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Where Art, Science and Nature Meet: Scientific Illustration

A young student recently asked me about becoming a scientist. “I can’t decide whether I want to be a scientist,” he said, “I really like art, too.” I assured him that science and art are not mutually exclusive, as you might think. There are a lot of ways to find careers that incorporate both. One of the most obvious is scientific illustration.

Scientific illustrators supply drawings and paintings to help identify organisms, illustrate scientific methods, and show complex processes for scientific papers, technical books and textbooks. Nature illustrations are also extremely popular art forms right now.

Here is a wonderful example of illustrations of insects. (Scroll to the bottom of this page to find links to his other insect galleries and a somewhat technical description of how he does scientific illustration.)

Are you inspired? Why don’t you try some scientific illustrations yourself?

If at all possible, it is helpful to draw from real organisms. Go outside, find a plant or relatively slow insect and start to draw. A spider hanging in a web might be a good subject. Indoors you might want to try your sleeping cat or the fish in the fish tank.

First, observe the subject closely. Observation skills are valuable in both art and science. Count the leaves and look at their shape. Do the leaves all come off the twig at the same spot or up and down the stem? Are the flowers really all one color or are they a mix of colors? Notice the shape of the veins in the leaf. If you are looking at an insect, observe that the legs and wings of an insect come from the middle section, the thorax. The spider has two body parts, with eight legs attached to the front part. Where do the fins attach on your fish and how many fins are there? Getting the details nailed helps make your drawing more realistic.

There are many websites and books to help teach you to draw. One of my favorite books is “Draw Insects” by Doug DuBosque. It is published by Peel productions, Inc. It gives step-by-step instructions for drawing a number of different insects.

As always, relax and have fun. If a line doesn’t quite turn out the way you want, see if you can make it into a “happy accident” and turn it into something else. Enjoy!

insect watercolor

Not far from where I found the cellar spider last week, I found this caterpillar feeding on a small ironwood tree. Instead of being alarmed that a caterpillar was eating my plant, I was actually pretty excited. I was pretty sure it is the larval form of the Mexican yellow, a very pretty butterfly. If not, then it is a closely related species.


If you are interested, here is a link to the Butterflies of Southeastern Arizona page which shows what the caterpillar might turn into, the Mexican yellow, Eurema mexicanum.

And here is their picture of the larva stage. Do you think it is the same kind, too?

The caterpillar was over an inch long, probably nearly mature. The next day it was gone. Hopefully it crawled away to form a chrysalis in a protected place and I'll be showing you a photo in a few weeks.

This morning when I was talking on the phone with my sister outside, I noticed a spider wrapping up a fly it had caught in its web. I recognized it immediately as a cellar spider, Family Pholcidae, because of its slender body, long legs and the tangled shape of its web. It also has dark markings on the underside of its body.

The larger cellar spiders common around homes in the Southwest have been introduced from Europe. This one looks like the marbled cellar spider, Holocnemus pluchei, because of the marbled white and pinkish-red pattern on its abdomen.

cellar spidercellar spider 2

We have a community of cellar spiders that live on the outside of one of the windows where we watch our bird feeder. When the feeder is quiet, we watch the spiders instead.