Scientific illustration is a fusion of Science and Art, depicting natural forms and species with sharp attention to accuracy and detail. These illustrations are created to convey with meticulous precision a pictorial representation of a natural subject to aid scientists, students, historians, and other folk to study it in-depth. As indicated by the exact nature of the task, an illustrator needs to be able to perceive with an “artists eye” to distinguish shapes and forms of a subject, understand the underlying structure, and capture that essence on paper. It’s a laborious effort to depict the exact number of spines on a fin, for example, the feathered layers of a wing, or the subtle structure differences between a coyote and a wolf.
As a result, an artist also needs a firm grasping of scientific concepts, in addition to information specific to the subject at hand, in order to communication the illustration effectively. This is where a happy marriage between art and science occurs, where the artist’s perception and a scientist’s knowledge meet to be transformed into a being coming alive on paper.
Though illustrations were used throughout history to capture or depict a natural subject, no particular member of society has historically been attributed as the first scientific illustrator. In many occasions, illustrators and scientists worked side by side to create the plates, woodcuts, and sketches as information was gathered through dissections. Even so, not all of these images were highly accurate in their renderings.
However, the groundwork for modern scientific illustration with its fierce attention to accuracy can be found particularly in the works of Leonardo Da Vinci and Galileo Galilei.
Leonardo Da Vinci had elaborately detailed images of the human and animal anatomy through dissections he performed. The illustrations he created had multiple perspectives of the same figure to give a full sense of three-dimensional depth and how the individual parts connected together.
Galileo Galilei, along with Frederico Cesi, was a part of the Academy of Linceans who opted to record animals, plants and minerals as they were without aesthetic flourishes. Galileo’s microscopes allowed close studies of organisms and bodies, and his telescopes allowed him to make sketches of the imperfect nature of celestial bodies.
In current times, much of scientific illustration is now carried out with the use of software and pressure-sensitive tablets to create a digital image. However, depending upon the personal preferences of the illustrator, traditional materials of ink, graphite, carbon dust, colored pencils, watercolors and other materials are also used. Science illustration contributes to educational publications and museums to further the knowledge of the living things inhabiting our Earth.