Margaret Sobota, Computer Science Student and Software Engineering Intern on Painting

I first became interested in painting when I was in high school, and I took an intro to drawing class during my sophomore year. The next semester, I enrolled in an advanced drawing class, and my teacher Mrs. Eisert taught a unit on painting to expose us to different mediums of art. It wasn’t until I tried painting a portrait, however, that my interest in the medium really shone through. I realized that painting gave me a way of being more expressive than drawing, and it has been my medium of choice ever since.

My name is Margaret Sobota and I am a Computer Science student at Northwestern University. For the past six months, I have been working as a full-time Software Engineering Intern at OXO. OXO is a small start-up company that matches commuting car owners with gig drivers in need of a vehicle, and facilitates the rental of these vehicles to the gig drivers. At this company, I am a full-stack web developer and help to design and implement components for our mobile application.

I became interested in a career in tech at the end of my sophomore year at Northwestern, and I began taking web development classes. I realized that the creativity associated with web development made this an exciting discipline for me, so I searched for web development internships. I also thought that working at a start-up would be especially fun, since my work would have a lot of impact on the company. So, I began to search for start-ups I could intern at, which is how I found OXO.

I am currently living in San Francisco for the duration of my internship; I moved here for my current position. I am originally from a small midwestern town called Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

Outside of work and college, I love painting. The type of painting I solely focus on is portraiture. I vary from realistic to more expressive artistic styles, but I mostly focus on capturing likeness with my portraits.

I have a lot of inspirations when it comes to painting. At the moment, I have been watching a show called British Portrait Artist of the Year. This show is a portrait competition between amateur and professional portrait artists. The artists have varying styles, and their work has inspired a lot of my recent paintings! I also get a lot of inspiration from visiting art galleries and museums or watching art shows.

When I decide to start a portrait, I spend a lot of time choosing my subject and reference photo. I take all my reference photos myself and spend a lot of time composing the photo. Then, when I begin painting, I do not have any particular plan besides a vague goal of how I want the piece to end up. For example, I may have a particular technique or style of portrait I am aiming to create in mind. From there, I simply work to first block out shadows, then blocks of colour, and finally add fine detail with more targeted brushstrokes. I do not plan out each brushstroke; instead, I work in steps to create what I observe from my reference.

What I love the most about painting is its stress-relieving properties. Focusing on completing a portrait helps me to forget about the things I am worried about at that moment. I also recently completed a portrait of my boyfriend that I am very proud of.

One of my main goals with painting has been to create a portrait with what I consider to be an especially life-like and lively skin tone. Something I am always struggling with is to mix realistic skin tones. Another goal of mine is to become more expressive with my portraits in terms of mark-making. Finally, another goal is to branch out a bit from my usual composition of just the subject’s head and upper body. I would like to master portraiture with more of the figure included.

There are many similarities between my painting and my software engineering internship. Painting is a process of first planning out the composition of your piece and then working methodically to complete it. Even when you think a painting may be finished, it requires a lot of feedback and reflection in order to fully optimize the piece. In a similar way, software engineering projects require first a plan before executing them. Then, when you think your code may be complete, it will always require changes based on feedback and reflection. Additionally, they both require a lot of attention to detail and the acute ability to self-reflect and self-criticize your own work.

I absolutely think painting has helped my tech career. Painting has helped me realize the importance of having a plan before jumping into a project. Painting has also taught me how to self-reflect on my own work with a mindset that there are always ways to improve something I’ve created. Painting has also given me the ability to analyze things, whether it be a painting reference or a block of code, with an increased attention to detail. Painting has also taught me to be very methodical. When doing a painting, creating a likeness may be daunting at first when staring at a blank canvas. But my experience has taught me to break down the large task into smaller, manageable sub-tasks. The process of breaking down a large problem into subtasks is a skill I use on a daily basis at my job.

My best advice for someone interested in painting would be, as always, to paint whatever subject you truly feel like painting. As a painter, you will be getting a lot of unsolicited advice from people telling you what they think you should paint. However, if you are not enjoying the subject matter, the end result will not be at your full potential. Also, if you are just starting out and do not have access to art classes, be sure to learn (in books or videos) the tried-and-true methods and principles of painting. When it comes to painting, you absolutely need to learn the fundamentals and general rules before you can begin building your skill and branching out. Without this education, it will be quite difficult to get the results you want.

There is always more than tech. I feel that as a software engineer, there is this expectation that I should be spending all of my free time also doing techy things and should have some crazy side tech project along with my full-time job as a software engineer. However, I choose to spend my free time exploring my creative passions, and I feel like taking a break from coding at the end of my workday is necessary for my mood and well-being. I know a lot of other coders feel the same way. But, the artistic side of certain software engineers never seems to get talked about. I know that some people assume that because I am into STEM that I must be more “left-brained” than “right-brained.” I think putting people into these categories is oversimplifying things; most of us are a lot more complex than that. Sharing these passions will help to spread that message!

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