Scientific illustration and inspiration: Creating a field guide of bones

By Kate Thompson, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla Launchpad” Fellow

My grandmother is an artist. She spent most of her life recording the world around her on a canvas— sometimes in bold blocks of acrylic abstraction, sometimes as the plaster bust of her sister; sometimes as countless flowers in water color, mixed-media print, oil painting, pencil-and-ink sketch, the list goes on.

Last week we had a fantastic snow storm. The sort of damp heavy snow that entombs the world. A huge blue spruce outside our apartment crashed during the night, and in the morning its downed trunk bridged the length of the courtyard, bristles glistering with ice.

The power went out early and stayed out. Without lights and my computer, I couldn’t continue working. I put down my pens and go to join my grandparents around our now-candle light dinner table.

“Are you still working on the bone illustrations?” my grandmother asks.

“I feel like I’ll be working on them until the day I die,” I groan. As part of my research on the illegal hunting and consumption of Malagasy animals, I am drafting a dictionary of animal bones. Since there’s no definitive guide to what the bones of the animals I’m likely to encounter look like, I need to create my own. These delicate ink and paper drawings will serve as my osteological field guide during my research.

©Kate Thompson

©Kate Thompson

My grandmother nods. “I’m surprised illustrations are still useful today. With cameras and computers, do you really need them?”

This is a question I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. Second only to the frequent query “But how will you find a job as an anthropologist?”

Despite living in the age of selfies, and our ability to quickly capture and communicate images around the world, the ages-old discipline of scientific art is still inextricably relevant. When I first began studying with Stephen Nash and Luci Betti-Nash at Stony Brook University, I realized quickly that scientific illustration specifically is the art of choices. The choice of media (colored pencil, water color, black and white ink) and style (photo-realistic to more abstract); the choice of what details to leave in and what to leave out and what to emphasize (do you want the viewer to focus on the shape of the bird’s wings or the patterning of its feathers) make every aspect of a finished illustration a product of carefully chosen elements. Each illustration exists to not only to inspire but to communicate new information. To educate. This constellation of choices allows the artist to guide the viewer through their drawing in a way a photograph could not.

I spend an absurd amount of my time staring at bones. I can draw the same bone in vastly different ways, based on what function the drawing will serve. The drawing on the top is one of my bone dictionary images: it is meant to strip away the details of the object and convey to the viewer the most diagnostic parts of the bone. In other words, what does this lemur femur look like, and how is it different than other ones? The drawing on the bottom is an in-depth look at a specific specimen: it’s like a biography of this specific bone, more to help you understand the object than identify it.

In the world of conservation and zoological research, similar choices shape the photos that end up in your field guides. The first drawing on the right is by my mentor Stephen Nash, and it is both beautiful and useful in that it compares and conveys the differences between guenons, so you can identify which monkey is sitting above you in the trees. It’s meant to be realistic, although it is also idealized. No “perfect specimen” exists. Illustration allows the artist to create the exemplar specimen of their species and highlight its most identifiable characteristics. It allows us to tame the affects of lighting, individuality, blur and posture for the sake of communication. The image on the right is also of guenons, this time by Jonathan Kingdon. Here Kingdon has stretched and flattened his subjects in a way that defies physiology but allows him to show more sides of the animal than otherwise possible. He abstracts the image to emphasize differences in face and fur. Although the subject in both pictures are the same, the intended function of the art guides the creator’s choice of style.

Left: ©Stephen Nash; Right: ©Jonathan Kingdon

As I explain these concepts to my grandmother, she continues nodding. I pause, “Perhaps more than anything, I love that now my art and science are intimately linked. My drawings make my research possible. And later I’ll use my art to communicate my findings across language barriers and age groups. I love that doodling is now a key component of my doctorate.”

The lights flicker back on, and the hum of our central heating returns. The walls of our apartment are illuminated. My grandparent’s impressive collection of art, which covers nearly every inch of vertical space, is once again visible. Among them is my favorite. It’s an expansive antique lithograph of a tropical bird, as inspiring as it is instructive.

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