Explore Seven Breathtaking Gold Artworks Inspired by the Brain

Explore Seven Breathtaking Gold Artworks Inspired by the Brain

Artist Greg Dunn creates breathtaking renderings of neurons and their surrounding anatomy

In Greg Dunn’s Philadelphia studio, the pungent scent of solvent and dye permeates the air. Swirls of glittering dust fill the room when metal powder jars are opened, and the constant hum of an air compressor provides a backdrop to the creative process. Having spent 23 years researching biology in scientific laboratories, the 44-year-old artist is no stranger to harsh chemicals and industrial noise. Now, he channels this familiarity into creating stunning artworks that illuminate the intricacies of the brain.

Originally from Los Angeles, Dunn pursued molecular biology and ethnomusicology during his undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His early foray into the arts involved performance art, where he played various instruments in different musical groups. However, during his neuroscience PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, he transitioned from performing music to embracing painting.

Drawing on his experience in figure drawing classes and designing album covers, Dunn built a parallel career in art alongside his scientific pursuits. Balancing long days of pipetting DNA with weekend art sessions, he sold prints and secured commissions. After completing his PhD in 2011, he decided to fully dedicate himself to art.

One of Dunn’s key artistic themes emerged during graduate school when he encountered classic images of the brain. With approximately 86 billion neurons intricately packed together, comprehending the structure of these cells posed a challenge for scientists. Inspired by an 1800s Italian scientist who used silver nitrate to randomly stain neurons, creating an appearance of floating cells in a yellow space, Dunn found parallels with Japanese scroll and screen paintings of the Edo period. His paintings, while not direct replicas of microscopic brain images, are artistic interpretations that capture the essence of its anatomy through delicate branching silhouettes and strategic use of empty space.

In one of his distinctive techniques, inspired by East Asian art traditions, Dunn employs delicate sheets of gold leaf, reminiscent in size of sticky notes, laid onto a layer of specialized glue. The enduring luster and elegance of the gold leaf serve to accentuate the recreated structures of the brain, and the intrinsic value of the precious metal adds a profound sense of significance to the subject matter. Dunn enhances his creations with dyes and metal powders, introducing vibrant colors and a captivating sheen to engage the viewer’s attention.

To breathe life into his artwork, Dunn frequently utilizes air manipulation techniques to guide ink or glue into formations resembling botanical branches. The genesis of this method occurred in 2006 when, during a painting session, a fly landed on his work. Attempting to shoo away the insect by blowing air, Dunn noticed that the resulting chaotic designs bore a striking resemblance to neurons. This technique captures the inherent biological randomness in the development of brain cells, introducing an element of spontaneity that traditional painting methods might lack.


Greg Dunn aspires for his brain portraits to captivate viewers with their compelling shapes, prompting them to recognize the central role the organ plays in every moment of cognition, emotion, and respiration. We connected with Dunn online in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he spends part of the year, delving into his inspiration and artistic focus.

Q: Do you infuse spontaneity from your musical background into your visual art?

A: Absolutely. In more intricate pieces, the multi-step process often involves moments of spontaneous creation, such as the splattered ink paintings. I developed a technique where I blow ink around on a page, and the turbulence of the air, along with random variables, causes the ink to form tendrils—conceptually similar to how neurons grow under a set of random variables.

Q: How do you create the blown-ink designs?

A: Initially, I used a wide straw, but it came with headaches. The thinner the straw, the more discomfort. I’ve come home with splitting headaches. Regular straws, like those used for wind instruments, collect humidity from breath, leading to unwanted spattering on the painting. So, I crafted tools with a wider diameter, lined inside with absorbent material. These days, I often use compressed air with airbrushes, which is much gentler on the headaches.

What parallels do you identify between science and art?

I believe the fundamental link between the two lies in the skill of composing ideas. A significant takeaway from my time in graduate school was honing the ability to conduct thought experiments and iterate ideas in one’s mind. This skill is crucial to avoid investing time and resources in experiments or artistic endeavors that could prove costly.

Central to both effective science and art is the capacity to communicate ideas proficiently to others. Crafting an idea and presenting it in a manner that resonates logically or emotionally is a core aspect of success in both realms.

Throughout your career, which artists have been a source of inspiration for you?

Gustav Klimt has undeniably left a profound mark on my artistic vision. His skillful amalgamation of Art Nouveau and Japanese influences, coupled with his captivating composition style, has been a significant source of inspiration for me. The broader Art Nouveau movement, with its ornate aesthetics, and the rich artistic heritage of Edo-period Japan have also played pivotal roles in shaping my creative sensibilities.

Another artist who holds a special place in my influences is Ito Jakuchu, a masterful Japanese painter from the 1700s. His paintings not only showcase technical mastery but also exude a distinctive eccentricity, infusing character into his works. I’m drawn to his ability to both honor traditional techniques and explore innovative approaches—a quality I strive to incorporate into my own artistic endeavors.

When it comes to my own art, my aim is not to provide a strictly logical explanation of the intricacies of the brain. Instead, I aspire to evoke an intuitive understanding of the brain’s marvel. While my creations incorporate anatomical details, my ultimate goal is to foster an appreciation for the miraculous nature of our brains, often overlooked in the routine of daily life. I want viewers to grasp the profound significance of this fundamental aspect of our existence—a silent marvel that deserves acknowledgment and contemplation.

Exploring the rock and mineral collections at the National Museum of Natural History with my kids is a fascinating experience. What captivates me most is the sheer beauty of nature and the boundless creative potential inherent in chemistry. The diverse designs found in these specimens can be truly bizarre and awe-inspiring. Among my favorites are the Widmanstätten meteorites, iron-nickel marvels that cool at an incredibly slow rate, forming a unique crystalline pattern with three distinct angles reminiscent of alien architecture. Such pieces serve as rich sources of inspiration, influencing both my color palettes and artistic forms.

Currently, I’m immersed in a project titled “Brain States,” focusing on neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric conditions. This series takes a more humanistic approach compared to my previous work.

While I’ll continue delving into anatomical themes, I’m increasingly drawn to the synthesis of humanity and the brain. I aim to explore how the brain shapes the human experience and the profound implications of this intricate relationship. The introspection involved in this series makes it challenging, yet I find it to be a necessary and rewarding endeavor.

Embarking on the “Brain States” series, I began with a piece titled “Bipolar,” a creation that resonates with me on a profound level. This particular work has unearthed a plethora of emotions and reflections. Addressing a theme that touches so many lives in such an intimate way requires a delicate and respectful approach.

Expressing something meaningful about such a complex and personal subject demands careful consideration. Striking the right tone is a constant challenge, as the intention is never to trivialize the experiences of those affected. My goal is to authentically capture the struggles individuals may face while weaving in an essential element of hope. Achieving this balance is both a risk and an exciting departure from my previous artistic directions. I’m intrigued to see where this exploration takes me and how it resonates with others navigating similar journeys.

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