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Scientific illustrator George Venable displays an illustration of a beetle that he drew using his computer, 1994. Credit: Photo by Laurie Minor-Penland, image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
Scientific illustrator George Venable displays an illustration of a beetle that he drew using his computer, 1994. Photo by Laurie Minor-Penland, image from Smithsonian Institution Archives
Drawing of a Carabid beetle from South America, the first illustration Venable created in tone on the computer, in 1992, using Adobe Photoshop version 2. The image was rendered entirely using a mouse, as pressure sensitive graphics tablets had not yet been invented; there were no layers and only one “undo.” It was created for the research of Dr. Terry L. Erwin of the Department of Entomology. Credit: Image by George Venable, courtesy of the Entomology Illustration Archive, NMNH
Image by George Venable, courtesy of the Entomology Illustration Archive, NMNH

What is a scientific illustration? How is this drawing of a carabid beetle, Batesiana eugeneae, by George Venable different than an art work found in a gallery? Why don't scientists just take photographs of specimens?

Scientific illustrators practice their art as part of the research process, to communicate research results, to reach the general public, and to open people's eyes to the beauty of nature. The National Museum of Natural History hires numerous illustrators to document its collections for posterity. Ichthyology, botany, and entomology are just a few of the departments that need scientific illustrators.

George L. Venable first came to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in December 1971, with twelve years of experience in medical and commercial illustration. He retired thirty years later in 2002, but continues to work with the Smithsonian as a research collaborator, maintaining the Entomology Illustration Archive that he established. During his career, his technique evolved from using traditional artist tools of pencil and paper to employing a computer, sophisticated software, and a pressure-sensitive tablet for digital illustrations.

As a scientific illustrator, one must be able to convey a detailed, clear and accurate depiction of a specimen. Scientific illustrations are an important part of the documentation that makes a specimen museum-quality—along with field and research notes, accession records, photographs, and correspondence about the specimen. A scientific illustration captures information about a plant or animal, information that is often missing from the museum specimen. Scientific illustrations depict the scientifically important features of the organism being studied. They often also describe that organism's natural environment. Accuracy is what separates a scientific illustration from art. But that does not mean that the illustrator must check all of his or her artistic skills at the museum's door. A scientific illustration can also be a beautiful work of art.

Why not just photograph specimens? Photographs can misrepresent shape and color, depending upon the lighting. Few specimens are in the pristine shape of a scientific illustration. Often in the process of collecting, insect specimens tend to dry, curl, twist or otherwise get distorted. When a specimen is preserved or placed in alcohol, it loses its original shape, color, and posture. The illustrator must know a great deal about the organism—what it looks like in nature, before it has been collected. He or she can fill in a damaged section of a wing, leave out the specks of dirt, and use the actual color of the living specimen. The illustrator can also create special views, like cross sections, pieces of anatomy, or features at different levels of depth using a microscope.

Drawing of a Carabid beetle from Central America, made using Prismacolor pencil on Cronaflex matte Mylar film, in 1979. It was created for the research of Dr. Terry L. Erwin of the Department of Entomology. Image by George Venable, courtesy of the Entomology Illustration Archive, NMNH
Drawing of a Carabid beetle from Central America, made using Prismacolor pencil on Cronaflex matte Mylar film, in 1979. It was created for the research of Dr. Terry L. Erwin of the Department of Entomology. Image by George Venable, courtesy of the Entomology Illustration Archive, NMNH
Drawing of a Carabid beetle from South America created with Adobe Photoshop version 6 in 1996. By this time there were layers and multiple undos. Pressure sensitive graphics tablets were readily available making the process much easier. It was created for the research of Dr. Terry L. Erwin of the Department of Entomology. Image by George Venable, courtesy of the Entomology Illustration Archive, NMNH
Image by George Venable, courtesy of the Entomology Illustration Archive, NMNH

There are many different mediums used by the Museum's scientific illustrators. Historically illustrators used pen and ink, ink wash, watercolors or other paints, color pencils, and carbon dust—a process using very finely ground carbon, applied to the paper with a brush and the details enhanced with pencils and other tools. Computer illustration became practical in the mid-to-late 1980s, with the development of the personal computer and sophisticated graphics software. Today, knowledge of computer graphics is mandatory for someone looking to work in the illustration field. Illustrators skilled in computer graphics are able to create images that are highly detailed, with photographic quality, or that utilize high-resolution digital photographic images or composites. Digital composite photos are made up of many separate images—each individual specimen (or part) is photographed at multiple focal planes—which are then blended or composited into one image. Cleaned up in Adobe Photoshop, the final publication-ready image reveals the specimen at its optimum—completely in focus, allowing all details to be clearly seen.

A composite photo illustration of an invasive fruit fly, 2010. It was created for Dr. Allen Norrbom of the Systematic Entomology Laboratory, USDA, and will be published in an online interactive key to Invasive Fruit Flies for use by individuals such as port inspectors, extension agents, researchers, etc. Image by George Venable, courtesy of the artist
Image by George Venable, courtesy of the artist

Venable is a master of all of these different techniques. With no formal education in the arts or sciences, he is largely self-taught. When he brought one of the first Macintosh computers to the Smithsonian, there was no help desk to call, and every assignment was a dance of trial and error. Purists will argue that a digitally rendered image doesn't count as art, but Venable vehemently disagrees. “The artist is just using a different medium or tools,” he says. “The computer doesn't change the fact that an illustrator must be highly skilled, and have knowledge and experience of the subject. For me, it is a toolbox filled with unlimited potential that provides infinite choices, which most times can be pleasantly forgiving of error.” Venable initially questioned the idea of being able to draw with the computer, but quickly discovered the advantages of being able to render images digitally. Drawing on a computer allowed for faster renderings, more control over the tools, and, most importantly, the ability to modify the image or, if something is not right, the ability to use the “undo” button. “If you damage the physical surface of a drawing on paper, for example,” Venable explains, “that drawing is ruined.” With the computer, there is an unlimited opportunity to create images that quite literally could not be made in any other way.

A lasting legacy George Venable has left the Museum is the Entomology Illustration Archive. After seeing his and his colleagues' works of art lost, damaged, or even stolen, he decided to create the Archive to track and store images properly. The Archive has quickly grown to over 6,000 illustrations, with the oldest dating to 1900 and most dating from the 1950s to the 1980s. New illustrations are added frequently as they are discovered or created, and the Archive recently acquired approximately 3,500 mosquito illustrations from the Walter Reed Biological Unit, which is an adjunct unit of the Department of Entomology. This acquisition brings the total to nearly 10,000 images.

A screen capture of the first graphical NMNH website, done by George Venable in 1997.
A screen capture of the first graphical NMNH website, done by George Venable in 1997.

Venable was also responsible for designing the very first website for the National Museum of Natural History, which launched in 1997. Today he owns a multi-media studio in Maryland, and, like many, Venable has found it hard to leave the Smithsonian after his official retirement. He comes in every week to help catalogue and update the Archive and ensure its lasting value.

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1. George Venable answers the question "What is special about scientific illustration?"

2. George Venable talks about the latest means of scientific illustration—composite photography—using as an example a project he is currently undertaking on invasive fruitflies for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Meet two other scientific illustrators at NMNH.

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