Dhaka Courier

The Art of Science: Scientific illustration in modern perspective

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Marc Dando at Work

If I had a time machine… I guess I would make it just like the Jurassic Park story. It would be probably a fairly scary or dramatic event, but for a biologist who has been attracted by the natural world and wishes to decipher that world into a visual medium, it’s absolutely the fascinating one. If you have a story to tell and a got a really good image, it will fly a lot further than just words.

Who doesn’t want to get to know about the majestic dinosaurs or plants or animals that existed over the historical time periods and have the endeavor to record those? Or, to find out about how the complex life process actually started? From the earliest cave artists, the wall painters to the visual thinkers to the modern day explorers and professionals, our nature has been carefully observed and depicted by people who took the time to draw and paint the objects in front of them. Illustration has inextricable links to scientific discovery as it assists scientists in identifying, describing, classifying and naming a species. And as the science has developed, so too the artwork.

Is it possible to introduce art to the academic world? If we take a peek at some of the most vibrant detailed popular images from the “golden age” of scientific illustration, the 18th century, well, we can see the example how these two are completely blended together in fields of archaeology, anthropology, medicine, plant and animal biology, anatomy and what not! When we open a science textbook or magazine, often there are images and always an accompanied visual. It never really crossed our mind that what it takes to make that visual- it must be diligent observations in a scientific way. Science and arts are complementary tools and scientific illustration has been a fusion of science with drawing and graphics skills for centuries.

The differences between scientific illustration and other forms of art is that it demands to rely more heavily on observation and technique rather than imagination and creativity. Careful observations with every detail noted and recorded, and research work is conducted before the drawing to make it accurate. These illustrations are exhibited in a visually appealing manner with descriptions, forming plates with mentionable elements in legends for making the science behind comprehensible.

A scientific illustrator serves science throughout sparked curiosity, exploration and experimentation with the natural world. There is a huge difference between a scientist and a scientific illustrator, to be one, skills in both of the areas are needed. It is the scientific knowledge of the illustrator in conveying and interpreting the most important piece of information succinctly and clearly. In the modern world, professional scientific illustrators follow the footsteps of our illustrious predecessors, like Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical sketches and John James Audubon’s bird paintings.

This beautiful Mandrill’s colored sketch has drawn by an illustrator Stephen D. Nash, an English wildlife artist who primarily specializes on primates. This sort of illustrations is helpful for readers to obtain clear prospect of a species.

While analyzing the archaeological shreds of evidence of fossil records or an animal in the past scientists need to be a detective in a sense to perform the forensic investigation. And readjust all the bits and pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of a crime scene- like building up the animal bones, muscle tissues, positions of the limbs or other features to know how they operated, how they looked or behaved and lived in their world. An illustrator has to pull all these together while drawing animals or plants, talk to scientists, study works of literature, visit museums and it’s dynamic. Of the published works based on expeditions, most mentionable is The Zoology of the Voyage of H. M. S. Beagle edited by Charles Darwin where many of the detailed illustrations are depicted on small, hand-colored lithographs.

It is questioned whether there is still a need for illustrations in a world where modern technology has given scientists incredible tools for studying nature and its living resources. For instance, photography and other forms of developed documentation process made it possible to create 2D or 3D representations of concepts in the field of science which helps to make discoveries, explain findings, and excite public interest. Today for the scientists, it is important that the illustration or diagram shows all the necessary parts clearly, accurately and to scale, to impart the story it is trying to tell. An image can subtly highlight the features that are very important for a particular species in a way that photographs cannot necessarily such as life cycle of a butterfly or postural movement of a species.

In case of identifying the microscopic creature as historical plant parts, the trends of illustration is something through which we simply can explain beyond words. Robert Hooke’s Micrographia was the first to feature microscopic objects. Georg Ehret, the German-born artist, was able to draw a plant with the reproductive parts often displayed at greater magnification to assist the identification process.

Illustrators of science have seen and drawn the overlooked details in sharks and other marine species very accurately which is very unlikely to found in its natural look when captured, died or out of the ocean. Such illustrated field guide is Sharks of the World with artwork by Marc Dando. Again, some crucial findings are noticed by illustrators like early fetal developments that medical researchers could have missed or features of artifacts that archaeologists had been overlooking for decades.

The illustration is just like a captivating time capsule. The amazing natural history artists- Harriot and Helena Scott sisters of the Hunter Region of New South Wales illustrate in detail all known varieties of Australian butterflies and moths using their visual observational data. Today, their work from the 1860s is assisting in the modern day projects.

Two well-known field guides with scientific illustration. These works have been indispensable for students to learn how to identify a species accurately.

Another artist and ornithologist from Australia, William T. Cooper, through his work on the birds of paradise showed how important it is to study the live specimens for shape, mannerisms and habitat, and also use of the taxidermy specimens to not only deploy the information as beautiful and character-filled but also scientifically correct with finer details.

Marcus Bloch, who laid the foundations of the science of ichthyology- in the book Oeconomische Naturgeschichte der Fische Deutschlands- showed his work to preserve specimens by illustration as in chemical preservation specimen would loss color.  A good scientific illustration can depict the actual color, texture, scales or number of spines- which can be now found today in Bloch’s collection of about 1500 specimens preserved at the museum of the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Marc Dando, an artist specialized in marine ecology and wildlife, working on the shark plates for the field guide Sharks of the World.

Freelance illustrators, these days, may have been adhered to the oil-painting on canvas, as it has ties to the rich tradition of art history, also versatility conductive to the wide range of gestural movement, textural variety, and subtle nuance of animal life, plants and the environments they inhabit. Nowadays figurative drawings are executed by charcoal, water colours, gouache, ink or acrylic on paper. On the other hand, technical illustrations involves a wide range of tools.

Inspired by the artists and their science illustrations, here are few samples I have made recently. I followed the rule to project the identifying detail clearly by which a particular species can be recognized and distinguished from others.

Today, there are institutions and museums that not only preserve and study specimens but also records wide library archives of illustrations of specimens that have been encountered historically. To name a few, the archive of the American Museum of Natural History, the collection of Smithsonian Institute and illustrations of birds of the National Audubon Society will come in first hand. Illustration in nature and natural history is now a unique sector of education. In fact, dozens of colleges and universities across the world as the New York Academy of Art or University of Newcastle (UON), Australia offer scientific illustration programs for students to learn art history, accurate drawing skills and the science behind their subjects, such as botany, zoology and anatomy. Lots of reference materials and projects are offered for work on the day-to-day basis- skulls, taxidermy, live objects and specimens- to work from reality for getting perfect illustrations.

Scientific illustration composes accurate depictions of nature and concepts on different fields of science. These works are not only appealing to eye but also powerful portrayal connection of views or objects that helps people to understand the scientific knowledge. These are the illustrations that convey knowledge of scientific topics in order to communicate the content accurately to the reader, yet still, need to appear visually appealing. Having a carrier in this sphere, to work as a scientific illustrator gives a lot of creative versatility, and as is common with many other fields, whether it is technical or freelance, it is possible to work with interesting pieces of stuff somewhere in the middle of this scale.

  • Tania Zakir
  • Scientific illustration in modern perspective
  • The Art of Science
  • Issue 16
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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