My Obsessive Admiration for Scientific Illustrators (and why I’ll never be one of them)

At  one point in my life I was convinced I could become a scientific illustrator. I guess this isn’t the most shocking revelation to make on a blog about art and science, but it’s surprising to me in retrospect that I thought myself capable of it at all. Here are some of my illustrations:

 

 

I won’t be one of those people who claims that their work is terrible when it isn’t; these drawings are quite good! But they are far from scientific illustrations despite being the best I could muster. For context, here are some of the less successful “scientific illustrations.”

 

The reason why I will never be a scientific illustrator is not because I can’t draw at all, because I can. It’s not because I don’t understand the science, because I do. But there is a precise balance between scientific knowledge and conveying that knowledge that must be present that I do not have the technical illustration skills to muster. Let’s look at a few good examples from genuine scientific illustrators:

Watercolor illustration of a black and yellow butterfly on a red flower.
Ornithoptera priamus by Edward Donovan
Watercolor illustration of a red and yellow fish.
Ostichthys archiepiscopus by Jean Charles Werner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These illustrations are aesthetically beautiful, but they accomplish something greater than that. They are specifically evocative of the species in question and are produced in such a way that no attempt is made to obscure any detail. My illustrations are aesthetically pleasing (I hope!) but fail in this last regard. I resort to media and techniques to obscure my technical skill level, and important details get lost. Dragonflies are often identified by their wing venation. I drew wing venation from a photograph but can’t be sure in retrospect I was reporting this species with as much accuracy as possible.

I essentially drew my drawings for fun from reference materials I found online or specimens I owned myself with the fantasy that I was properly illustrating science. In contrast, a scientific illustrator pores over the specimen, consults with the scientist, produces preliminary sketches, consults with the scientist again, and goes through a highly laborious process before even considering putting pencil to paper on a final illustration. The workflow of a scientific illustrator is described in detail in The Guild Handbook to Scientific Illustration, which I personally own and admire as a model of the kind of work I may never achieve.

I don’t mean this blog post to just be a dig at my own illustrations. I rather like them and think that the work I do has its place in public engagement activities. For example, lately I’ve moved into vector illustration in the hopes of producing an insect coloring book. But this is NOT scientific illustration!

Black and white vector illustrations of beetles as larvae, pupae, and adults laid out on a page.
The beetle page of my future coloring book. Work in progress.

 

What I do mean to point out in this post, is that not all illustration of scientific topics is good science illustration. Scientific illustrators will always be tremendous sources of inspiration and admiration for me. They are some of the most technically skilled illustrators working in any artistic field, and unselfishly use their skills to demonstrate abstract information about the natural world, rather than using their skills for the own lofty emotional and intellectual ideas as many artists do.

I will admire them. I will feature their work on this blog. I will follow them and share them online. But alas, I will never be one of them.

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