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Where art and science intersect

Publication by the Instituto Biológico highlights the importance of scientific illustration

Detailed illustration by Joaquim Franco de Toledo reveals diversity in orange spots

Reproduction of original boards: Eduardo César Detailed illustration by Joaquim Franco de Toledo reveals diversity in orange spotsReproduction of original boards: Eduardo César

At its peak period of productivity, the Art Production Service of the Instituto Biológico, housed in an impressive pink building, considered one of Brazil’s finest examples of art deco style, located in the southern zone of the city of São Paulo, employed 17 artists.  They produced a profusion of illustrations of plants, animals and their diseases in order to lend visibility to the research that is the subject of scientific papers, classes and advertising leaflets, and other media.  “There was a camaraderie between the researchers who wrote the articles and were generally physicians, and the illustrators who showed what the researcher wrote about,” says biologist Márcia Rebouças, one of the authors of the Catálogo do acervo de ilustradores do Museu do Instituto Biológico (Catalogue of the collection of illustrations of the biological institute museum), released in November 2015.  “They depended on each other to make their work more visible, and no one considered themselves more important than others.”

The collection, to a large extent, is the result of efforts by Silvana D’Agostini, hired in 1977 as an artist in the office, which at that time had only two employees.  The volume of work had been decreasing so when her colleagues retired, she pursued other interests and eventually specialized in museology.  In the late 1990s, the Drafting Office officially closed, and D’Agostini became a member of the team at the Institute Museum and after that, the Memory Center.  It was within this context that she began to mine the wealth of artwork that by and large had been destined for the trash bin, putting together a collection that today includes nearly 2,500 drawings by 37 illustrators.

Various techniques: bird diseases studied by José Reis, in the drawing by Lilly Althausen

Reproduction of original boards: Eduardo César Various techniques: bird diseases studied by José Reis, in the drawing by Lilly AlthausenReproduction of original boards: Eduardo César

“It is only recently that these originals have come to be considered historical documents,” she explains.  In the past, most were discarded after being sent to the print shop to be included in publications, or else they ended up in stacks of unimportant papers at the researcher’s home or office.  Now recovered and partially exhibited in the recently published book, available free of charge at the Institute, these works are bringing to light the fruitful partnership between art and science.  D’Agostini explains that despite advances in photography, illustrations are still indispensable, given their ability to highlight the details that most interest researchers, eliminating unnecessary static and bringing together all the elements that are part of a description.  “Often a caption is not even needed, such is the wealth of detail.”

D’Agostini says that the researchers would request the services of an illustrator when they needed to document some image of their research study, and they often watched the work and pointed out pertinent details.  Illustrators would often have a certain affinity for one type of object and form more frequent partnerships with a particular scientist, although the subjects would vary.  German illustrator Lilly Ebstein, for example, actually on the staff of the School of Medicine of the University of São Paulo (FM-USP), frequently collaborated with José Reis, who studied bird diseases at the Institute (in addition to his fervent commitment to science education and communication).

The coffee borer beetle (above, by Juventina dos Santos) was one of the reasons why the Biology Institute was established

Reproduction of original boards: Eduardo César The coffee borer beetle (by Juventina dos Santos) was one of the reasons why the Biology Institute was establishedReproduction of original boards: Eduardo César

The variety of techniques and tools in use corresponded to the diversity of objects to be depicted.  “We used special drawing aids like the camera lucida and the normograph as well as optical instruments like microscopes,” D’Agostini recalls.  She remembers that before passing the competitive exam for her public sector position, she had been accustomed to using completely different free hand drawing techniques.  Materials included India ink, gouache, colored pencils, watercolors and pastels.  “We would often resort to a mix of techniques, using several of these tools on a single project,” she says, remembering the despair of one of the illustrators when painting a butterfly whose iridescent wings changed color every time she looked at it.  “It was blue, then purple and then it suddenly turned green!”  Sometimes the shapes were so delicate that the pen was not fine enough and they had to employ shading and then remove the ink with a razor like a traditional straight-edge razor blade  “But you could only use a black blade, which you can’t get any more; the stainless steel ones didn’t work.”

In addition to the scientific publications, illustrations were critical in providing a wider range of communication, a notion that speaks to the very essence of the Institute, founded in 1927 thanks to the success of a commission established to explain and combat the coffee borer pest that would hollow out the fruit, threatening the coffee harvest (and economic activity) of São Paulo.  The coffee borer is a very tiny beetle, whose larvae perforates the coffee berry and eats the inside of the fruit, leaving an empty shell.  Originally from Africa, the pest had no natural predator in Brazil.  As a precursor to biological pest control, a term not yet in use at the time, an Institute employee traveled to Uganda in search of the predator wasp to raise in Brazil and distribute among coffee plantations.

Joaquim Franco de Toledo (verrugose do limão, above) was a botanist as well as an illustrator

Reproduction of original boards: Eduardo César Joaquim Franco de Toledo (verrugose do limão) was a botanist as well as an illustratorReproduction of original boards: Eduardo César

But none of this would have a practical effect if there had been no campaign to inform the rural population and the plantation workers who often left contaminated fruit lying on the ground, where the larvae could develop and end up infecting other plants.  “They would show movies in train cars,” says biologist Márcia Rebouças, who started working at the Institute 56 years ago as an intern before becoming laboratory technician, researcher, museum director and eventually founder of the Memory Center.  “The train would stop near the farms and the owners and workers would come aboard to watch the films.”  The publications distributed included meticulous illustrations, but also incorporated humor and used teaching methods to explain the issues such as what is seen in the brochure História de um bichinho malvado [Story of an evil creature], produced for school distribution.

Today, the collection maintained by D’Agostini and Rebouças is available for viewing and is such a valuable historical archive that it is still being used as a reference to illustrate citrus diseases (another pest faced by research conducted there) and for other purposes.  Although research departments usually do not have illustrators on staff, the activity continues to be important.  “We often use illustrations, especially in publications that describe new species,” says USP botanist Lúcia Lohmann.  But she explains that the artists are hired on a project basis and can never be sure when they will be called upon.  Besides the challenge of making a living solely from scientific illustration, it’s likely that the occasional relationships have done away with the closeness once enjoyed between professionals as described by D’Agostini.  “In collaborations between artist and scientist, we want illustrations to be considered as essential tools, not mere accessories,” she says.