Indo-Pacific Sailfish by Kate Spencer

Two artists sat side by side at the demo table. Diane T. Sands wrestled with a live turtle who didn’t want to pose; Megan Gnekow hovered over her laptop, flipping between “nestcams”–live video streams from birds’ nests around the country. At the beginning of the evening, Gnekow found a pair of red-tailed hawk parents feeding their chicks. “What a treat!” she exclaimed, and began to sketch.

Sands and Gnekow were participants in the First Friday Art Tour on May 4th at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History’s exhibit “The Art of Nature.” Throughout the museum, behind permanent display cases of stuffed foxes and a marine touch pool, the walls were covered with artwork from the California Guild of Natural Science Illustrators.

Allen's Hummingbird by Karen Talbot

The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History has been hosting an annual science illustration exhibit for twenty-three years. It began as a showcase for the graduating class of the UC Santa Cruz science illustration program, but when that program moved to CSU Monterey Bay, the end-of-year show moved with it. (“Illustrating Nature” is now on display at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History–I’ll be reporting next week.)

The Santa Cruz museum switched partners from the university to the California chapter of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators. As it turns out, a large proportion of guild members are graduates of the UCSC/CSUMB program. So those artists currently showing at the PG Museum may well be featured in a few years in Santa Cruz.

And future generations of science illustrators could spring from participants in school tours of “The Art of Nature.” Deborah McArthur, the Santa Cruz museum’s education manager, leads kids on a picture hunt through the exhibit, then lets them experiment with their own mixed media illustration. Science and art instruction go hand in hand.

California Butterfly by Sondra Cohelan
California Butterfly by Sondra Cohelan

Even as an adult wandering through the show, I found myself learning new things. When a drawing of shiny scarabs caught my eye, I first thought “Ancient Egypt!” then learned that some scarabs are actually native to the southwest US. On another wall, a California gull plowing hungrily through a cloud of flies taught me that a seagull’s diet is far more varied than fish and picnic sandwiches.

One painting is particularly poignant: a watercolor of an Indo-Pacific sailfish, commissioned by the Monterey Bay Aquarium as a gift to the director of the Japanese sea museum Aquamarine Fukushima. According to the placard, “The framed original survived the 2011 earthquake/tsunami.”

As I left the museum, Sands’ turtle was crawling across Gnekow’s colored pencil case while Gnekow sketched eagle chicks from Decorah, Iowa. Science illustrators may travel far afield–there were sketchbooks on display from New Zealand and South America–but I appreciated the reminder that natural subjects are everywhere, from the family pet to the internet.

Updated 5/10/12 with artists’ links and higher-quality images. Thanks, artists!

Marsh plants in sketchbook by Emily Coren (

“The Art of Nature” Educates and Inspires 12 May,2012Danna Staaf


Danna Staaf

Danna Staaf is a marine biologist, science writer, novelist, artist, and educator. She holds a PhD in Squid Babies from Stanford and a BA in Biology from the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She helped found the outreach program Squids4Kids, illustrated The Game of Science, and blogs at Science 2.0. She lives in San Jose with her husband, daughter, and cats.

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