Scientific illustration is an artistic enterprise built with standard models, a history of discarded models, and conservative visual language. Conservative visual language is necessary: faced with complex systems, like say, the respiration system of a healthy human, the scientific illustrator clears away the visual noise of too much blood, muscle skin and even organs to highlight the necessary parts of the body a respirologist or surgeon needs to be concerned with. And there are standard ways to do that, such as fading out the body systems irrelevant to the lungs, and highlighting the important organs using stronger richer colours. This is a complicated process of simplifying the visuals so that anyone can look at it and in a moment, know what's important. Standard visual language is essential across the discipline.

Early naturalists did the same: taking sketchbooks out into the field, and recording what they saw with sketches, labels and notes to go along with their specimens. you wouldn't just write a description of an interesting plant's leaf: a sketch is immediately more descriptive.

So what happens when the visual vocabulary of nature and science illustration is co-opted by pseudo-scientific industries?

That's when you get the scientific illustration of magic beans.

A Naturalist's Study of Magic Beans by G. Mellow

Using the visual vocabulary of early scientific naturalists is often found in fun, fictional fantasy images, as I've done here, or for example James Gurney's Dinotopia or Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You illustrated by Tony diTerlizzi. It lends a romantic-historic, every-person feel to the illustrations of unreal things.

Most often, we see scientific illustrations that are later proved erroneous, the obvious ones being the lack of feathers on some early theropod dinosaur illustrations, or decades-old diagrams of the solar system clearly lacking the correct number of moons and sub-planetary bodies. In a recent very clever way of exposing the ubiquity of conventional scientific visual language, paleo-illustrator Scott Hartman of the Skeletal Drawing blog did an "allosaurus handstand": a scientifically accurate rendering of the bone structure of an allosaurus, but posed in a handstand instead of a typical stationary or stepping forward pose.

Clearly fictional illustrations borrowing scientific conventions are not a problem. But what happens when a scientific illustrator or studio takes on pseudo-scientific claims, and illustrates those in a convincing manner? For example; XVIVO Scientific Animation Studios' healing visualization for New Ager Deepak Chopra's cancervisualization.com; or Hartman's "allosaurus handstand". Whether or not the visualization is accurate - and they appear to be, in the often orderly way scientific illustrations trade chaos for clarity - these types of examples raise questions.

  • How much should an illustrator or studio eschew non-scientific or pseudo-scientific work?
  • Is bringing legitimate science to a pseudo-scientific project worthwhile?
  • If a scientific illustrator contributes to say, Star Wars, does it diminish the credibility of their previous zoological work?
  • Would you hire an excellent botanical artist knowing they illustrate Bigfoot?
  • Is this merely the equivalent of a scientist writing a science fiction novel, as some have done?
  • How clear in a portfolio should it be that some items are fictional and some are intended to enhance an educational, scientific report or hypothesis?
  • And, how much should the intention of the client matter to the artist?

In some ways, the illustrators on scientific papers or in books are the silent partner: credit on the colophon or in teeny text next to the image. It's a particular world with it's own superstars largely unknown outside their own industry (though here on Symbiartic, we'd like to make many of them household names). The illustration world is in turmoil right now, since so much of it is tied to the publishing industry. Scientific funding is low, due to a recession and social factors and quality-illustration is not often in the budget. It makes sense that scientific illustrators have to diversify their portfolios to put bread on the table. Exploring the boundaries of professional integrity are going to be interesting for the next several years.