Tomorrow’s Science Illustrators Step Up To the Plate

Red-eyed Tree Frogs by Laurel Mundy.

Red-eyed Tree Frogs by Laurel Mundy. Mating events are not always easy to observe in the wild, but a good illustration can capture the moment.

Red-eyed Tree Frogs by Laurel Mundy.

Leafy Sea Dragon by Natalia Wilkins

Science illustration began in a time when drawing was the only way to record the anatomy of a bird or the life stages of a flower. While it’s charming to envision Darwin sketching in a field notebook, is illustration still useful today, when it seems every cell phone has an 8 MB camera with zoom, auto-focus, and image stabilization?


The Science Illustration Certificate Program at Cal State University, Monterey Bay, gives a resounding “yes,” and the success of its graduates lends credence to that answer.

Illustration and photography are both powerful tools of modern science and education. There’s nothing like a photo to record, for example, the unique identifying pattern on a whale’s flukes as they make a fleeting appearance above the water. But an illustration is uniquely suited to convey the similarities and differences of all cetacean species in a comparative poster.

50-Bills of Ardeinae Herons-Jillian Walters

The “Program”, as it is affectionately known, trains fifteen students every year in the skills of science illustration. Techniques range from the obvious, like graphite and watercolor, to things you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re an artist, like coquille and scratchboard.

Students also become adept with digital tools (but how many people can use Photoshop well?). They learn to sketch in the field, to create trompe l’oeil compositions and to design infographics and interactive displays.

The CSUMB students complete their training with summer internships at magazines, museums, and parks. The Smithsonian is a popular destination.

Alveoli by Leigh Anne Carter

Some graduates may go on to regular employment, but the job of science illustrator is more often a freelance one these days.

Blue-Ringed Octopus by Meghan Rock

They have their work cut out for them. Once you start looking, you see science illustration everywhere: in aquariums and on hiking trails, in field guides and textbooks, in the doctor’s office and even in legal briefs.

And some truly spectacular examples can be seen right now on the walls of the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History.

“Illustrating Nature,” the Program’s end-of-year exhibit, is open until June 18th, and it’s just as fun and educational as the “Art of Nature” show in Santa Cruz.

I learned that the “lucky bamboo” my aunt gave me at my wedding is actually not related to real bamboo at all, and that the novelist Vladimir Nabokov made a seminal discovery about the evolution of butterflies. Who knew?

Tomorrow’s Science Illustrators Step Up To the Plate 15 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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