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Careers and Education in Science Illustration

Scientific Illustration

The principle task of the scientific illustrator is to prepare accurate renderings of scientific subjects. These illustrations are designed for reproduction in professional or popular journals in the field of natural sciences, textbooks, as museum exhibits, web sites, and many other applications.

Scientific illustrations in both traditional and digital formats provide a visual explanation and aid the viewer by clarifying complex descriptive information. The function of a scientific illustration, therefore, is essentially a practical one: to inform, to explain, and to instruct — in short, to communicate.

Nature of Work

In a scientific illustration, the primary emphasis is accuracy in the portrayal of the subject matter. Details of the subject must be correctly delineated to show proportions, coloration, anatomical structures, or other diagnostic features. In addition to accurate depiction, the illustrator should have sufficient understanding of the subject so that the illustration will appear natural and life-like rather than mechanical. A scientific illustration is judged for its aesthetic qualities, as well as its accuracy.

The work done by scientific illustrators is diverse. Illustrators may often draw rare or fragile specimens and must exercise care in handling them. They may be required to handle optical instruments and understand precision in measuring microscopic objects. In addition to depicting actual specimens, illustrators may be called upon to prepare pictorial stories of life cycles, or render a series of procedures in sequence. Additional duties may include:

  • Designing graphs of scientific data and maps portraying the distribution of species
  • Planning page layouts for illustrations
  • Providing cover designs for scientific publications
  • Developing three-dimensional models and images for exhibits and presentations
  • Creating images and photos for web sites and interactive media

Frequently, illustrators must pictorially reconstruct a whole object from one or more incomplete specimens. They may be called upon to make a dimensional drawing or to conceptualize an informed interpretation, such as a cutaway drawing to show internal structure, or geographical features on a map. An illustration can simplify comprehension of a specimen better than a photograph by eliminating extraneous detail and clarifying relationships of structures, or depict statistical data in a more comprehensible, visual manner.

Successful illustrators are versatile in more than one technique or medium. Along with well-honed skills in traditional techniques like drawing, watercolor, acrylics, ink or oils, a thorough working knowledge of computer graphics programs and digital techniques is invaluable and expected in today’s markets. Knowledge of digital animation and interactive techniques can also improve employment opportunities. Illustrations can be created entirely in traditional or digital format, or in a blend of both techniques. A thorough understanding of techniques for both print and digital reproduction is essential.