by: Leif Zurmuhlen
of the Wild
Annual exhibit shines spotlight on natural science
as a subject of art
Kernan recalls drawing an especially interesting subject for
inclusion in a book by the naturalist E. O. Wilson. “They’re
very beautiful, the way they swim, and their coloration,”
she enthuses of her muse. Is Kernan referring to penguins,
or puffer fish, or perhaps water moccasins? No, the subject
of her creative inspiration is leeches. Medicinal leeches,
no less. “You think of them as these icky, sucky things, but
they’re beautiful in the water, like dancers,” she insists.
Kernan, scientific illustrator for the New York State Museum,
also mentions orchids brought in from the field, and starfish
(“the symmetry of their bodies is fascinating, and it functions
very efficiently”) as other memorable models she’s illustrated.
But the leeches, which stayed alive so long they became pets,
just go to show that for artists specializing in natural science,
no subject is too repugnant. “I like whatever comes my way
because I get to learn about the organism,” she says. Aside
from illustrating specimens for the Research and Collections
department, Kernan also curates Focus on Nature, the
museum’s annual exhibit of natural- science artistry. A good
scientific illustration, she says, “makes you think about
the beauty of the tiniest detail.” Even in a leech.
for art and nature lovers, Focus on Nature VIII, which
opens Saturday, spotlights more appealing subjects than amphibious
blood suckers. Along with the ever-popular flowers, birds
and butterflies, the illustrations run the gamut from furry
golden tamarin monkeys to expressionist chemical structures
to an evocative vole skull. But as imaginative as many of
these artworks appear to be—a computer- graphics-enhanced
bug looms like a creature out of a sci-fi flick—the works
are actually the result of a rigorous discipline that combines
scientific research with fine-art traditions. The challenge
of scientific illustration is to combine the aesthetics of
composition and color with additional criteria such as proportionality
and the proper environmental background. Requirements for
accuracy apply right down to the number of scales on a brilliantly
In short, the illustrations should present the viewer with
scientific information while providing a rewarding visual
experience. For example, Kernan selected the golden-tamarin
painting not just for its lushly realistic style, but for
its expression of motion as well: “They’re obviously climbing
animals, and the way they’re turning their heads is very monkeyish.”
Another reason is that because the species is endangered,
it’s important to bring it out to the public. She also likes
the motion in an illustration of a prehistoric shrew, the
ancestor of modern bats. The scurrying critter seems to be
looking over its shoulder at some unseen predator, an ingenious
way of depicting the animal’s rear view.
The mediums of scientific illustration are as varied as its
topics. Graphite, pen-and-ink, egg tempera, colored pencil,
collage, even mulberry-pulp paperboard may be employed to
add dimensionality or factual nuances. “Mammals have different
textures than beetles,” notes Kernan. In a drawing of a sapiens
skull, the artist used the roughened surface of coquille board
to simulate the pitted look of fossilized bone.
Kernan’s illustrations usually appear in national journals
and museum publications. For the first few years of Focus
(she’s been with the museum for 16), she displayed her own
work, but there’s no longer room. Every year, she says, the
exhibit has gotten bigger and the submissions more sophisticated.
“The quality of work is very, very good,” she says. In fact,
Focus on Nature VIII is something of a star-studded
affair. The exhibit’s 60 or so artists include James Coe,
writer-illustrator of Eastern Birds, of the esteemed
Golden Field Guides series; Frank Ippolito, whose illustrations
are featured on the cover of The New York Times’
science section; and animation artist Dick Rauh, who earned
a biology degree after retirement in order to illustrate.
“You need to know a good deal about your organism so you don’t
make mistakes,” says the curator.
Almost all the artists belong to the Guild of Natural Science
Illustrators, an organization formed in 1968 at the Smithsonian
Museum, and which is now a global network. The exhibit’s selections
come from as near as Schenectady and as far as Australia.
Yet not all that much as changed since the discipline’s beginnings
in 1512, when a rediscovered volume on medicinal herbs by
the Greek physician Dioscorides was illustrated by a Byzantine
artist. The tome is considered to be the oldest and most valuable
work in pharmacology.
hasn’t scientific illustration been rendered obsolete by photography?
Kernan gets asked that a lot, and the answer is no. “Photographs
get a general view of something, but when it comes to details,
you can’t explain with a photograph. You just don’t
get that clean of an image.” Not even if you enlarge it and
enhance it on a computer? “Not really,” she says. Although
some artists do combine computer skills with illustrating
by hand, “there’s still a lot of things you can do more concisely
with a drawing, like putting different parts on a [single]
plate. And photography is dependent on lighting,” she adds,
giving reassurance that in some endeavors, the human eye can
outperform technology. The juried exhibit will be augmented
by wall text, but as its curator has made clear, “It’s really
true about a picture being worth a thousand words.”
on Nature VIII opens Saturday (April 24) at the New York
State Museum, Empire State Plaza, Albany. Museum hours are
9:30 AM to 5 PM daily. Call 474-5877 for more information.