There’s a little-known niche in the already niche-y world of scientific publishing: scientific illustrations. These are drawings that researchers request from artists to demonstrate something that they want to explain in a publication: for example, if you study the anatomy of a poorly-described insect species, it’s way easier to have an artist draw a diagram for you than to try to describe “the ventral protrusion of the 6th abdominal tergite.” No one likes that sentence.
What everyone does like are gorgeous renderings of rare and bizarre animals, the insides of cells, and ancient creatures brought back to life! These are the beautiful things that science illustrations bring us.
Of course, scientific illustrations were originally most useful when we didn’t have access to true-to-life images at the click of a button (AKA, photography). The level of exacting focus and fine motor control needed to produce some of the earliest illustrations boggles the mind.
So, why are we still using drawings like gentlemen scholars of the 18th century? What, are we trying to be all vintage and trendy or some shit? Are there science hipsters who liked Haeckel before it was cool?
The truth is that a lot of the time, a photo will do the job just as well or better. The devil lies in the unseen: when scientists are attempting to explain things that are not visible to the naked eye (or even under the microscope), describe animals that have rarely been seen or are difficult to photograph, or even describe things that have never been seen at all.
Here is where the world of scientific illustrations gets even more mesmerizing: the subgenre of paleoart, wherein artists render images of animals we’ve never even seen in the flesh. They may be asked to weave together an image from nothing more than a partial skeleton or a rock impression of an extinct species, along with scientists’ educated guesses about the animal’s behaviour and appearance. This is what Julius Csotonyi calls his job: re-creating epic scenes of Earth’s days gone by.
Ok, so these images are a little too cool to regularly feature in scientific publications (we don’t want to punch up that dry, inaccessible jargon too much). Csotonyi’s work has been prominently featured in many more exciting places, including museum exhibits, National Geographic, Scientific American and Huffington Post. The widespread success of Csotonyi’s work emphasizes the value of intersecting science and art: here, art gives voice to the findings of science in a way that captures people’s imaginations. I would argue that other areas of science could learn a lot from paleoart! There are many species still living today that are extremely challenging to photograph, and while some have been graced with excellent illustration homages, such as the shy Nautilus…
Others have been literally shit on.
That is seriously the image of the critically endangered Vaquita (Phocoena sinus), Mexico’s only endemic marine mammal, provided by the Zoological Society of London. I mean, I’m sorry Uko Gorter, but step up yo game.
Artistic renderings can help the rarely seen or unseen become visible, not only to the scientific community, but perhaps more importantly to the public. BBC’s Planet Earth series exploded in the mainstream media for precisely this reason: it provided an intimate look into the world of bizarre and beautiful animals we could never hope to see, understand, or connect with otherwise. As a result, a surprisingly large number of people know what glow worms are, understand the cannibalistic habits of chimpanzees, and sympathize with the plight of endangered species with vanishing habitats. Me complaining about an underwhelming picture of a porpoise might seem pretty low-stakes, but honestly, this stuff can make a difference. So in conclusion: let’s draw pretty porpoises! Like this artist, Harriet Emily, who did it justice:
Have an inspirational water-coloured porpoise kind of day,