A Mixed Palette of Science and Art

By Christopher P. Sarachilli | February 18, 2016

It isn’t so much drawing as really knowing the science.

– Scott Rawlins

The artists in Murphy Hall dried the fish with paper towels, prepping the gray bodies for a bath in ink.

Instructor Stephen DiCerbo, an expert in gyotaku, a Japanese printing technique, cautioned the class to handle the fish gently, to prevent the bodies from leaking onto the foam beneath them. Next, the artists pressed sheets of paper over the inked fish to create vivid prints.

This workshop was one of many at the 2015 Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (GNSI) Conference at Arcadia in July. The conference drew to campus more than 100 attendees, from Ithaca, N.Y., to San Francisco, Calif. Attended by new and veteran Guild members, as well as non-members who work in, study, or otherwise appreciate the unique field, the conference featured a juried exhibition of scientific art, a techniques showcase, and sessions on high-tech digital sculpture, traditional illustration methods, and other subjects.

Award-winning historical re-enactor Kirk R. Brown delivered a keynote presentation as John Bartram (“the Father of American Botany”) on the impact humans have on the environment, a problem plaguing past and modern scientists alike. Field trips to the Philadelphia Zoo, Morris Arboretum, and Mütter Museum rounded out a full week of events.

Scott Rawlins, professor of Scientific Illustration at Arcadia, coordinated this year’s conference as outgoing GNSI president. He says that before the GNSI was formed in 1969, scientific illustrators, scientific illustrators worked in relative isolation, scattered throughout the world but rarely coming together to exchange ideas.

“It’s still very much a small profession, but the field is getting a little bit bigger,” Rawlins explained. The work, he said, is “shifting away from the traditional [idea of] drawing things that you recognize to helping scientists visualize their data. It isn’t so much drawing as it is really knowing the science and being able to somehow modify that data to make it clearer.”

During the conference, Rawlins presented on a trip he and two of his students made to the Bahamas in December 2014, where they worked together to complete illustrations of newly discovered marine isopod species. Dr. Sheryl Smith, associate professor of Biology at Arcadia, also presented at the conference alongside her husband, Jerry Habarth, who organized “Biodesign Atacama,” an exhibition in the Commons Gallery. Sharing his knowledge of 3D illustration, scientific illustration alumnus Ben Smith ’07 led a session exploring the techniques he uses in his work in Baltimore, Md.

Arcadia is among the few schools in the country offering an undergraduate degree in scientific or medical illustration. Guild members have praised Rawlins and the University for having the resources necessary to host such an important conference.

“My colleagues and I found Arcadia an excellent venue for our meeting,” said GNSI President Amelia Janes. “Illustrators experienced a full range of subject matters, from the ever-changing technology of 3D printing to meticulous pen and ink and watercolor rendering techniques. From Philadelphia’s great museums to banqueting in the Castle, GNSI felt a welcome participation by Arcadia’s academic community and staff.”

Convergence of science and art


GNSI conference attendee Sara Jarret ’03 has worked on projects ranging from teaching surgery techniques to helping to build a malpractice case. As a full-time medical illustrator for the publishing company Springer Nature, Jarret provides illustrations for atlases and textbooks, though her earlier freelance work took her into the operating room and the attorney’s office, creating illustrations for use in medical malpractice and personal injury cases.

Recent projects include medical device drawings, images for a first aid manual, and illustrations for two books: Functional Mitral Regurgitation and Minimally Invasive Surgical Procedures in Pediatrics.

“[With scientific illustration], more doors are open to you since your focus isn’t primarily on art,” she said. “You can work in labs and museums, with scientists and doctors.”

Those doctors explain procedures and techniques for custom illustrations or move out of the way so that Jarret can get a better view of the patient. That is, she isn’t an intrusion in the operating room but a colleague—one who works with a pencil, not a scalpel.

While the conference offered demonstrations of the latest digital techniques, workshops showcasing traditional methods proved popular among students and younger attendees. Karen Ackoff, a GNSI member since 1985 who has worked at The Smithsonian Institution, led one such workshop, teaching the medieval technique of painting on calfskin vellum, a far cry from a 3D modeling program.

In addition to learning different techniques, scientific illustration majors Nicole Frost ’16, Emily Marchese ’16, Gabriella Santoro ’16, Rachel Cornell ’17, Elizabeth DePace ’16, and Owen Hale ’17 attended the conference to connect with the professional community.

“I didn’t expect to run out of all my business cards, but they’re like artist trading cards,” said Marchese, a freelance illustrator and graphic designer, noting that the conference gave her the advantage of speaking with established professionals about career options after graduation and learning how to best prepare for challenges that might arise.

Many scientific illustrators liken the profession to a convergence of science and art. The GNSI notes that a scientific illustration “is judged for its aesthetic qualities, as well as its accuracy.” With illustrations being designed for journals in the natural sciences, museums, academic and medical textbooks, and scientific or educational websites, accuracy is of the utmost importance. GNSI goes on to explain that “the function of a scientific illustration, therefore, is essentially a practical one: to inform, to explain, and to instruct.”

Embracing New Technology

Professor Rawlins, who joined Arcadia in 1994, oversees the Scientific Illustration program.

A past president of the GNSI and the American Society of Botanical Artists, Rawlins has published illustrations in journals such as the Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Invertebrate Biology, and Acta Zoologica, as well as in books such as Your Inner Fish, Today’s Botanical Artists, and the Guild Handbook of Scientific Illustration. Rawlins also serves as a research associate in vertebrate zoology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where he has been working with paleontologists in drawing or reconstructing specimens of various fossil fish, including the well-known “fishapod,” Tiktaalik roseae.

Rawlins’ research and scholarship has led him to a number of international experiences, including working with a native healer in Belize and a nature journalist in Italy. A conversation with a botanical artist in Lisbon led to a weeklong excursion on the Amazon and an invitation to write an introduction to a Brazilian colleague’s book of botanical illustrations.

While Rawlins realizes that people unfamiliar with scientific illustration may believe technology could render the traditional process of illustration obsolete, he counters by saying that it is in the best interest of scientific illustrators to incorporate such technology into their work, when applicable.

In a profession where accuracy and meeting deadlines are paramount, new technology is something to be embraced.

– Scott Rawlins

“There is a fear among inexperienced or inflexible illustrators that new technology will replace the traditional techniques used by scientific illustrators, but experienced illustrators know that, for one, their skills can easily accommodate advances in technology, and, two, there continues to be a need for interpretation of scientific data,” Rawlins said. “The means by which this data is interpreted may change (enhanced CT scans instead of line drawings or 3D prints instead of latex models), but scientific information still needs to be presented so that it can be understood better by specific target audiences, and people who possess a knowledge of both scientific concepts and design principles are best equipped to do this.”

Workshops, classes, and online tutorials help established illustrators develop new skills and apply old skills in new ways. In many cases, Rawlins said, the choice of process—the medium and/or style—is dictated by the subject matter to be illustrated, the way in which the illustrations will be disseminated, and the artistic inclinations of the illustrator.

“For example, a didactic panel in a nature center might be most effective if rendered first as a pen-and-ink illustration, while a bar chart for a chemistry journal would most effectively be executed using a computer graphic program,” said Rawlins. “In a profession where accuracy and meeting deadlines are paramount, new technology is something to be embraced.”

Back at the GNSI conference, Sara Jarret ’03 (see sidebar), a Board Certified Medical Illustrator who works for Springer Nature in Philadelphia, followed DiCerbo’s gyotaku lesson, learning an unfamiliar technique in a familiar place. Although the technique is at least 200 years old, DiCerbo admits most techniques have evolved considerably compared to when he started out 20 years ago. As the field grows, illustrators explore and master more methods to stay competitive.

“I got hooked on this stuff,” DiCerbo quipped, nodding to the fish.