Science Illustration


Adapted from the Guild Handbook of Science Illustration, ©GNSI 1989, 2003

As art reflects culture, scientific illustration reflects the findings of science and technology.  Scientific illustration takes the viewer to the often unobservable — from molecules and viruses to the universe, from depiction of the internal anatomy of arthropods and plants to geologic cross sections and reconstruction of extinct life forms, ranging from realistic to abstract portrayal. Shapes, anatomy, details, and concepts that cannot be conveyed with words form the essence of this art. Finished work appears in print, exhibits, CD-ROMs, the World Wide Web, video, and wall art.

Science illustrators are artists in the service of science. They use scientifically informed observation, combined with technical and aesthetic skills to accurately portray a subject. Accuracy and communication are essential. The skilled scientific illustrator can clarify multiple focal depths and overlapping layers, emphasize important details, and reconstruct broken specimens on paper — results unattainable through photography. Structure and detail may be depicted with cutaway drawings, transparencies, and exploded diagrams. Many steps may be required to achieve accuracy.

Very early scientific discourses, such as herbals, included illustrations. They were sometimes more stylized and imaginary than accurate depictions of specimens. But other early descriptions of animals and plants had no accompanying visuals. Imagine a description of a yellow butterfly in words only! What shade of yellow? What is the wing shape? What does the color pattern look like? These deficiencies in communication made obvious the need for illustration. Thus, artists accompanied early exploring expeditions to record discoveries visually.

Scientific illustrations are critical for differentiating species; for example, mosquitoes that carry disease, aquatic animals of economic importance, plant seeds that are considered weeds, or plants of agricultural and medical importance. For the military, decks of cards have been illustrated to depict edible and poisonous plants and animals, used by personnel lost in tropical environments. Medical illustrations elucidate how new surgeries are performed or the anatomy of domestic animals as well as humans.

Usually, the person who becomes a scientific illustrator finds the field an ideal fusion of interests in art and science. Often the artist sees an important feature missed by the scientist. Goethe has been quoted as observing that you really do not see a plant until you draw it*. Although most scientific illustrators have a penchant for precision and a great tolerance for and appreciation of detailed work, demand exists for more expressive work that conveys science concepts and ideas. Either approach can lead to a beautiful drawing or painting that is as true as possible to its subject and that will supplement a body of scientific information or independently convey a message.

Many thanks to  Lawrence B. Isham for the concepts included, and Kris Kirkeby for much of the definition of “scientific illustration.”

* Arber, A. (1946). Goethe's botany. Chronica Botanica, 10, 63-126.