Before the widespread use of photography, scientific illustration was essential to study and communication of Natural History and Anatomy.

Many naturalists, biologists, and anatomists were also skilled artists, and others, who were not so skilled, commissioned beautiful and detailed illustrations from painters to be able to publish and share the new species of plants, animals, anatomical structures, etc… that they found in their research and expeditions.

Now, with easy access to photography and video to record animals, plants, events… It is natural for us to ask ourselves the question:

Is scientific illustration still useful to us?

I’ll give you at least 9 reasons…

1. Illustration clarifies and simplifies

Illustration simplifies complex messages, allows us to refine and eliminate all the elements that cause noise and excess in the image, highlighting the most important, which makes it clearer and easier to interpret.

Illustration “Anatomy of a sea urchin”, author: Alex Ries, vs. photography, author: Philippe Bourjon.

2. Allows you to see inside

With illustration we can represent cuts, sections or transparencies to show aspects that cannot be seen from the outside and photography cannot reach. It allows us to see interior and exterior elements at the same time and understand how they are related.

Illustration “Fragmosis in the arboreal ant Colobopsis truncata“, author: Isa Loureiro. Photograph of phragmosis in Colobopsis nipponica ant, author Minsoo Dong

3. Archetype vs. holotype

It allows us to represent the archetype of a species, drawing the general aspects, in the most appropriate position and views. We omit the marks typical of an individual specimen (holotype), which may have scars, amputations, or unusual patterns.

Illustration “Potato beetle”, author: Isa Loureiro, vs. Photography.

4. No model needed

There is no need for a physical model. With a detailed description, based on evidence and studies, we can create an illustration. That is why it is so important in areas such as paleontology, archaeology, anthropology…

We can recreate extinct species, ancient cultures, tools and objects that no longer exist and of which we only have traces.

Illustration of Smilodon, saber-toothed tiger, author: Charles R. Knight, based on paleontological research.

5. Makes the invisible visible

It allows us to represent elements as small as microorganisms, cells, atoms, molecules… their relationships and interactions that, even with microscopes, cannot be seen very clearly. Or elements as distant as distant planets, stars, galaxies, black holes…

Illustration “SARS-CoV-2”, author: Isa Loureiro, vs. Transmission electron micrograph, performed by NIAID.

6. Describes processes and ideas

Illustration allows us to organize and represent a large amount of data clearly.

You can describe concepts, ideas, relationships or processes in a single image, through infographics, diagrams, sequences of images, compare two different phases of the same process side by side, showing elements at different scales, etc.

Chapter “The Cell Cycle” of the book “Genetics explained by Dr. Barara McClintock”

7. It is more respectful

We can represent in a clearer, kinder and more respectful way anatomical or medical subjects that in photography are bloody and unpleasant to see for a more susceptible patient audience. We can represent different pathologies respecting the confidentiality of patients and the dignity of the human body.

Illustration “Carotid artery aneurysm surgery in the sylvian fissure of the brain” vs. photography. Author: Daniel Casanova

8. It adapts to the audience

It allows us to create images in different graphic styles and adapt them to be more attractive and understandable by a specific type of audience, such as children.

Illustration “Synapses and neurotransmitters”. Fragment of the book “The Human Brain. Explained by Dr. Santiago Ramón y Cajal”

9. It has aesthetic and artistic value

Illustration creates an emotional connection with the audience and lingers in memory, making it invaluable as a communication tool. It allows us to create images that appeal to the senses and emotions. Its artistic value and beauty are recognized as well as its scientific content.

Illustrations: 1. “Metamorphosis of a butterfly on its host plant”, author: Maria Sibylla Merian.” 2. Studies of the hand and arm, author: Leonardo da Vinci