Mixed Palette: Professionals Blend at National Scientific Illustrators Conference

By Christopher Sarachilli | July 16, 2015

Story by Madison Caudullo ’16 and Jasmine Henderson ’15 

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.

Workshops such as this drew nearly 100 guests, from Ithaca, N.Y., to as far as San Francisco, Calif., to Arcadia for the 2015 Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (GNSI) Conference, held July 5-12.

Attended by new and veteran Guild members, as well as nonmembers 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 reenactor 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 40 years ago, few people worked as professional scientific illustrators, and those that did were scattered across the world.

“It’s still very much a small profession, but the field is getting a little bit bigger,” Rawlins explains. The work, he says, 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 his leading two Arcadia students to the Bahamas last December to create 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,” a recent 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. Rawlins finds that Guild members are “incredibly positive” about the University.

“They say I’m very lucky,” says Rawlins. “They love the campus, they love the Castle—what it represents, to me, is a blending of tradition and a real personal connection to every individual here on campus.”

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 ’17, 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,” says 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.

Sara Jarret ’03, a medical illustrator for Springer Science + Business Media in Old City, 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 just got hooked on this stuff,” he says, nodding to the fish.

“Scientific illustration is wonderful because it’s this convergence of science and art,” says Violet Stamper, a freelance scientific illustrator from Athens, Ga. “We’re artsy people who don’t quite fit in with the art community, or we’re science people who are a little too artsy for the science community. When we come together, we have a camaraderie about what we’re doing that we can’t find anywhere else.”