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Photo by: Leif Zurmuhlen

Draw of the Wild
Annual exhibit shines spotlight on natural science as a subject of art

By Ann Morrow

Patricia 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.

Fortunately 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 speckled trout.

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.

But 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.”

Focus 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.

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