Classic Scientific Illustrations

Many stunning photos have been presented on this blog, and the recent announcement of the 2012 Anole Photo Contest is sure to draw many more.  Many of these images also grace the covers of scientific journals and are frequently used for creating vivid figures in papers.  Certainly, the ability to easily capture and reproduce high-quality photos has provided great benefits for science, but sometimes it’s also worth remembering that scientific illustration played an important role in communicating findings to other scientists and the general public.

The Guild of Natural Science Illustrators describes science illustrators as “artists in the service of science” for whom “accuracy and communication are essential,” and, while we tend to think of photography as the most realistic way to represent an image, GNSI points out that “the skilled scientific illustrator can clarify multiple focal depths and overlapping layers, emphasize important details, and reconstruct broken specimens on paper — results unattainable through photography.”

A post on this blog last year pointed to the New York Public Library’s digitization of their scientific illustration archives, and it looks like other museums are following suit.  For instance, The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has digitized about 6000 images from their entomology illustration archives and a huge number of images from other collections as well. There are also independent websites popping up that are collecting digital images of classic scientific illustrations on all subjects (e.g. and

These are definitely worth browsing if you’re interested in the history of science or just enjoy viewing finely created artistic pieces of the animals we study.

About IanWang

I'm currently a postdoc in Organismic & Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. My research focuses on investigating how the interactions between species and their environments shape the evolution of genetic and morphological variation.

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