Scientific Illustration at the Museum

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 Image: © AMNH/M. Ellison

Before the camera, scientists depended on drawings to replicate the natural world, its flora and fauna, on the printed page. But even today, well after the arrival of photography and other sophisticated imaging techniques, old-school illustration persists as the method of choice in books, articles, and professional research papers. So how has this craft survived alongside photos and high-tech scans?

First, there are some instances—such as portraying an extinct animal no human has ever seen—that simply demand creative rendering. But even with extant species, scientists say that, with the possible exception of presenting small areas of minute surface detail, there is simply no substitute for putting pen to paper. Even 3-D scanned images can lack the resolution needed to represent complex structures, color gradations, and other essential details.

It is not a matter of resisting technology. Many scientific illustrators use computer software to execute their drawings or to tweak pen or pencil images after they have been digitized. And most consider computed tomography, scanning electron microscopy, and other high-resolution imaging techniques important tools, enhancements of the eye that allow for ever more detail in the finished drawing. 


Renderings done by hand have critical advantages over photographs, key among them the ability to focus on several areas at once, allowing the scientist to highlight every key feature of a specimen at once. Also, cameras and high-res scanners cannot eliminate features that are unimportant or remove debris in the way. Finally, in some cases, the body of a specimen might be shriveled or an appendage might be missing or folded over an important feature, obscuring it. In a drawing, all of these problems can be corrected to achieve the complete reconstructed image that is needed as a reference by colleagues around the world.

“A picture is scientific data,” says Mary Knight, manager of the Museum’s peer-reviewed scientific publications,Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, and American Museum Novitates. “The visual presentation helps you grasp information, apprehend it in a different way, and, in this regard it can lead to an overall better understanding.”


Fossil Turtle Skull

Before drawing the fossil for Curator Emeritus Eugene Gaffney, senior scientific assistant Frank Ippolito created a virtual skull with a CT scan and manipulated it to correct for bones disarticulated during fossilization. A second skull was also referenced to fill in missing details. Image: © AMNH/F. Ippolito

Game of Hounds and Jackals

For an archaeological journal article by Assistant Curator Alex de Voogt, Jennifer Steffey, senior artist in the Division of Anthropology, used a computer touch tablet, stylus, and graphic design software to draw a 14th–12th century BC ivory board game. Image: © AMNH/J. Steffey

Goblin Spider

Nadine Dupérré, a scientific assistant to Curator Emeritus Norman Platnick, drew a magnified color image of a 1.14 millimeter golden goblin spider found in leaf litter in Brazil for the cover of a Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History. Image: © AMNH/N. Dupérré

Old World Marsupial Skulls

Freelance artist Patricia Wynne did 20 black-and-white plates of Old World marsupial skulls for Robin Beck, postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Mammalogy, to complement already published New World marsupial skulls she had done for Curator Rob Voss. Image: © AMNH/P. Wynne

Syneucolia magnifica

David Grimaldi, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology and a skilled illustrator whose drawings accompany his publications, favors pen and ink on drafting acetate to achieve the clean lines seen in this image of Syneucolia magnifica, a tiny parasitic wasp found in 90-million-year-old amber from New Jersey. It was illustrated as part of a major study with colleagues on the evolution of gall wasps and their relatives. Image: © AMNH/D. Grimaldi

Feathered Dinosaur

Mick Ellison, senior principal artist in the Division of Paleontology, employed two art forms to realize this juvenile Sinornithosaurus, a feathered dinosaur from China’s Liaoning Province. First, he sculpted a 3-D clay model based on what was known, then painted a finished portrait of the model. To get the plumage right, he covered the clay model with feathers purchased in New York’s Garment District that best matched fossil impressions from the field. Image: © AMNH/M. Ellison

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer issue of Rotunda, the magazine for Museum Members.