I think we often downplay or take for granted the role that art plays in science. High quality art is obviously a hugely important aspect of public science communication. A paper describing a new species of dinosaur will have much more impact on the public if it’s accompanied by an excellent life restoration of that dinosaur. Astronomers and their spacey kin use illustrations to show us satellites, the solar system, and far-off planets we can’t photograph. Biologists dealing with the very small need illustrators to show us the cells in our bodies, what’s inside those cells, what DNA looks like and how it works – the list is endless.But the #SciArt tweet storm happening this week got me thinking again about the role that art plays in my own daily scientific activities. While I don’t consider myself an artist, I was always drawing while I was growing up (for a while I entertained the idea of becoming an animator!). And I’m still drawing! Every time I go to a museum, I draw pretty much everything I look at. Why draw when I’ve got easy access to digital photography? Well, I take tons of photos, too, but drawing makes me LOOK at the specimen.
LOOKING AROUND YOU IS VERY IMPORTANT.
Sketching slows me down, in a good way. What’s that weird texture in this part of the bone, how far does this groove extend, what’s with this unusual hole in this spot? Is there symmetry? Asymmetry? What’s missing, and what’s been filled in with plaster? What exactly was I measuring when I say ‘length’ or ‘width’? I’ve filled many notebooks with drawings, stream-of-consciousness-style notes, measurements, and other bits of data. Mostly I use regular ol’ pencils, but I also really like coloured pens and usually travel with a set for annotating my pencil drawings. I would love to be the kind of person that could do watercolour sketching, or proper graphite drawings.
These are some of my earliest notes from my MSc research, from a 2007 visit to the Royal Ontario Museum.
I think, as scientists, we do ourselves a disservice by not teaching students more about art skills and visual design. Being able to quickly and confidently sketch something in front of you is a useful skill to have! And understanding some of the principles of visual design – lines, shapes, negative space, colour combinations, and the like – can only make you a better communicator of science, especially in scientific papers. In addition to just being personally rewarding, drawing makes me a better scientist!
If you’re a Twitterer, you should really check out the #SciArt hashtag this week (and into the future), to see the variety of techniques and approaches people take to science art.