychology instead.

Anything you can think of: I will draw it. I design band EPs, tattoos and logos. This year for Halloween I painted my other half as a terminator and, for myself, I painted the exposed muscular structure on half my face. Recently I was commissioned to draw a pencil sketch of someone’s pet cat.

I also draw functional and physiological diagrams with Adobe Illustrator. I start by working on the individual elements; I will test colours, textures and layering to see if it will look like, for example, a diseased retinal artery. I then take that back to colleagues and ask them what they think it looks like. If they say ‘a red line,’ I go back and do some more work.

I am not trained in optometry or ophthalmology so when I am asked to draw, for example, papilloedema, I learn an awful lot about physiology and pathology while I am drawing.

Sam Strong drawing


Some optometrists have been confused when I have said my pictures are illustrations. When they say it looks like the back of an eye that is probably the best feedback I have had.

Part of how I got into this is through sharing my illustrations on Twitter. I have a joke hashtag which is #ThisGirlKanski. I like that I am drawing illustrations that would not look out of place in a Kanski textbook.

I find my artwork useful because it helps people understand my scientific work. Science is about trying to advance our knowledge and understanding of the world and how it works. It is not an elite area. I think it should be free knowledge for everybody. People should be able to say ‘I want to know about this. What can I learn?’ 

  • As told to Selina Powell.  

Image credit: Howard Collins (portrait of Ms Strong)