Science Illustration in the Digital Age

16 August 2012


Artistic impression of Anomalocaris, an early Cambrian predator from the Emu Bay Biota, by Katrina Kenny, 2011.


The fusion of science and art at the South Australian Museum is causing an inspiration explosion for visitors as part of National Science Week.

This year's stunning Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize exhibition forms a timely backdrop for Science Week as we look at the intricacies of bringing specimens and scientific processes to life. The digitally-produced videos and images that scientists use today are a talking point for how illustration has changed over hundreds of years.

School groups are being taken on a journey of creative discovery as they explore the role of early scientific illustration in global science communication.

Children from Westport Primary School were introduced to early natural science illustrations of Dreamtime stories, cave paintings, studies of the human body and explorers' observations, and then given the chance to try their hand at drawing specimens in the South Australian Biodiversity Gallery.

One student tried to overcome the challenge of drawing a hoof.

"This is hard because I don't know whether to draw under or draw the top. So I think I'll put it on an angle then draw it, then see how it goes," he said.

"To be a science illustrator, you need to be good at seeing where the stuff is when you're drawing it, like sketch and get all the right details," said his classmate.

The Museum is committed to promoting science education as the number of upper secondary students opting for these subjects dwindles. Art can be an attractive way of stimulating young minds to think more deeply about our natural and cultural environment and helping young people to understand their roles in conservation.

Drawings and paintings have long been important to the Museum's scientific research. However, photographs and digitally-produced images are increasingly being used, particularly when extinct creatures need to be illustrated.

One of the Museum's expert Palaeontologists Dr Mike Lee studies life from millions of years ago. He investigates reptile phylogeny (particularly skinks, geckos and fossils) and uses molecular dating to work out when creatures roamed the earth and what they may have looked like.

Dr Lee relies on digital images to illustrate his scientific discoveries. In some cases, computer images are useful when the specimen is not available or is at risk of being destroyed. Dr Lee says when he was studying the the Hydrophis donaldi, a sea snake from northern Australia, only two specimens existed. "Cutting even one of them up to see their skull bones was not an option," he says.

"The image of the snake skull was generated via a micro-CT scanner — a small, high resolution version of the CAT-scan machine used when people have, for instance, brain scans," he says.

"These images can be readily shared and manipulated, for example rotated, sliced, enlarged and stretched. They can even be printed out in 3D (in various polymers) if a physical representation is required. The method allows us to see rare museum specimens without damaging them. These are important advantages over traditional scientific illustration."

Dr Lee has also used a hybrid artwork-computer image of an Anomalocaris – a top predator from half a billion years ago – to complement his work. The image, painted by local artist Katrina Kenny, has been published all around the world.

"I used a 3D mock up of the Anomolacaris to paint from because it was so odd to envisage," she says.

Dr Lee then altered the image of Kenny's painting on his computer.

The Museum is seeing record numbers of visitors fascinated by the unique links between science and art, particularly the dynamic and diverse paintings, sculptures and works on paper submitted to this year's Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize.

This year's exhibition offers a colourful and thought-provoking exploration of our natural world. Visitors can vote for their favourite work with the winner of the People's Choice announced at an artists' evening on 25 August.