Scientific illustration can be defined as a discipline in which a bridge between art and science is built. Nowadays, there are hundreds of valid definitions to define what is and what is not scientific illustration. Even so, exists an intense debate between professionals and academics regarding this issue. In Illustraciencia we have conducted a survey with almost seventy professionals of scientific illustration to create a definition of the discipline that adapts to current paradigms.

© María Alejandra Migoya

  1. The objective

Scientific illustration is an artistic-scientific discipline whose purpose is to synthesise and represent information so that it is interpreted by a specific public. Therefore, it is a visual approach to a scientific concept in a precise, clear and objective way. In this discipline, it is necessary to take into account clear and unequivocal compositional and aesthetic criteria to make scientific illustration become art. Scientific illustration is considered as a discipline in the service of scientific communication: an activity carried out to help clarify, simplify and objectify certain concepts. It could be defined as the way of ordering visual information to get an image that synthesizes a certain scientific information. This information or this message would be difficult to capture through other means such as photography. Against this, the scientific illustration idealizes, synthesizes and clarifies the message that is intended to transmit.

  1. El rigor científic

A scientific illustration must objectively and accurately represent the subject, which can be an animal, a plant, an object, complex processes, diagrams or any other element that requires a graphic representation. That is why the precision with which the shapes, scale, color, texture, and the elements that compound the subject are fundamental. A good scientific illustration would be the one that manages to fuse the requirements and scientific needs in an image with technical virtuosity and artistic interpretation. Due to this, many people consider that this discipline can not exist outside the scientific field – or without being supervised by it – since it represents iconographically morphological structures, mechanical and functional aspects that belong to the scientific area. Its own name “scientific illustration” (that is, the illustration that is part of a publication made by a scientist) transforms it into a semantic element and completes the information, since in many cases we can understand better a text thanks to a good illustration.

  1. The artist vision

On the other hand, only the eyes of the illustrator and the scientist can obtain a satisfactory scientific illustration. The scientific illustration allows to capture a reality that is truthful and fictitious at the same time. It is true because with this type of illustration a reality is set, allowing a faithful reproduction of the sample. It is fictitious because a good scientific illustration, but for some exceptions, does not copy a single specimen. It should be able to summarize or generalize all individuals of this species since there are not two identical specimens. Photography has not achieved this yet, and that is why scientific illustration is still alive.

  1. Fundamental criteria

In the survey carried out by Illustraciencia the scientific illustrators where asked what criteria they considered fundamental at the time of creating an illustration (Hernández Muñoz, Oscar 2010). The criteria most valued by the professionals of scientific illustration were the focus (80%), the objectivity (78%) and the didactic nature (75%) of the illustration. These characteristics suggest that scientific illustration should focus its attention on a certain element and convey the knowledge to explain objectively certain concepts.

Which are the main criteria to define scientific illustration?

Graphic representing the obtained answers from the online questionnaire La ilustracion científica en 2017, answered by per 69 professionals. Criteria obteined from La dimensión comunicativa de la imagen científica: representación gráfica de conceptos en las ciencias de la vida, by Óscar Hernández Muñoz (2010).
  1. The most common errors

One of the most common mistakes is to confuse the scientific illustration with the naturalist drawing. and even with hyper-realism. The limit of these disciplines is as subtle as problematic and has aroused great debate among the professionals of the illustration. Beyond this semantic discussion about the meaning of each branch, there is some consensus on certain points which made the scientific illustration loses its status.

One of the most common mistakes that are discussed in this area has to do with subjectivity when it comes to making an illustration. The main problem we can find is an excessive subjectivity of the author of the illustration and confuse the informative function of the work with the realization of a personal drawing. The aim of scientific illustration is to express something that a scientist, research group, museum, editorial or media need to disclose. A scientific illustration is not an image created in itself or for its author. Therefore, putting forward the aesthetic versus the functional is a serious error. A scientific illustration must be precise and visually appealing at the same time.

Another common mistake is to grant excessive importance to the fidelity of some aspects of the actual image and to reduce importance to the synthesis of the concept that is attempted to convey. Occasionally, we see excellent illustrations whose conjunctural aspects (such as the ambient light) make them acquire the work of art status more than scientific illustration status, diluting the scientific content for the sake of other considerations of aesthetic nature. In the opposite pole, sometimes too much of the aesthetic aspects are omitted and the author focuses almost exclusively on the scientific veracity of the illustrated object. In these cases we find works that can be very functional in the strictly academic field, but that may not be so much in the informative one, one of the great fields of scientific illustration.

In addition, in scientific illustration, errors are also made regarding the lack of logic in colors, patterns and codes, lack of coherence between the chosen theme and format, ignorance of the codes of each discipline, inconsistencies in relation to proportion and perspective, the use of vocabulary or symbols of difficult interpretation and the absence of graphic scales, among others. For example, locate the individual following the aesthetics instead of the codes, one of the most common errors.