Science Illustration as Science

I am an honors student at the University of Kansas pursuing two undergraduate degrees in each Biology and Art. I have been working for the last 14 months as a scientific illustrator, and am hoping to apply for departmental honors in Biology using this as my scientific research. In talking with faculty, many of them have reservations about scientific illustration as science, seeing this as valuable work, but more in the realm of communications (communicating scientific objects to an audience using a variety of means). Do you or the other members of GNSI consider yourselves scientists? What arguments are there for scientific illustration as a science, not as an expressive art nor as a means to communicate science without participating directly in its advancement?

Nicole McClure, Dean's Scholar, Senior, Honors, Biology and Painting 

I think you will have to be very specific about what you plan to do to qualify your illustration as Science. We have members who are doing science research. Illustrations are a way to convey that information. So you may need to be more specific about what you are doing with Science Illustrations. The substitution of images for words is a valid argument I think, but the underlying science is still the research needed to make the images.

Britt Griswold

What I consider to be science in my illustration is the careful study of objects, for example, osteological features of the human skeleton, and their reproduction in visual form. This is akin to the many literature reviews included in the scientific oeuvre, where many views on a specific topic are explored, summarized, and reprinted, which allows questions to be raised. Literature reviews, like highly specific illustrations, act as agar, creating an information-rich substrate for the furthering of science. Directed information synthesizes myriad views of a subject (say, bone scarring, textural analysis, scale, and coloration), which takes considerable knowledge of the subject's environ (local musculature, bone composition, historical aims of similar illustrations). This summary acts to communicate a breadth of knowledge succinctly, both creating a thesis in and of itself and allowing for advancement in the scientific community in broad measure.

Or, at least, that's the argument I would like to make. If you think I'm full of it, and that I'm off target, I would like to know. As an undergraduate, research is validated as much by what you do as what you can convince others to support, and in a multidisciplinary field, that approach is especially important! No one at KU is pursuing a similar field of research, so I am trying to encourage faculty to warm up to my approach. We'll see what happens, and I greatly appreciate your willingness to discuss this with me!


I would consider scientific illustration a research tool rather than a science in itself.  The role of visual communication in research has become a popular subject in visual studies.  For example, the Visualisation in Archaeology Project is having a conference in April with a session entitled "Images in Action: Visualisations as Tools and Arguments in Archaeological Research" ( at which I am giving a paper.  The International Visual Sociology Association is hosting a conference in July on "Visual Research as a Collaborative and Participatory Practice" (  And you can look to illustrators such as Cornelia Hesse-Honegger ( to see the important impact illustration can have on scientific research. While I don't think you can argue your illustration output is science, you may be able to demonstrate it is a scientific research method (like any more conventional approach) that sheds new light on your chosen scientific field, perhaps generating new questions that can be fed back into research. 



Hi Nicole,

It's always exciting to find someone as passionate about the subject as you are and you raise some really interesting issues. After thinking about your comments, I would say that illustration does contribute to scientific debate, not in terms of contributing data so much, but in being yet another form of modeling. Scientists routintely construct mathematical models, computer simulation models, and verbal models; scientific papers are really just another form of modeling ideas. There are many great historical examples of scientific ideas being discredited once someone has bothered to formalize the ideas into a tightly written essay - in my own field of animal behavior, the famous example is of Wynne-Edwards' essay on group selection in the 1960s. Once it was written, everyone could see how simplisitic these very common ideas were.

We tend to think of illustration as something that is done to communicate these other models, once the model is shown to be "correct". But your discussion raises the issue that illustration can also be seen as a way to test our mental models. You allude to the most obvious form; 3D reconstructions. I'm sure there must be great examples where 3D models convinced paleotologists that they needed to rethink how the bones articulated, etc.

I'm sympathetic to the idea because I used to teach both science and illustration. A couple years ago, a very bright student of mine chose to illustration her honors thesis for her final project in the illustration class. She had been studying horticultural systems in Panama and had made a mental model of how to classify the different kinds of gardens that she saw. However, when she went to draw the gardens she realized her ideas were wrong and she had to rethink her system of classification. I was just thrilled since I was teaching the illustration class in a science department and this is exactly what I had hoped would be the outcome!

Thanks for raising such an interesting issue,

Lore Ruttan

Hi Kathryn,

I didn't see your post before I added mine. The conference you're attending sounds really neat. I hadn't heard of that society before. Have fun!