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Science in watercolors

Illustrators merge scientific knowledge and visual arts

Rogério Lupo Trees in different stages of growth are the subject of an illustration published in a study on agroforestry systems in the AmazonRogério Lupo

The lines are clearly drawn and filled in with ink in extremely complex contours, to adjust the shades of skin on a fly’s head or leaf fibers on a plant. For a long time, the symbiosis between art and science has provided one of the most precise and sophisticated avenues for recording, explaining or augmenting scientific studies through images. The drawings are almost always done by hand, and in many cases they epitomize differences between species that at first glance appear very similar, especially in terms of hairiness, texture and size. In other cases, they give life to animals that became extinct millions of years ago or they make microscopic organisms jump out at the viewer’s eyes.

The profession of scientific illustrator is on display for the public at the exhibit entitled Ciência e arte — A trajetória de Lilly Ebstein entre Berlim e São Paulo (1910-1960) (Science and Art – Lilly Ebstein’s career path between Berlin and São Paulo (1910-1960) at the Santa Casa de São Paulo Museum. The show, which continues until July 29, 2016, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the German illustrator and puts her original drawings of human anatomy on display. Lilly Ebstein arrived in São Paulo in 1925 and illustrated PhD theses and scientific journals. She also produced realistic images for classes of professors of medicine, in the tradition of masters of painting such as Rembrandt of the Netherlands (1606-1669) and Leonardo da Vinci of Italy (1452-1519), who attempted to reproduce members of cadavers being dissected.

Rogério Lupo An eye-catching drawing in black and white shows details of the new species Pseudobombax sp. of the Malvaceae familyRogério Lupo

Ebstein built her career in the space between science and art and produced a series of scientific drawings at the São Paulo School of Medicine from 1926 — before the University of São Paulo (USP) was founded — to 1956 as a collaborator at the Biology Institute in the 1930s.

In general, it takes talent, time and considerable dedication to be a scientific illustrator, but it can be rewarding for lovers of science and the visual arts. The conception of an illustration is usually the result of a creative and collective process, which in many cases involves research and conversations with scientists on the essential characteristics of the objects they want to depict. Before starting a draft, illustrators typically pore over scientific studies to obtain information that will give them an idea that is more refined than what their clients are looking for as an end result. Unlike photography, which captures exactly what is in front of the camera, scientific illustrations record on paper and lend shape to scientific information that in some cases researchers themselves do not yet fully understand, and it accurately shows details that are hard to see in the photo.

“Drawings should be scientifically accurate and remain true to the object without exaggerating or minimizing any of its characteristics,” says illustrator Rogério Lupo. In general, illustrations are done by hand using a stereomicroscope connected to a clear chamber, an accessory that visually mixes the images on the paper and the object to be drawn. Illustrations may be in black and white or in color. Drawings in black and white are usually done with graphite or India ink, using a quill or a pen. Color drawings are done with colored pencils, watercolors, acrylics and felt pens.

For artistic representations such as this bat falcon (Falco rufigularis), conversations with scientists on the essential features to be portrayed are a prerequisite

Frederick Pallinger  For artistic representations such as this bat falcon (Falco rufigularis), conversations with scientists on the essential features to be portrayed are a prerequisiteFrederick Pallinger 

Lilly Ebstein used photomicrography, a photographic technique for obtaining images. With this technique, she was able to record images captured by a microscope, making it possible to observe details of structures that are invisible to the naked eye. From these images, she developed her illustrations using magnifying glasses. This is how she produced her drawings with striking accuracy, which is an absolute requirement to be considered scientifically valid. These days, many illustrators also use special software for digital illustrations. In some cases, it may take weeks or even months to produce a single illustration.

Scientific knowledge can be just as important as mastering drawing techniques, according to scientific illustrator Rosa Alves Pereira. Being somewhat familiar with esthetics or having basic training in lighting, color and composition helps illustrators obtain an accurate visual expression of the object to be portrayed, but it is not by chance that many illustrators are trained in biology or botany and have a basic grasp of biomedicine and anatomy. “It is important for professionals to have some scientific knowledge to be able to maintain a more consistent dialogue with their clients, who in most cases are researchers,” Pereira says. In her view, illustrators always need to be on the lookout for information in museums, scientific collections, libraries, journals and books, to keep abreast of the quality required for illustrations.

Many people in this line of work are self-taught. Others improved their talent in informal courses, as did Lupo. While still an undergraduate in biology at USP, he began studying classical drawing and painting at a small art school in São Paulo. Over time he began to illustrate his own work, drawing the attention of his colleagues as well as other graduate students who began to request his scientific drawings for theses and dissertations. Others, such as Pereira, took approved courses in illustration.

Color illustrations, such as this manatee (Trichechus manatus), are made using colored pencils, water colors, acrylics and felt pens

Rosa Alves Color illustrations, such as this manatee (Trichechus manatus), are made using colored pencils, water colors, acrylics and felt pensRosa Alves

Pereira graduated in 2002 in visual arts from the School of Fine Arts of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Two years later, she majored in the history of culture and art at UFMG and in Lisbon, Portugal. In 2011 she defended her master’s dissertation in scientific illustration at the Institute of Education and Science, also in Lisbon. “The master’s program abroad taught me how to perfect techniques that were different from the ones we are accustomed to in Brazil,” she says. In her opinion, it is possible to find scientific illustration courses all over Brazil, such as the one offered by the Center for Scientific Illustration of the University of Brasília (UnB), the Botanical Illustration Center of Paraná (CIBP), and the National Tropical Botanical School of the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Gardens, to name a few.

As in many other areas, scientific illustrators are usually self-employed, working on a number of projects with many clients at the same time. “Job opportunities for scientific illustrators vary considerably,” says botanical illustrator Klei Souza. The main source of employment is still academia, especially in areas such as archeology and paleontology, biology, cartography and astronomy. Another area that requires the work of scientific illustrators is the publishing market, which hires them to draw illustrations for textbook collections. There are also visual communications agencies that typically commission drawings to illustrate packaging for cosmetics or real estate advertising that zooms in on plants around condominium developments. “There can be as many areas of work as there are areas of science itself,” Pereira says. For Lupo, art can be an important tool for scientific communication since it draws people in to complex subjects that at first glance seem uninteresting.