Look, Then Look Again: Scientific Illustration in the Nature Journal

In order to accurately represent an object, we must first carefully observe it. Engaging students in scientific illustration is one way to foster skills in focused, detailed observation.

A scientific illustration is a detailed, accurate illustration of an object that includes measurements, labels, and annotations. The process of creating a scientific illustration is a fantastic exercise in careful, detailed observation–of truly looking, and then looking again. Scientific illustrations are also sometimes called observational drawings or diagrammatic drawings.

First, select an object for your nature study. I’ve found the following items to work well for scientific illustrations: leaves, seed pods, pine cones, seashells, or feathers. Taxidermied animals, as found in a museum or nature center, also work as subjects, since they are certainly unlikely to move during your observation and drawing time.

Next, spend some time carefully observing the object. Turn it over in your hands or approach it from different angles. Ask yourself questions about its shape, color, size, and texture. Pull out a ruler or measuring tape to measure some of its features. Use a magnifying glass to zoom in. When you think you have seen all there is to see, look again.

Now, draw a detailed drawing of the object. I prefer to use mechanical pencils, technical pens, or inexpensive roller-ball pens with very fine tips. If you wish to add color, colored pencils are my preference, but water colors or pastels work as well. Younger children may prefer to use crayons or felt-tipped pens.

Scientific Illustration of a Mussel Shell

Annotate your drawing with notes based on your observations. You may choose to label the names of body parts or features. You may add notes about color or texture that you are unable to capture well in your drawing. You may note the measurements of your object. In addition, I often add questions that I have about the object. I may choose to pursue the answers to the questions later, or just enjoy leaving them as unanswered wonderings.

Some additional ideas are provided below.

Series of Perspectives: Try making different drawings of your object from different perspectives: top, bottom, front, back, left side, and/or right side. Label each drawing with the perspective from which you drew it. Even young children enjoy looking at and drawing objects from different perspectives.

Perspective Study of A Marine Shell Fragment

Scale Shifts: You may choose to make a zoomed-out drawing of a large object, or a zoomed-in drawing of a small object. You may also draw an object to scale. Practice drawing objects of different sizes at different scales.

Changes Study: You can make scientific illustrations of objects that change, such as charting the blossoming of a skunk cabbage plant in your neighborhood wetland or the unfurling of a fern frond in your garden. As suggested by Clare Walker Leslie in her book, “Keeping a Nature Journal,” spring is a great time to make a series of scientific illustrations of a spring flower as it shifts from bud to blossom and beyond (even capturing the process of wilting). Spring bulbs that can be grown indoors work¬†well for this (tulip, daffodil, paper-whites), but any cut flower will do.

Texture Techniques: Older children in particular will enjoy exploring drawing techniques for adding texture to their scientific illustrations. Lines and cross-hatching can be used for shading. Varying the pressure on a pencil can create soft, crisp, light, or dark lines. Pointillism, the process of using fine dots in wide or close spacing, can also be used for adding texture and shading. Pencil lines can even be smudged with a fingertip to create softness.

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