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Sarina Mitchel: Scientific data in art form

By Ross Gruet, Monday, February 28, 2022

When I check ShopBot’s social media channels to find tagged posts full of amazing woodwork, aluminum milling, acrylic and plastic products, foam prototypes, cabinetry, and structures of all sizes, it’s always nice to come across a unique art application. CNC lends itself beautifully to the art world. When the art you discover is born from science, reimagined by a talented artist, and magnified with the help of CNC, there’s an intriguing story to be told. I recently talked to Sarina Mitchel of Providence, Rhode Island about her career as a freelance fine artist and illustrator. Her current series of paintings began with the concept of magnifying scientific data with bursts of blue and gold paint and involve CNC routing.


Though Sarina grew up in a family of scientists and engineers, it was the art world that called her name. From as early as she can remember, being an artist was always her favorite activity and career goal. With immediate family in the science world, this topic easily made its way into Sarina’s art.


“What I’m working on now and have been working on for the past few years is this series that’s inspired by images of human lung cells. This is well-suited for laser cutters and CNC machines to assist with getting the outline down. This series of paintings has been a slow evolution/process over a number of years.”



“The whole reason I started working with images of cells was through my sister’s lab. They wanted me to help trace data to make it analyzable. I organically realized that I could use a laser cutter to etch patterns of cells into Masonite, which is a material I love painting on. Over time I made the switch to CNC for scalability. Making smaller items on the laser cutter felt limiting so the CNC became a way I could create large paintings that look great in galleries.”


How did ShopBot CNC become a part of your creative process:

“We have a makerspace in Providence called AS220 where they offer classes to learn new skills and one of them was ‘learn how to use a laser cutter.’ That came first before learning how to use CNC. I also took an ‘Intro to ShopBot CNC’ class [featuring the ShopBot PRSstandard gantry tool] with Larry Zagorsky. This was before I started the cell series of paintings. About a year later I came back to CNC thinking it would be cool to use it for etching images of cells.”


The cell study in which this series of paintings sprung from has to do with collective cell migration in the lungs of a person with asthma. This body of work could have easily just been artistic interpretation, but it’s deeper than that. Sarina explained that the lab didn’t have a computer program at the time that was able to analyze the grainy grayscale microscope images, so they asked Sarina to digitally trace the outlines of the cells. This made it possible to analyze the images and advance the study until they created an automated program that could do the job. (This newsletter by Sarina explains a bit more of the science and the painting process of the examples you see in this article.) Once Sarina had a collection of cell tracings, she began to experiment with colorful interpretations, which led to a commission for a set of paintings based on two sets of very different cell structures. These two pieces, the first in the series, were hung up in the hallway outside a Harvard lab and served as focal points for both artistic and scientific discussions. From there, Sarina moved towards larger scale pieces with a wider variety of color palettes, leading to her current body of work.


“I use a lot of golds and blues. I love gold, anything iridescent, anything shimmery. I always have, so being able to use iridescent paints and create all these cool effects with them has been so much fun! I use a lot of blues because they look really beautiful with the gold and they’re also kind of reminiscent of the ocean which I know is not related to cells at all, but I find them calming. Many of my color choices come from intuition and what feels right at the time.”


Sarina plans to continue the cell series as she explores more color combinations and continues to share these pieces with individuals and galleries alike. She is also working on custom commissions as she connects with scientists who seek to showcase the beauty of their work in pieces that are eye-catching and conversation-promoting. 



Sarina is a graduate of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design where she graduated with a B.F.A. in Illustration. Her work has been shown in New York City, Boston, Kansas City, Golden, CO, and throughout Rhode Island. She has donated artwork to benefit organizations like AS220, the CSPH, the Attleboro Arts Museum, Visual AIDS, Operation Breakthrough, and Planned Parenthood. When she isn’t working on art, she loves to bake and mail postcards.



Sarina Mitchel – Website, Instagram, Newsletter

Photos provided by Sarina Mitchel

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