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?” In fact, it’s a great question. Although photography is fantastically impressive and can offer glimpses into worlds both big and small, it has limitations just like any other medium. That’s where we illustrators get to fill in the blanks.

1. Photography can’t capture small things, at least with the same lighting, shadows, and other visual clues that we are accustomed to. Yes, yes, I know - scanning electron microscopes, confocal microscopes and other technologies are pumping out insanely cool imagery on the nano-scale. But check out this visual representation of a neuron as compared to these photographs taken with microscopes:

Illustration of a neuron © Cosmocyte

This illustration of a neuron is able to combine many visual effects (lighting, focus, color, composition) to convey more information than a single photograph can with the current technology. Illustration © Cosmocyte, Inc.

Photograph taken through a microscope of a Y-type relay cell in a cat's lateral geniculate nucleus. Image courtesy of Murray Sherman, University of Chicago.

Photo of a Purkinje cell

Photograph of a Purkinje cell from the cerebral cortex of a mouse. Taken with a confocal microscope which takes multiple images at different focal lengths and stacks them together to make a clearer final image. Image courtesy of Claire Piochon, University of Chicago.

The photographs of the neurons are great technical feats and are indispensable to science for their descriptive nature. The illustration, however, has depth, color, variations in lighting and focus, and as such is able to convey the complexity and vastness of a network of neurons rather than just describing the shape of a single cell. Taken a step further, the illustration can be animated to tell a much broader story about how neurons interact with each other to relay signals and create sensations or contract muscles. The photographs are just the tip of the iceberg for what can be communicated visually.

2. Photography can’t capture distant things, at least close-up. While the Hubble space telescope (and friends) have far exceeded expectations in obtaining the most mind-blowing pictures of galaxies, nebulae, supernovae, etc., all of this is done from insanely far away. All of the cool facts we know about these distant places are derived from calculations. But calculations don’t inspire Congress to fund space exploration. And they certainly don’t inspire the mainstream. But put out a press release with an alien landscape describing some Earth-like planet 480 light-years away and sha-zzam! Suddenly people are professing their undying love for NASA and demanding they get funded. Or something like that.

Artists' interpretation of CoRoT-7b, an earthlike planet in the constellation Monoceros (Credit: ESO/L)

3. Photography can’t capture extinct things. Well, at least it couldn’t before it was invented (sure, you can find photographs of Tasmanian tigers and other recently extinct taxa floating around, but fuhgettaboutit for our beloved dinosaurs.) So who fills in the blanks between the fossil skeletons and the towering reconstructions that grace the halls of museums the world over? Yep, that’s right! We do. Scientific illustrators, sculptors, and paleoartists. We sure are handy, wouldn’t ya say?

A reconstruction of the head of Daemonosaurus chauliodus by Jeffrey Martz

4. Photography can emphasize the wrong things. As an example, a lot of the fossils that come through our lab are mottled in color - depending on the local conditions when it was buried, some parts are green and others red. In addition, after 375 million years of knockin’ around in the seds, they are cracked, crushed, crumbling, and otherwise messy. Photographs will capture each of these details in spectacular glory and report it back to you like the most dedicated papparazzi. Too bad details such as these are scientifically irrelevant and, frankly, a distraction. (Cue Superman music...) Enter the scientific illustrator! In these situations, illustrators are called in to draw the structure of the bones - the so-called “real” features (as opposed to artifacts of preservation) that scientists are interested in comparing to other specimens worldwide. Illustrators can ignore color variations and minor cracks and complete missing sections based on other specimens; essentially, we act as editors, pruning extraneous visual information. Neat-o.

Photograph of the skull of Daemonosaurus

In this photograph of the skull of Daemonosaurus it is very difficult to ignore the substantial cracks and deformation due to preservation. Photograph by Chip Clark courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Line drawing of the left lateral skull of Daemonosaurus by Sterling Nesbitt.

The line drawing of the left lateral skull of Daemonosaurus makes it much easier to discern what is bone and what is rock. Illustration by Sterling Nesbitt

5. Finally, photography is just one tool, but scientific illustrators and similarly-trained artists are poised to take advantage of multiple different tools, often in the same image. They can embellish photographs with illustrated overlays of nerves and organs. They can scan objects in real life and import them into 3D modeling software to turn them into something else entirely. And they can make complex animations for everything from educational videos to blockbuster movies to hyper-realistic games. The need for visual artists trained in manipulating all the tools of our trade, if anything, is growing by leaps and bounds as the technology becomes ever-more sophisticated and powerful.

These are five great reasons, but I’m sure there are more (no doubt I’ll think of them as soon as I hit “publish.”) Got any others up your sleeves? Chime in.


Cosmocyte: Medical and Scientific Animation

The Sherman Lab and the Hansel Lab at the University of Chicago

NASA reports on CoRoT-7b, an earth-like planet in the constellation Monoceros

Daemonosaurus press release

Daemonosaurus paper: Sues, Hans-Dieter, Sterling J. Nesbitt, David S. Berman and Amy C. Henrici (2011). A late-surviving basal theropod dinosaur from the latest Triassic of North America. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Published online before print April 13, 2011, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0410.