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Illustrators and Scientists Present the Value of Art Communication

Black-and-white illustration of a flower
Navia aliceae, the plant species named after Alice Tangerini, the artist tasked with drawing it. While sketching the plant, Tangerini noticed key features that her scientist commissioner missed. | Alice Tangerini/Smithsonian Institution

Four artists and a scientist explored the reach of visual art beyond its reflection of human expression, demonstrating how art leverages precision to propel scientific discovery and presents compelling perspectives that communicate scientific concepts.

The panelists sketched out the critical role art plays in communicating science during a Visualizing Science: The Art of Communicating Science presentation organized by the AAAS Colloquium Committee and held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Washington headquarters on September 18.

“Art and science share a lot of attributes, but one thing that they share above all is observation, and with observation comes – dare I say – accuracy,” said Sally Bensusen, a senior graphic designer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and a panel moderator. Accuracy is a fundamental requirement in science, Bensusen added, and to the illustrator being as accurate as possible has its own beauty.

The importance of art in science, as seen by participants in both disciplines, was highlighted through anecdotes. Alice Tangerini, a staff illustrator at the National Museum of Natural History’s botany department, and Kenneth Wurdack, a research botanist and associate curator of the museum, shared an instance when they collaborated on a project and the work turned out to be integral to Wurdack’s scientific process in illuminating the discovery of a new species.

The journey to unearthing new plants begins in the field as Wurdack knows well. He has trekked to remote places like Guyana where permits are required to explore its delicate and lightly-treaded forests. There, the plants are fresh and colorful. After collection, however, the ancient practice of pressing and drying specimens between sheets of paper, the plants lose characteristic features. Properly preserved plants can last for hundreds of years, but they are dead, colorless specimens.

In response, scientists out in the field often draft a sketch of their squashed and shriveled specimens – a practice Wurdack followed before he joined the Smithsonian. While artistic ability ran in his family, he admitted he was no professional. Without partnership with an artist, his contribution to scientific discovery was hindered.

“I literally lost a few new species because I could not get them illustrated and get them published,” said Wurdack. “It’s frustrating to not have access to the artist to be able to do that.”

Using a combination of microscope, pencil, pen, and a computer tablet, Tangerini transforms the dry, piecemeal plants into images that come alive on paper. Beyond technique and a steady hand, artists also approach specimens with truly naked eyes, offering a unique perspective that results in more accurate and detailed depictions.

“The artist is often a better observer than the scientist because they don’t have preconceived notions of what they’re looking at,” said Wurdack. Scientists, by contrast, tend to be caught up in their own world and casually look at their specimens searching for what matters and glossing over everything else.

When Tangerini was sketching out one of her first plant illustrations, she was working under Lyman B. Smith, a world-renowned expert on bromeliads, a flowering plant family that includes pineapples. She noticed that the bromeliad she was observing differed from Smith’s description. Without any prior knowledge of the plant family, she simply drew what she saw and later pointed out the discrepancies she noticed to Smith under the microscope. The scientist realized his error and made major changes to his original description.

“You know, they named that plant after me,” said Tangerini. “Navia aliceae.” She was also listed as a co-author on one of Smith’s papers.

Coming from such different viewpoints, scientists and artists can at times engage in a tug of war, especially when they must tackle denser and more niche scientific concepts. Scientists, noted Wurdack, are often absorbed in their own world, riddled with vocabulary and jargon.

A spacecraft in front of a red dwarf sun and planet
A visualization of the TESS spacecraft with a typical red dwarf sun and a planet detectable by the spacecraft, made for public outreach. | Theophilus Britt Griswold/NASA/TESS Science Team

“They don’t communicate information in the way you need, so you have to go hunting for it,” said panelist Theophilus Britt Griswold, a multimedia designer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “You go back and forth and back and forth, and sometimes you have to ‘coach’ them on how to say what they want to say.” In this way, artists help scientists better communicate.

How critical scientific concepts can be depicted by art was another topic the panel discussed. Take scientific uncertainties for instance.

“Decisions have to be made to fill in the gaps,” said panelist Diana Marques, a freelance scientific illustrator and animator. Such decisions arise from collaborations between artists and scientists and eventually an understanding is reached.

“I have to make sure that my drawing matches the scientists’ description. Or in some cases, their description matches my drawing,” said Tangerini.

Griswold and Marques’ work can be found in an exhibit showcasing work from the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, hosted by AAAS and free to the public on weekdays. Tangerini’s work is dispersed through various scientific journals, but a large portion of her portfolio can be found at Smithsonian Institution’s permanent collections.

[Associated image: Alice Tangerini/Smithsonian Institution]

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Juwon Song