Trends in Science Illustration: Practice Makes Perfect

From cave drawings to social media and blogging, communication has consistently fostered our development as a society. History shows us how different materials and methods (ones more effective than others) have been used to communicate our thoughts orally as well as in a non-verbal way. Papyri, telegrams, the radio and even mobile phones and photographs are a few examples of the breathtaking improvements that our race have made out to transmit ideas faster and better.

Chauvet Cave, France. Dated to:32,000-30,000 years before present. Fighting rhino and several more animals. (Chauvet cave from Wikimedia Commons).

As early as 40,000 years ago primitive humans depicted animals. They adopt stone as their canvas, a bunch of natural pigments made of clay, spit and animal fat were used to add colour and even different tones and shades, and hands functioned as brushes. A long time had to pass from those epochs before the 16th century arrived bringing pioneers of science illustration like Leonardo da Vinci (whose brain drawings are well-known) or the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner (who made incredibly detailed drawings in his five-volume Historia Animalium), changed the way to display and comprehend how nature works.

Moreover, since the 15th century there began to be a call for illustration as more than simply decoration: in 1460, Ludovico Gonzaga (Italian renaissance) asks Pier Candido Decembrio (an illustrious Italian humanist and author) to leave a wider blank space at the bottom of the folios of his zoological natural history so that he may better understand captions.

The lapse between 15th to 17th century was one for novelty and refinement. Woodcut, an ancient printing technique developed in Asia that reached the West in the 13th century was mastered during that period by European artists like Michael Wolgemut and Albrecht Dürer, who revolutionized and influenced art pieces (including science illustrations) in the centuries to come. Similarly, many others techniques such as watercolour, engraving and more recently lithography also reached the heights of its expression with the works of Prideaux John Selby, Pierre-Joseph Redouté, John Wolf and Adalbert Seiz.

The scientific community quickly understood that science to evolve it had to be clearly communicated. In order to deepen knowledge about an object or a phenomenon, details and depictions took an important role as an aid to visualise and effectively transmit thoughts. The result? wonderful drawings like the ones printed in  Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (Art forms in nature). In 100 pages the author used not only impactful creations as a tool to capture a variety of living things, but to share his own view of the world.

Trochilidae (Hummingbirds) in Kunstformen der Natur (1904).

From then until now, several techniques have been developed to effectively communicate complex findings to a variety of audiences. With the fully advent of photography, fleeting moments came into play as an important communication gear with its most substantial advantage: fidelity. Although photography  has its own room and importance in science, cameras provide data with inherent problems related to limited focal depth, light and exposure. Yet, both drawings and flat images  are essential in science outreach: the former can be used to emphasise, eliminate and translate reality to a model according with the actual author’s  understanding, while photographs can reduce time and effort when it comes to data analysis and publishing  with little time available.

Even more, a high-definition photograph can be a really good mean to an end. I have been working with pollen grains (that tiny yellow stuff coming out of the flowers) for a while and when it comes to present a beautiful yet useful model, instead of opting between digital or analog (PC vs hand-made drawing) I make a mix of both. First, I combine a set of photographs to create a complete grain (circular, triangular or oblate most of the times), then I use digital lines to trace an outline of the grain with only a few rough details. Finally, I perfect the sketch and add details with micron and colour pencils. The final result is then scanned and re-scaled if necessary.

Guadua sarcocarpa Londoño & P.M. Peterson (Art by Alice Tangerini) The Plant Press Vol. 15 No. 2 (2012).

Not talent but purpose

Drawings have been along with human being since the beginning of time. There have been countless contributions from fantastic people all around the world  who has left us a myriad of options to explore and try. Today, with science results being increasingly complex and specialised, active science outreach and coherent communication it is not a a minor problem.

Take a piece of blank paper and a pen. Start your practise today  with those things you like the most (e.g. rocks, fossils, minerals, flowers…). Add as much details as you see. Have fun adding some colour. In a blink of an eye you’ll be sharing your results (and your own vision of the world) with everyone in your classes and presentations using quite clear models made by yourself.


Pyle, C. (2000). Art as science: scientific illustration, 1490–1670 in drawing, woodcut and copper plate. Endeavour, 24(2), pp.69-75.



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