Monday, February 8, 2010

Scientific Illustration

Another pursuit I wish I had a separate lifetime for is scientific illustration. I like the challenge of trying to render an organism realistically. Sure, it takes some talent to do that, but I owe a great deal of my success to teachers and mentors.

I met the late Elaine R. S. Hodges in 1986, while I was on contract at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian) in Washington, DC. She was a staff artist in the entomology department, and took me under her wing. She was the “Founding Mother” of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, the gold standard for professional medical and biological illustrators. She was encouraging, but critical of my own work, and I took her words to heart.

I began doing illustrations to compliment articles I was writing as a volunteer for The Urban Naturalist, a quarterly publication of the Audubon Society of Portland (Oregon). I was further encouraged and inspired by the other volunteer artists on the “staff,” like Martha Gannett, Kris Elkin, and Elayne Barclay.

The Urban Naturalist ceased publication in the late 1990s, but by then had caught the attention of the Oregon Historical Society Press, which published a compilation of articles and essays in the book Wild in the City, edited by Michael C. Houck and M. J. Cody (2000).The above pen and ink illustration of a Snowberry Clearwing moth, Hemaris diffinis, is one of those featured in the book.

The adult “Ponderous Borer,” Ergates spiculatus, shown below, started as a sketch back in the early 1980s. The outline version appeared in the book Cascade-Olympic Natural History, by Daniel Mathews (Raven Editions, 1988). I had been asked by Dan to do the insect illustrations for his book, but did not follow through in a timely manner. He deemed the line drawings acceptable as is, but I was embarrassed.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Mathews got back to me in 2001 and asked if I would do illustrations for his book Rocky Mountain Natural History (Raven Editions, 2003). Dan had been impressed with my work in Wild in the City, and wanted that kind of quality for his own book. This time he had a budget to work with, and I had a much more professional attitude. The result was eighteen pen and ink illustrations for the book, including a finished Ponderous Borer.

I also submitted this illustration for the annual member exhibit of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators in 2005, and it was accepted. It was displayed in the Jacobs Gallery at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene, Oregon, for much of June, 2005, alongside the work of other GNSI members. My mentor Elaine Hodges complimented me on how far I had come as an artist, and that was even more of a personal honor. The framed picture now hangs in the office of Carl Olson, Associate Curator of Entomology at the University of Arizona. Carl is another mentor, and it was the least I can do to present that as a gift for all the favors he has done for me over the years.

While I am fairly proficient in pen and ink, and graphite pencil (see the pair of Nicrophorus sexton beetles below), I someday hope to learn to render animals in color, and maybe with digital software, too. The field of scientific illustration continues to change, but seems to remain in demand.


  1. Eric, these are exquisite! Bravo!

  2. Your talents know no bounds! These are wonderful images with realistic beauty. Truly you should do more of these drawings, I'm sure you could market them somehow, I would be honored to own one. ;o)

  3. The sexton beetles are beautiful, Eric! If you get the chance, do try some experimenting with digital art software. I'm sure you would excel at it.

  4. I am so amazed!! You are gifted in many ways.

  5. Extreme realism takes time, but is a must for these kind of drawings (for identification.) These elegant drawings show how appreciative you are of the subjects!

  6. >sigh< What I wouldn't give to be able to draw! I do great stick figures, and can doodle, but when it comes to rendering realistic stuff, let's just say that I'm great at copying but lousy at originals. Even with a botanical illustration course under my belt, I find myself inept. Your work is great! It's easy to see why folks would ask you to illustrate for their publications.

  7. Beautiful, beautiful bugs! I pick up old biology books at thrift stores just to pore over the illustrations. So, imagine how I feel looking here at yours. Happy.

  8. These are wonderful, Eric! I expect you could do quite well if you applied yourself to landing contracts. That's the trouble, though - finding the contracts. And steady enough to make it worthwhile. It does really require a lot of work before you even sit down to draw anything. Half the challenge is just getting your name out there and building your network. I'd say you have some good progress there.

    You might want to try coloured pencils aka pencil crayons as an entrance into colour illustration. I am not a wet-medium kinda gal, I *can* paint but I really prefer dry media. So because I wasn't crazy about paint, I assumed I wasn't crazy about colour. And then I discovered coloured pencils. All the ease and familiarity and non-messiness of dry-media, but in colour! See if you could find a used set, they're kinda pricey to buy new if you go for artist-quality.

    For instance, check out this woman's work:

  9. Another suggestion, if you're interested in trying digital media (that woman I linked to also does a bunch of her work in Photoshop) is to see if you can find yourself (buy or borrow) a Wacom Bamboo tablet to play around with and experiment with. They're not that expensive, but are still useful enough to let you know if it's something that might interest you. I borrowed my sister's for use on the moth book, and I love it. I might not give it back. On the other hand, my other sister, a graphic designer, doesn't like them and never uses them. Personal preference, I guess.


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