The Art of Scientific Illustration

Have you ever wondered how scientific illustrators in the pre-camera era were able to paint such extraordinary detail? As an artist obsessed with details, I am often amazed at the mastery of their technical skills without the aid of a zoom function on digital photographs.

The Early Days

Nowadays, scientific illustration can be done in any medium, but traditionally they were done on paper with watercolour, ink and sometimes gouache. Some of the early works intended for reference books were even engraved on wood, which could be easily reproduced using inks. Figure 1 is the first published illustration of a wombat and was engraved on wood by Thomas Berwick for A General History of Quadrapeds, 4th edition, 1800. Berwick hadn’t actually seen a wombat himself but had created the engraving after a sketch by John Hunter, who had seen it in captivity. This was often the case where professional artists had not been on expeditions relating to the work, but had to create lavish detailed illustrations based on sketches by people who had seen the flora or fauna being described.

Figure 1. Berwick, Thomas. A General History of Quadrapeds, 4th ed. (1800). Digitised in The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) by the University of Pittsburgh Library System.

The purpose of scientific illustration is for the artist to show all the necessary parts clearly and often to scale. English artist John William Lewin (1770-1819) was the first professional artist of New South Wales and made significant contributions to science through illustrating Australian flora and fauna. The Regent Honeyeater illustrations come from Lewin’s book A Natural History of the Birds of New South Wales, 1822 (figure 2, left image) and 1838 (figure 2, right image). The left illustration was painted in watercolour and first appeared in the 3rd edition (1822). In 1838, Lewin’s book was revised and the illustrations were updated in gouache, a water-based paint that is more opaque than watercolour. This was done because it was thought that gouache would render the birds more life-like, and as you can see the difference between the two illustrations is striking.

Figure 2. Plate III. Lewin, John. A Natural History of the Birds of New South Wales. 3rd edition (1822) (left image) and 4th edition (1838) (right image). Digitised in the BHL by Museums Victoria.

Elizabeth Gould was a British artist who also illustrated many ornithological works for scientific literature in the early 19th century, including Charles Darwin’s The Zoology of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle (1838-1843). Her husband, author and ornithologist John Gould had started out his career as a taxidermist with an obsession for birds, and many of Elizabeth’s illustrations were created using stuffed birds as references for her work. In 1838, the Gould’s travelled to Australia with their eldest child and spent two years in the country researching, collecting and illustrating Australia’s bird biodiversity, which would result in one of the most significant contributions to Australian ornithology, Gould’s The Birds of Australia (1840-1848). While in Australia, Elizabeth spent more time sketching live birds in the field as well as many botanical sketches, which she believed would “render the work on ‘Birds of Australia’ more interesting.” Her illustrations were printed in Gould’s books as lithographs, a traditional process of printing from stone. Once the illustration had been applied and etched into the stone, ink was then used to transfer the image to paper, which was then hand-coloured using pencil and paint.

Figure 3. Gould, John. A Synopsis of the Birds of Australia, and the Adjacent Islands. (1837-38). Art by Elizabeth Gould. Digitised in the BHL by Museums Victoria.

Another female artist to make a significant contribution to the field of scientific illustration was Margaret Flockton. She emigrated to Australia in 1881 and was the first botanical illustrator at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney where she began illustrating in 1901 and worked for 26 years. The hand-coloured lithograph of her Waratah illustration (figure 4) is from a book she published on her own called Australian Wild Flowers (1908). At the time, she was the only female lithographer in Australia.

Figure 4. Waratah (Telopea speciosissima). Flockton, Margaret. Australian Wild Flowers. (1908). Digitised in the BHL by Harvard University Botany Libraries.

The beauty and detail of scientific illustrations by artists like John Lewin, Elizabeth Gould and Margaret Flockton have not only made important contributions to science, but also inspire many artists in the modern era. My own art has been inspired by scientific illustrators of the past, and although today we have photographs, the process of expressing a part of nature leaves a deep appreciation for the details and diversity that exist in the natural world.




3 Responses to “The Art of Scientific Illustration”

  1. ddnguyen says:

    Your use of illustrations is really, but as an artist myself, it is through intense practice to achieve such results.

  2. Ainsley Power Walters says:

    Thank you I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. It would often take an artist many hours to complete a painting with this much detail. As these are painted in water colour, each layer of paint has to dry before commencing a new layer, and there are often many layers on such detailed illustrations. I was told by an artist who painted the backgrounds in some Disney films in the 1990’s, that some of the early Disney films like Snow White, which were painted in water colour, sometimes had over 100 layers of water colour on them!

  3. Teck says:

    I really enjoyed reading this and I think the illustrations are really cool, especially the level of detail. I have a bird identification book with illustrations of Australian birds and the drawings never cease to amaze me. Having no background in art, I wonder how long it takes to create these?