Scientific illustration: What’s the point? Reflections on the craft’s ongoing value
By Nora Sherwood
Originally published July 15, 2014 on the Burke Blog.
More than 400 years ago, European explorers were traveling to distant corners of the globe and discovering unfamiliar landscapes, people, animals and plants. In a time when travel was prohibitively expensive for all but the most wealthy and too difficult for all but the most adventurous or desperate, scientific illustrators created images of these far-off places to show the people at home what those explorers found. A mostly European audience with an appetite for learning about all things exotic eagerly beheld images of South American flowers and bugs, African large mammals and birds of the Far East. Scientific illustration brought the distant world nearer, providing visuals to further trigger the imagination.
Natural science illustration, a type of art that emphasizes accuracy over aesthetics, became very popular during this time and has been ever since. Hundreds of artists turned their attention to documenting and helping explain animals of all types and plants from near and far, among other subjects. Medical illustration, a subspecialty of science illustration, became an important tool in helping understand the human body and how to heal it.
“Sable (Martes zibellina)” from The Cruise of the Marchesa with maps and woodcuts drawn by J. Keulemans, C. Whymper and others, Second edition, 1889, The British Library.
At the most immediate level, the art that accompanies early natural histories is appealing because it is beautiful. Everyone can delight in the work of Maria Sibylla Merian, who spent two years documenting the plants and animals of Surinam and published her findings in Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium in 1705. We all can applaud John James Audubon’s evident mastery through his life-size depictions of birds in carefully prepared natural poses, which formed the basis for his 1827 The Birds of America. And who can’t help but be utterly captivated, not only by Beatrix Potter’s accurate renderings of plants and animals in her books such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, but also by her scientific illustrations of flowers, insects and mushrooms?
Science illustrations have a special quality that is particularly delightful to me and many others. This type of artwork is absolutely irresistible, and I don’t know if I can do it justice by trying to explain its allure in words. Perhaps it’s the quality of the often delicate line work, the compositional focus on one or just a few specimens, the emphasis on a subject’s distinguishing characteristics that wouldn’t necessarily be noticeable in a still-life portrait—all these things draw me in.
“Pterodactylus Crassirostris” from Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology by William Buckland, Dean of Westminster, 1858, The British Library.
But I think what draws the viewer in more than anything else is the artist’s earnest desire to share knowledge. I can feel the artist’s passion when I look at a finely executed piece of science illustration, regardless of subject matter. You can almost hear the artist saying, “Look at this amazing thing/place/concept! Isn’t it cool?! Isn’t the world an amazing place full of amazing things?” Maybe today you can hear that voice also saying, “And how could we work together to keep the world amazing, instead of carelessly using up its resources?”
One of our instructors, Dr. Patricia Weyer, charged us with an important task in her introductory remarks to our class: “It’s up to you to tell an important story about what is happening in the natural world. Things are changing rapidly [pollution, deforestation, climate change, species extinction, etc.] and you could play a very important role in helping people understand what’s going on.”
That brings us to the questions of why science illustration is still important today and why it’s a good medium for sharing information. In an era when thousands of photographs of plants and animals from around the world are at our fingertips, why continue to “draw” science? Yes, scientific illustration still has visual appeal—motifs appear in housewares and tattoos, for instance—but is that enough? Have digital photography, high-powered microscopes and other technologies negated the scientific value of scientific illustration?
“Pronghorn skull” by Nora Sherwood
Having completed the Certificate in Natural Science Illustration at the University of Washington over the past year, my classmates and I have thought about these questions extensively as we learned to patiently render the intricate details of fossilized ammonites, disarticulated mammal bones and magnified plant parts.
The 20 of us in the program identified both as artists who wanted to improve the scientific accuracy of their art and as scientists who wanted to render illustrations to support their work—and we all learned from each other. Our group included scientists from the fields of general biology, neurobiology, epidemiology, marine ecology, geography and invertebrate zoology. The scientists helped us learn how to render subjects in a way that is most useful to scientists, encouraging us to attend to the right level of detail, labeling, scale and simplicity that allows the essential details to show. The artists in our group—fine artists, cartoonists, illustrators, graphic designers—helped us learn how to effectively render 3D form, use a color palette and think about composition.
With my own background in spatial analytics and cartography, I would have been lost without the kindness of those artists in our class who helped me figure out how to use shading to model a 3D object, work with complimentary colors to deepen a shadow, and even how to use makeup applicators to move carbon dust around on Dura-Lar film! From these artists, I also learned how to be very, very patient and keep working at an image until what I saw on the page truly matched my internal vision.
Besides new technical and aesthetic skills, I came out of the course with my own answers to why scientific illustration is still important today. Here’s a sampling:
The accurate ideal. Science illustrators don’t render individual specimens,but rather often illustrate an accurate ideal. This ideal—a composite of attributes from multiple specimens—is difficult to render with photography or other, more straightforward representative tools. Ideals can then be used in scientific papers, journals and field guides to help others know what guiding characteristics to look for without the distractions of an idiosyncratic specimen.
New perspectives. Science illustrators can provide diagrammatic views from a variety of angles or scales and in cut-away or cross-section views that help the viewer understand more about the subject than a photograph alone could.
Just enough—or the right—detail. Unlike in a photograph, an illustrator can call attention to certain attributes of a subject while de-emphasizing others, offering a simplified but more educational image in doing so. Science illustrators can also render a subject separate from its background, which is helpful, for example, in showing a plant that grows on the forest floor. The plant’s structure is much clearer away from the “background noise.”
The unseen or no longer seeable. Often there’s a need to render something that cannot be photographed—a species that no longer exists, a plant life cycle, subatomic particles or something in outer space. The science illustrator can create visual representations in these cases that provide valuable information.
The benefits of beauty. Science illustrations are often highly aesthetically pleasing, bringing richness to a journal or text in a way that a photograph alone cannot. These illustrations invite learning because they are unique and less pervasive than photographs are in the visual world around us. Their novelty works to their advantage.
With the training I’ve now received, I hope that in the years to come I can play a small but important role in helping to tell the story about what is happening in our world. We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words, but a well-executed science illustration is perhaps worth even more.
Nora Sherwood is a member of the 2013–14 UW Natural Science Illustration Certificate class. Sherwood’s science background is in cartography, geography and GIS. She has spent most of her high-tech career in that field and is a Certified Geographic Informations Systems Professional (GISP). Science illustration work is now her full-time focus, and she is currently illustrating species found in the Siletz Bay National Wildlife Refuge. More of her work can be seen at her website: norasherwood.com. This blog post is adapted from Sherwood’s essay “Why Illustrate Science?” Her original essay, as well as essays and artwork by her colleagues, can be viewed on the 2013–14 certificate class’s website.
“Warthog” by Nora Sherwood, with body composite showing anatomy and interesting “kneeling” eating position