How to Scientific Illustration

The main goal of scientific illustration is to translate scientific information into a visual representation that helps the reader or viewer to better understand the topic. Creating a scientific illustration involves multiple steps that may vary depending on the project.

At first the most important thing is to research the hell out of your subject! It may take some time, but it is extremely important to accurately share the information. When working with a scientist there will be provided information, but you still have to sit down and wrap your brain around it. Don’t forget to look at existing or similar work on the subject. It’s good to know what’s out there.

The next thing on your to-do list is to create preliminary sketches. Visualize what you have in mind and make as many sketches as you feel like. The more you sketch the more you can edit, revisit and adapt later on. You can also sketch the layout of the finished product (e.g. an informative poster) to get a feel for the needed space and dynamic of different parts. 

After doing your sketching you can try out different illustration techniques. Will it be digital or analog? What color palettes will you use? By practicing and using different types of media and get a feel for which style fits your project best and find out how to get the best result. 

Now that you made your sketches and tried different methods it is time to decide on the overall composition and transfer your drawing to editing software. Afterwards it’s time to start working on your final illustration. Once you get a first draft you can talk to the scientist that you cooperate with and discuss your illustration. Make it an iterative process and revise your illustration if needed. Once you and your collaborator are on the same page you can finalize the project. 

I got this information from an article by Kara Perilli about making a scientific illustration on the Current, a blog from The Franklin Institute. She writes about the process in more detail and via example from her own project.

I also found this video about Nora Sherwood on her journey and career as a scientific illustrator. She is talking about her creative process, her desire to make people think about the world and nature as well as her wish to invoke curiosity and pass on knowledge.    

Science & Art

The art of science and the science of art

Ted talk by Ikumi Kayama
Medical and scientific illustrator

Ikumi Kayama shares what scientific illustration means to her and what motivates her to keep going. In her work she creates illustrations of “dead things”. They could be plants, animals or humans. One of her focuses is human anatomy and she loves to give new insight about the human body to other people. Kayama emphasizes that the advantage of illustration over photography is that she can breath life into her drawings, make things see-through and direct the viewer’s eye to a specific point of the picture.

Some of Ikumi Kayamas work:

Integration of Art and Science

Ted talk by Yoko Shimizu
Contemporary artist and biochemist

Yoko Shimizu talks about the beauty of science, the way it inspires her and how she uses scientific principles to create fascinating installations. In her talk she shows three art installations about gravity, surface tension and sound waves. With her work she wants to show everyone that inspiration is all around us and that combining things that seem on different ends of a spectrum can lead to astonishing and beautiful creations. Visualizing the unseen is one of her key motivations.

Inside Futurelab – BioArt

Video by Ars Electronica

In this video Yoko Shimizu presents the Ars Electronica Futurelab, where they create creative and innovative technology with clients from around the world. Shimizu gives the viewers a quick tour of the Ars Electronica Biolab, which consists of two floors, a museum/galerie and laboratory. Afterward Shimizu talks about BioArt, her motivation and projects. She loves that in BioArt you start with something you designed but in the end you end up with something you couldn’t even imagine by co-creating with nature and living things.

It’s much more beautiful than something that you could’ve created on your own.

When science meets art

Ted talk by Fabian Oefner

Fabian Oefner presents two of his projects inspired by science. The first one is based on sound waves. Tiny crystals are placed on a plastic foil above a speaker. They jump in the air once a sound is played. Using a camera that can take 2000 pictures per second he photographs this phenomenon. In his second project he uses ferrofluids (fluids that react to magnetic fields) and watercolors to create amazing organic images. Each of his projects is somehow inspired by science, because he doesn’t just want to create stunning images but wants to make people curious as well. His goal is to make the viewer stop for a moment and wonder how he did it and what the physical properties are.

Scientific Illustration 02

The American Museum of Natural History created two informative videos about Natural Histories, an exhibition about scientific illustration, naming historically important pieces. Curator Melanie Stiassney states that illustration is able to subtly highlight the features which are important for a particular species in a way photography necessarily can’t. In some cases the depicted species is extinct today, so our only way to learn about them is to read and look at the historic illustration.

Natural Histories: Scientific Illustration on Display by the American Museum of Natural History
Natural Histories: Rare Books from the AMNH Library by the American Museum of Natural History

Additionally they created a video about printing techniques for historic scientific illustration. It explains how woodcut, engraving, lithography and chromolithography work.

Woodcut: Originally used as a fabric printing technique, but got adopted by book illustrators. It worked like a stamp.

Engraving: Gravers or burins were used to inscribe lines into copper plates. Ink would be spread onto the plate. Excess ink would be wiped off and a damp sheet of paper would be placed on top of the plate. A roller would be used to put pressure on the paper to press the ink onto the sheet.

Lithography: For lithography very fine grained stone, usually lime, was used. 

Chromolithography: Printing in color by using multiple stones: one stone for each color. Later on a technique using only four stones (three colors + black) was invented.

Rare Book Collection: Printing Techniques for Scientific Illustrations by the American Museum of Natural History

Scientific Illustration 01

Discussing with an artist how best to depict a mechanism or process — what to include and exclude, how molecules, stars or fossils should be positioned relative to one another — can help researchers to hone their hypothesis, reveal points of disagreement between authors and even identify holes in understanding.

Jyoit Madhusoodanan

In her article Science illustration: Picture perfect Jyoit Madhusoodanan wrote about the experiences different scientists had while working with (scientific) illustrators for their papers and how “enlisting the help of an illustrator can add impact to research papers and outreach projects”.

Lost Worlds by Victor Leshyk

One of the mentioned scientists was the palaeobotanist Christopher M. Berry, who researched the Gilboa Fossil Forest in New York, the home of the Earth’s oldest forest, for years. The tree trunks fossils found there are roughly 380 million years old and the only known survivors of their type in the world. 

The illustrator Victor Leshyk was commissioned to create an illustration of this forest, which was to accompany a 2012 research paper by Berry and his colleagues in Nature, the world’s leading multidisciplinary science journal since 1869. It also was to appear on the cover of the journal and Berry features it in his talks as well. 

The cover of Nature 483

The digital oil painting titled ‘Lost Worlds’ was based on a sketch from researchers and made it possible for Berry to experience what the living forest might have looked like so many millennia ago.

Credit: Left: Frank Mannolini/New York State Museum. Right: Victor Leshyk

Furthermore Madhusoodanan also talks about other scientists in different fields and how their cooperation with illustrators turned out. There are many benefits for scientists working with illustrators:

  • Visually stunning images help raise the visibility of the scientist’s work and generate more online views
  • Papers including scientific illustration are more likely to be shared digitally or written about
  • They attract more students to a lab
  • They attract a wider audience than non-illustrated papers
  • Researchers are able to show a better the public-outreach, when applying for grants or funding
  • Working with the illustrator can reveal gaps in knowledge and inspire new experiments

Illustrators mentioned in the article

Victor Leshyk

Emily Damstra

Mary O’Reilly

Jessica Huppi


Ars Electronica Science Center

Science Centers strategies around multisensorial design for better learning capabilities

Introduction :

In this blog, I will explore the topic around Science Centers and their “hands-on” approaches and integration of the multisensory aspect of interaction. I am convinced of the importance of the senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) and emotions in the perception and memorization of interactive experiences. In this way, multisensorial design and hands-on approaches could help in the educational field, and that’s a strategy that many Sciences Centers are using nowadays. Through this blog, I wish to explore the relation between multisensorial design and exhibition design with this example of the Science Centers ; to explore how these senses work and how to integreate them into experiences could help to find the more adapted ways to create successful and adapted learning experiences for the general public and people with sensory or other impairments.

Questions this topic raises :

  • Which strategies are the best for public implication and a better learning ?
  • What are the basics of exhibition design ?
  • How to create funny but educational experiences ?
  • Why is multisense particularly interesting for exhibition design and learning ?
  • What are the strategies used to incorpore the disable people into those experiences ?
  • Is the haptic interaction an essential approach of exhibition design ?
  • What are the learning strategies during those pandemic times whereas those haptic feedbacks are impossible ?

Why design for 5 senses is crucial :

In this TED Talk, Jinsop Lee explains why designing for all the senses is important to enrich design experiences and avoiding design incogruities.

It is particularly important to ask ourselves those questions [1] :

  1. Why: what is the desired effect of your design?
  2. How: what is the desired experience?
  3. Sampling: what objects/materials elicit that experience?
  4. Analysis: what are the sensory properties of the samples?
  5. Integration: what is the sensory experience going to be?
  6. Design: translating the findings in a coherent design!

What is exactly a Science Center ?

Sciences Center or Museum are educational facility that uses particular methods to teach science, technology, mathematics, engineering etc. It generally uses of interactive displays, events and activities but also new technologies and media to help teaching and learning. Their main mission is to make science accessible and encourage excitement of discovery. They outstand from “classical science teaching “ in school because they imply direct curiosity and interaction with the public which involves its whole body through the experience [2].

A few great Science Centers that I expore in further details :

Ars Electronica

The Art Electronica Center is a Science Center based in Linz and founded in 1979. It focuses on the interlinkages between art, technology and society. It runs and annual festival and manages a multidisciplinary media arts R&D facility know as the Futurelab [3].

Ars Electronica Science Center

ART+COM Studios

The ART+COM studio is a german company which realises media installations and spaces that convey complex content in a targeted way and make information tangible. They design for exhibitions, museums and brand spaces [4].

The Exploratorium

The exploratorium is a museum of science, technology and arts based in San Francisco. It is known as one of the famous museum of SF especially for its « hands-on » approach and science of learning. It offers visitors a variety of ways to explore the museum through exhibitions but also webcasts, websites and events [5,6].

Sources :