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Why Science Illustration Still Needs a Human Touch

Need job security? Consider science illustration, wherein hand drawing skills and a keen, observing eye are irreplaceable.

by Noémie Jennifer
Sep 10 2015, 4:30pm

Julie Himes, Steniolia Nigripes, Commissioned by Gilene Young, Ph.D Candidate, University of California Los Angeles. All images courtesy of the artists.

In a time when technology seems to replace the human hand in every imaginable sector, there's something reassuring about a field that continues to seek out handwork, and does so not out of nostalgia or tradition, but out of true necessity. Scientific illustration has come a long way since the days of John James Audubon, yet there is still no mechanized substitute for an illustrator's unique talents and keen point of view.

In her article “5 Reasons Your Camera Won’t Steal My Job,” published on Scientific American’s Symbiartic blog, Kalliopi Monoyios opens with an anecdote: “By far the most common question I get when I tell people that I am a scientific illustrator is one variation (some more tactful than others) of, ‘They still use illustrators? Why don’t they just photograph everything?’” Her answer is simple—though photography is an incredibly useful and impressive tool, it has its limitations. “That’s where we illustrators get to fill in the blanks,” she explains.

Nicolle R. Fuller, Sayo-Art LLC. Tracking Cell Death with Microcapsules and Nanotechnology. Created for Dr. Michael T. McMahon at Johns Hopkins University for cover of journal Nature Materials. Hand drawn sketch at left, completed illustration at right.

Gail Guth, a longtime member of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, backs up this claim. “There are a number of instances where illustration works better than photography,” she tells The Creators Project, citing cutaway illustrations, diagrams that communicate processes, and depictions of things that no longer exist (for example, dinosaurs). “Photographs sometimes show too much; an illustration can highlight key items, while dimming or even eliminating superfluous ones,” she adds.

This is precisely what Julie Himes does in an illustration highlighting how male sand wasp coloration varies with size. For Himes, photography is just a means to an end—working with actual pinned specimens, many of which had bent limbs or missing parts, she first used a dissecting microscope equipped with an HD camera to see all the minute details. “I digitally combined parts of the photographs to create a fully intact wasp, then I used a Wacom tablet to trace the rough outlines of the wasp. I refined the sketch and added details with micron pens and watercolor. The paintings were then scanned and scaled,” she explains.

Illustration of the life cycle of the Mottled Duskywing butterfly, Erynnis martialis, © Emily S. Damstra.

Himes’ process is a great example of the highly varied combination of techniques that today’s illustrators use. While their toolkit may have expanded to include Wacom tablets and the Adobe Creative Suite, hand drawing remains an absolute prerequisite. “A thorough, working knowledge of hand drawing and other traditional skills is an essential foundation for any illustration work, whether hand or digital. Many start with hand drawings, sketches, or paintings and bring them into computer programs to tweak, enhance, or otherwise modify. There are some who work totally in digital media, but their fundamental art skills supports and enhances their work,” explains Guth.

Marjorie Leggitt, Garlic: Allium sativum. Client: Tidemark.

Browsing through the Guild’s portfolio site, it’s evident that traditional methods continue to hold their own. Guth’s own Running Cheetah was executed in watercolor, and many botanical illustrations still favor the instantly recognizable style common in 19th century prints—Marjorie Leggitt’s beautiful illustration of garlic is one example.

Today, demand for science illustration spans many fields. Illustrators work for museums, publishers, private companies that do science research, the movie industry, game developers, government agencies, parks and nature centers—and the list goes on. Several programs across the world offer graduate programs in scientific illustration, providing training for new generations of illustrators who will likely continue to combine time-honored methods with the latest tools at their disposal.

Gail Guth, Running Cheetah, Watercolor. © Gail Guth

© 2015 Fairman Studios, LLC

Jennifer Fairman, "Feline Circulatory System", Client: Veterinary Learning Systems, Icon Custom Communications, © 2004 Fairman Studios, LLC

To see more examples of contemporary science illustration, browse through hundreds of fascinating images here.


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Emily S. Damstra
Gail Guth
Guild of Natural Science Illustrators
Julie Himes
Kalliopi Monoyios
Marjorie Leggitt
Natural Science
Nicolle R. Fuller
Scientific illustration