Scientific Illustration: More than Pretty Pictures

Silver Creek Preserve manager Dayna Gross used her love of painting to help convey complex stream restoration plans.

Silver Creek Preserve manager Dayna Gross used her love of painting to help convey complex stream restoration plans.

by Dayna Gross, Silver Creek Preserve manager

Scientific illustration is more than just pretty pictures — a point made quite clearly in my own work at the Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve, as we tried to convey restoration plans to the general public.

For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed painting flowers, insects, and landscapes.  There is something so enjoyable about capturing colors and textures in paintings.

In the last ten years this hobby has expanded into my work: illustration has become key in how I view the world, understand conservation and communicate ideas.

Science has always relied on visual representation to convey key concepts. While representation has varied from Audubon’s bird paintings to high-tech GPS imagery, illustration has at is core always been about conveying information.

However, while we have inarguably made amazing advancements in information technology, high-tech does not always mean “easy to understand.”

The history of scientific illustration dates back at least to 500 AD, when there was a rising need to depict and record medicinal plants.  Illustrators often used watercolors in combination with ink because of the clarity and simplicity of the medium.

The strength of the illustrations is that they can show what is unobservable to the eye while emphasizing certain important details or features missed by the scientific description or, today, by photographs.

For almost two thousand years, these illustrations have enhanced scientific communication by merging art and science.  Today, they are increasingly important in our conservation work where science and communication are rarely separate.

The importance of illustrations was reinforced for me during a public hearing on a restoration project we are working on at Silver Creek.

For months I had been explaining the restoration designs to people using the computer-aided design (CAD) produced by engineers.

Because I could visualize the design clearly in these drawings, I assumed others could as well.  However, as we got further into the design and developed more detailed CAD drawings I started to see confusion, miscommunication, and sometimes a complete misunderstanding of the project details.

People wanted to visualize what the restoration project would look like. So I decided to illustrate our plans.

SC engineering ill 1

The above illustration is a computer aided design drawing by our engineers.  It is one dimensional and includes details that most people don’t need. Without an in-depth knowledge of restoration ecology, it’s very difficult to understand.

SC art ill 1

Above is a bird’s eye illustration of the design I created.  Using colored pencil and pen allowed me to show detail but also create a more natural looking view.

Shadows give it depth not felt in the CAD drawing. Anyone can now see what the restoration will look like when completed.

sc dam engineering

This (above) is the engineers’ drawing of the dam structure (courtesy of Brockway Engineering).  The only drawings we had were in the plan view and it was difficult to tell from this plan what people would actually be able to see.

For instance, the pipes shown here will be covered with rock and not be visible.


sc dam art

Above is a perspective illustration of the dam structure.  Not only did this clarify for folks what the end product would be, it helped me clarify details with the engineers and assure we were on the same page.

The response was overwhelming.

People could see and understand the project.  There was less confusion resulting in greater support for the entire project.  Having the ability to emphasize elements of the project not clear in the drafted drawings and relate to people’s aesthetic interests has been priceless in our communication of this complex and science-based restoration project.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Dayna Gross has been with The Nature Conservancy since 2003 when she started as the Silver Creek Preserve assistant. She is now the Silver Creek watershed manager. She has an undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon in landscape architecture and is currently licensed as a landscape architect in Idaho. In 2005, after a hiatus from Silver Creek, she earned a MS in recreation management and conservation from the University of Montana where her thesis focused on the social acceptability of stream restoration. She has a passion for water conservation and high desert ecosystems which have led her to work in the freshwater field in central Idaho. Her husband is a landscaper, an avid fly fisherman and skier, and her two young boys are budding entomologists and artists. They currently live on Silver Creek Preserve and enjoy hiking, exploring, painting, and anything that brings them outside.

Comments: Scientific Illustration: More than Pretty Pictures

  •  Comment from Jay Kerby

    Great post, Dayna. I couldn’t agree more with your point on using illustrations to clarify the point you’re trying to get across. The “perfect” photograph is often hard to get and includes a lot of noise, for lack of a better term, or distraction. A nice illustration can focus the viewer’s attention on exactly what you want them to see.

  •  Comment from Brian McCurdy

    Great to see this, Dayna. All of the information, from illustrations to reports and communications, is amazing. Best of luck as you tackle this significant amount of work. I cannot wait to see the results soon.


  •  Comment from John Schneider

    Thanks for your latest “blog” from Silver Creek and for illustrating what we will see in the finished design! You’ve got me convinced to pay you all another visit and to admire and enjoy the preserve once again.


  •  Comment from Claire Bronson

    Thank you Dayna for pointing out the value of illustration and how it invites the viewer to see the unobservable and see things differently than a photo, gis map or graph. As a huge fan of your illustration, I love how it makes me feel like I am right there with you and my imagination can fill in the blanks. Would you please teach me how you do it?

  •  Comment from Elise Cormier

    Way to go, Dayna! Love the application of your landscape architecture talents to build consensus and confidence in a project. We’re looking to apply this approach to our preserves in Georgia to help visitors better understand the value of a place, and thereby grow our constituency for nature. There’s such a huge potential to apply landscape illustration techniques across the Conservancy, and you’ve helped your fellow on-staff designers make this case. Well done and thank you.

  •  Comment from Kristen Ross

    We hear quite often from trustees and donors that they feel TNC does great work, and that the work we do is complex and hard to understand. I love these illustrations – Art invites people in. A beautiful and simple way to explain some of our work.

  •  Comment from George Ohrstrom

    That’s a really well done piece, both from a writing point of view and from an artistic/ explanatory point of view. Great Job, and keep up the GREAT work…..George

  •  Comment from jerry jeffery

    Great job Dayna, your illustrations bring the designs to life like views and takes the guess
    work out of the equation.

    Thanks, Jerry

  •  Comment from Steve Murphy

    Beautiful illustrations that nicely capture the intended design. Consultants should be given clear instructions to avoid the clumsy and uninformative kinds of illustrations presented here. Saturated color should be used sparingly, otherwise, it hides and confuses readers. And engineering plans for structures are seldom beneficial to anyone who is not an engineer. Perspective drawings are much easier to interpret.

  •  Comment from Joseph

    Wonderful illustrations!! I, myself am a recent grad looking to beef up my scientific illustration portfolio and
    resume. Anyone have any ideas?

  •  Comment from Kari Vigerstol

    Wonderful post, Dayna! It offers a unique (and beautiful) example of how we can improve our science communication to better engage with the community. We are so lucky to have such a talentd conservationist and artist on our side!

  •  Comment from Luk Cox

    I enjoyed your article very much Dayna. Scientific illustration is definitely more than pretty pictures. I agree completely. I’m active myself more in life sciences, but the same is true in that sub-domain.
    Keep up the great work!

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