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The Art of Science Communication is on Public Display at AAAS

Visualize: Art Revealing Science will be on public viewing at AAAS from July 16 to October 15. | Neil Orman/AAAS

A microscope and a paintbrush may not appear to have much in common, but to the hundreds of artists soon making a mass migration to Washington D.C., they’re a match made in heaven. 

The world’s leading scientific visualizers are headed to the annual Guild of Natural Science Illustrators conference to celebrate the beauty and wonder of scientific illustration. The conference will include an exhibition showcasing over 100 juried pieces of their best work, which for the first time, in honor of GNSI’s 50th anniversary, will be on public viewing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science from July 16 through October 15.

“It’s always just such a joy to come together,” said Diana Marques, a freelance scientific illustrator and animator who works mainly with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “This year, we’re especially proud of the 50 years of GNSI, and then having the opportunity to do the exhibition here, at AAAS, is even more special because it’s just such a central location, with a nice network of artists and scientists.”

The coupling of science and art is not as odd as it may seem. Some of the earliest scientific projects included illustrations of plants, animals and planets. Famous historical figures like Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, blended the “two cultures” of art and science, giving a dual dimension to his work, and life to his scientific theories.

Now, hundreds of years later, the marriage between science and art is as tightly bound as ever, and some may argue, is becoming more and more important. 

“Scientific illustration is visual journalism,” said Chris Bickel, senior illustrator of Science magazine and one of the jurors of the exhibition. “We bring to life regions of the sciences that don’t see the light of day, that you cannot take photos of and otherwise cannot be visualized in a meaningful way.” 

Visualization is especially critical considering the rapid pace of discoveries, including in micro, like DNA analysis, macro, like deep space exploration, paleo, like dinosaur excavations, and neo, like uncovering elusive species. As scientific technology surpasses the bounds of human senses, scientists work to convey what would otherwise be invisible or inaccessible to the public, while also convincing the public that the discoveries matter. Art helps.

“Art is aesthetic documentation, but it also offers a bridge to relating emotionally to the scientific finding,” noted Zebith Thalden, a freelance nature illustrator and owner of Intersectus Design in Portland, Oregon. Her exhibited work, a mixed-media replica of a Goliath beetle, is meant to “tether the experience of encountering the natural world.” 

“Humans are heavily visual in nature – we flock to things we find aesthetically pleasing and visually engaging,” said Bickel. “Making beautiful scientific illustrations helps not only draw in an audience that might otherwise move on, but makes the learning experience that much richer and impactful.”

Because science illustrators are uniquely tasked with the mission of communicating science, the methods and tools used to create their art are often multistep and variable. Their artistic process is never as simple as putting brush to canvas; rather, they may need to first flip through textbooks, interview scientists, dive into labs or the field, and finally go through several drafts with several different mediums, until they strike the balance between accuracy and artistry.

“That’s why there’s such a range of subjects I cover and techniques that I use,” noted Marques. “To me, what’s important is the scientific message and the tools I choose are just a means to communicate the science as efficiently as possible to the general public or to scientists.”

In this way, the title of “scientific illustrator” is misleading. These artists do much more than draw. Exhibited artwork by Marques, for instance, includes 3-D animations and augmented reality that makes animal skeletons come to life, through her app, Skin & Bones. 

The exhibition presents an array of digital and traditional paintings, infographics and sculptures, including a giant sculpture of the inner ear made of marble sourced from the quarry Michelangelo used. The ear was transported from Carrara, Italy, and other artworks made their journey from museums, galleries, textbooks, websites and more.

“The beauty of this show is it really reveals how diverse the backgrounds are of the scientific illustrators around the world,” said Charles Chen, an exhibit developer and experiential technologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who serves as a volunteer exhibition curator for GNSI.

To account for the diversity of work being showcased, Chen and his colleague, GNSI exhibition coordinator Sally Bensusen, a senior graphic designer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, has curated the art under four categories: Our Diverse World, Seeing the Unseen, Simplifying Complex Science, and Innovation for Today and Tomorrow.

“Scientific illustration is art in the service of science,” said Bensusen. “It’s all about science communication, and that’s really what both groups – GNSI and AAAS – are about.”