Illustration has been an important part of scientific research and discovery for centuries. Today, while photography can capture images from the scale of the universe down to individual cells, this level of precision is a recent invention. Prior to modern photography, illustration was a key way of documenting and communicating the natural world, it continues to play an important role.
For as long as we have been exploring the natural world, we have been using illustrations to document what we find. Even going as far back as the paleolithic, where 30,000 year old cave paintings depict different animal species with distinct anatomical details, we have used painting and drawing to accompany our observations of the world around us.
Using illustrations for scientific purposes became more common during the Renaissance, when it coincided with the invention of the printing press. Curiosity about human anatomy and the natural world led artists such as Leonardo di Vinci to pursue anatomical illustrations as a form of scientific documentation and as a teaching aid, practices that continue today.
Whether they be biological, anatomical, or geological, illustrations continue to have advantages over modern photography. Illustrations can capture images over a period of time in a way that eludes a single photograph. For example, the entire life cycle of an organism can be rendered in one illustration. Likewise, detailed drawings can compare different species or details in a manner that might be difficult for photography. Illustrations can also highlight behaviours or context (such as habitats) that photography might miss.
Scientific illustration requires skills and techniques that differ from other artistic renderings. Artists must use a high level of precision when creating scientific illustrations. Unlike other forms of art, where artistic license is expected and encouraged, illustrators must seek the most accurate representations in their works.
Interestingly, while the best known historical scientific illustrators were men such as John James Audubon and Ernst Haeckel, women were also renowned as scientific illustrators. During Victorian times, drawing and painting would have been viewed as appropriate hobbies for a certain class of women and may have provided an opportunity for those women who were interested in scientific pursuits. In addition, these women would have had training in painting that some of their male contemporaries may have lacked.
Either way, illustrators such as Maria Sibylla Merian not only produced valuable and beautiful scientific drawings, but advanced our understanding of natural history and particularly entomology. Merian was able to sell her drawings, using the funds to finance research trips to South America and Suriname. This work provided a path to financial freedom for other women as well. Beloved children’s author Beatrix Potter began her career by drawing scientific illustrations of mushrooms.
Today, scientific illustration remains an important way to document and learn from our observations. While illustrators today are just as likely to use a computer mouse as they are a watercolour brush, they continue to create drawings of everything from anatomy to dinosaurs. In the same way that photography hasn’t replaced landscape painting, neither has technology rendered illustration obsolete. It’s simply one more tool we have to learn about our world.