Learn About It

What is science illustration?  

Science illustration is much more than pictures in a textbook. It encompasses all forms of visual science communication, including animation, comics, murals, sculpture and even jewelry. It can play a vital role in conveying information from any realm of science, from archaeology to astronomy, botany to cartography, zoology to molecular biology, and many others.

Who is it for?

Some illustrations are made for a very specific audience. A botanist, for example, may use an illustrated field guide to distinguish between closely related plant species in the field. A surgeon may use medical illustrations to navigate a tricky operation. Accuracy and the ability to communicate key details are essential in such illustrations. They can even be a matter of survival! The military uses decks of illustrated cards to depict poisonous plants and animals for personnel lost in tropical environments, for example.
Other science illustrations are made for a general audience, such as museum exhibits, magazines, postal stamps, and children’s books. Skillful illustrators simplify complex scientific content while preserving accuracy. They make science appealing, understandable, and relatable. They foster an appreciation for nature and raise awareness for topics with a broad impact such as conservation, space exploration, and climate change.

What skills do science illustrators need?

Careful observation and the ability to learn new scientific concepts are key to all forms of scientific illustration. The process can take many steps, including reading scientific studies, talking to professional scientists, sketching, and revising.
Illustrators take years to master their craft, be it drawing, painting, web design or video production. They find the best way to communicate each structure, process or concept. Cutaway drawings -- 3D illustrations in which the outside layer of an object has been selectively peeled away to reveal what’s inside – are one example of how illustrators may approach a complex topic such as Earth’s molten interior. Another is exploded diagrams, technical drawings that show how the different parts of an object or machine fit together.
Above all, science illustrators are storytellers. They take viewers to places usually invisible to the naked eye, from the microscopic world of molecules to distant galaxies. They take viewers on journeys through time, showing how different life forms went extinct, and how the universe formed. Not all science illustrations are strictly realistic – some rely on abstraction or imagination to tell a vivid story. But the goal is always to accurately inform the viewer about science.

Examples of Scientific Illustration in Action!

Check out the work of contemporary Visual Science Communicators and see what the field is all about in our Gallery of Visual Science Communication in Action.