Dissertation – ‘Illustrating Existence’

Why hello there.

I thought I’d explain why I’ve been so damned quiet online-wise for the last couple of weeks or so. The reason is 5,500 words long and finally finished! My dissertation on the modern day placement of scientific illustration is done and ready for submission, so I thought I’d share it with you all.

Below is the introduction, at the bottom of the page is a link to the full PDF version of the essay, images and bibliography included. I hope you enjoy reading!


| Introduction

As technology has advanced throughout the decades, vast amounts of information and knowledge have needed to be visualised, communicated, and recorded in the most accurate and reliable way available to the people of that time. For centuries often the best, and only, way to go about this was recreating findings with drawings and hand constructed illustrations, examples of which can range from the absurdly inaccurate Aboriginal ‘X-Ray Art’ to the surreal – yet well researched – work of Jacques Fabien Gautier D’Agoty.

Yet, despite the large collections of anatomical studies and scientific illustrations that are near- perfect, technology and photography is advancing and developing at such a significant rate that almost anything which can be illustrated in the scientific fields can now be captured photographically. These images provide an accurate and real-time representation of what needs to be communicated, but they are far from perfect. Often images of exceptionally small or exceptionally large subjects can be unclear or their scale can be difficult to reflect to the audience/ viewer. Scientific illustration provides the ability to clearly replicate these images with scale references or visually clarified elements. It’s also interesting to bear in mind that photography and image capturing technology can only stretch so far in terms of time constraints. With illustration, the artist can recreate images of Pangea (Fig.1) for example, or construct visual representations of long extinct prehistoric creatures and organisms; whereas photography cannot.

Even when photography is used to communicate ancient existence, its done through editing and manipulation which is finding itself on the blurred boundary of ‘how much editing can be done until it becomes illustration’? An excellent example of this are NASA’s Hubble Telescope’s images.

They have become widely accepted and trusted images of what lies outside our planet’s atmosphere and elements of deep space which cannot be seen with the naked eye. However, the images that are seen most often, the wonderfully colourful and crisp images of nebulae and planets, are a far cry from the raw images sent from Hubble originally (Hester.J 2008). Fig. 2 and fig. 3 are examples of this; the original image being fig. 2 and the polished, edited version at fig. 3.

This extended essay will explore deeper into this heavy process of editing, and look into the grey areas of what constitutes as photograph, what can be classified as an illustration using elements of a photograph and how this has impacted the modern day use and production of scientific illustration. Linked closely to this is the emerging digital science of facial reconstruction and its surrounding fields. Can these three-dimensional digital images be a sign of what is to come with scientific illustration?

Adding another dimension to an illustrative image can definitely aid in its ability to communicate and resonate with its audience, helping the viewer to better understand what it is they’re actually seeing. This follows onto how scientific illustration is still incredibly prevalent within education and scientific texts used therein. With such complex and existential subjects within the sciences, illustrations and abstract visual triggers are often needed in order to fully communicate the subject matter.

The platforms in which scientific illustration and micro/macrophotography merge together to focus their strengths into imagery will conclude this essay, looking into how one compliments the other in today’s technological world. Often one is needed for the other to accomplish its full potential, for example; sometimes elements of mapping through illustration are required for the photographer to find exactly what they need to capture, or a photograph/set of photographs are used as reference for an illustration.

“A reference is more than an aide-mémoire, though less than something plainly to copy. Illustrators need to have a picture of an object before they can compose their art.”- Ford, Brian J. (1992)

So the two may not be fighting for supremacy over the world of visual communication in science in the near future, they may in fact find themselves working together, avoiding the sort of feud that e- books and CGI have found themselves fighting with traditional mediums. Artists like Gary Carlson and the US based collective/company, iSO-FORM, have fully harnessed the digital developments to maintain a sense of craftsmanship within illustration while still making use of 3D rendering techniques and digital imagery. At the other end of the scale, Carol Abraczinskas , a scientific illustrator based at the University of Chicago, retains the use of entirely traditional mediums within her work (see. fig 4).

“Pencil. Always pencil. I really prefer how a scientific specimen looks when drawn with a great range of tone.”
– Abraczinskas, Carol (2011)

With combinations of contrasting techniques battling it out and working together, the future looks particularly interesting for the progress of scientific illustration; it could go in so many directions. By investigating existing artists, current trends in the field and what has been, hopefully a conclusion can be drawn about the possible outcomes for scientific illustration. Is it maintaining enough of a hold of its original format to survive as illustration or will it succumb entirely to the digital age?

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