Let’s Talk About Scientific Illustration

Scientific illustration has a rich history. Before there was photography, artists were sent out into the field on expeditions with explorers and researchers to record what they saw, to capture visuals, record mapping data or provide detailed diagrams of organisms. There was a need for reliable images to accompany scientific discoveries, and the image-makers of these earlier times were either collaborating with scientists, or the scientists themselves were taking the time to render accurate drawings or engravings of what they found.

Figure 1. Vintage scientific illustration of a red octopus and an argonaut

However, when the technology of photography was introduced (and then made more and more accessible), taking a photo became an easy means of providing the visuals to communicate the details of science, whether it was of biological organisms, geography or human anatomy. So, in the day and age where nearly everyone has a camera phone at their disposal, is there a use for scientific illustration?

The simple answer is yes, but mainly for specific purposes. One particular purpose would be to have your message or topic stand out. Since we are constantly bombarded with photography, seeing a handmade illustration can be a means of grabbing someone’s attention. Scientific illustrators bring a style and perspective to an image that is unique and can stand out in a sea of text and photos and add a sense of intrigue as to how a specific piece was rendered or how something was expressed. 

Illustrations can engage an audience and tell a story. There is an inherent flexibility with illustration work that allows a topic to become an infographic, and bring in abstract concepts or show relationships that could not be captured in a photograph. In these cases, the artist acts like a translator of sorts, relaying complex information in a visual way that is easier to understand. Details that may be lost in a photograph can be emphasized in a drawing or painting and this can be particularly useful when the topic is microscopic. 

Figure 2. Illustration of the ecosystem services provided by wetlands by Terra Simieritsch.

Illustration can even go one step further and be used to personalize communications. Specific colours and compositions can be cohesive with a project or even a brand. An added bonus is that the original art piece can be an excellent addition to an office space or as a specialized client gift.

We have started utilizing scientific illustration at Fiera Biological, and it gained attention immediately. While the initial illustrations were created as a way to add a personal touch and relay some important visuals about riparian health, we have also used illustration as a way to create infographics and incorporate visuals that are a little more ‘down-to-earth’ when communicating with the public. And to be honest, because our resident illustrator, Terra Simieritsch, starts to get a little stir-crazy when she’s been using one side of her brain too long working on technical reports.