Why Illustrate Science?
Historically, in a time when travel was prohibitively expensive, scientific illustrators drew images to show others the wonders of the natural world. For more than 500 years, 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. The art that accompanied these natural histories is amazing not only for its beauty, but also (usually) for its scientific content and accuracy.
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 in his life-size depictions of birds in carefully prepared natural poses that 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?
But what about today? In a day when anyone can quickly look up the name of a plant or animal and instantly access thousands of images, why continue
to “draw” science today? Why did 20 of us spend the better part of a year learning how to patiently render the intricate details of fossilized ammonites, disarticulated mammal bones, and magnified plant parts? The answer to this question lies in understanding what a scientific illustrator actually does.
At the core, natural science illustrators are artists in the service of science. While there is still science inquiry going on, there will be work for scientific illustrators. For example, we know how to accurately portray subjects, often combining the attributes of several specimens to arrive at a rendering that illustrates an accurate ideal rather than portraying one idiosyncratic specimen. We have learned how to partner with scientists to highlight and emphasize important or distinguishing features in a way photographs cannot, often providing diagrammatic views from a variety of angles or scales, in cut-away or cross section views. We understand the importance of assembling with text to clarify science to help educate peers, students and the general public. From The Guild Handbook of Scientific Illustration:
“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, from realistic to abstract portrayal.”
What about the UW Natural Science Illustration class of 2014? Generally we
came from two backgrounds: artists who wanted to improve the scientific accuracy of their art, and scientists who wanted to render illustrations to
support their work. We all came with different levels of talent and ability in both the artistic and scientific world. We have melded together to form a cohesive group of supportive natural science illustrators. As you’ll see in these pages, even our work started to take on a distinctive “look” as we shared what we had learned through numerous exercises and assignments.
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 and you could play a very important role in helping people understand what’s going on.” We have worked hard, learned well, and are ready.