Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Scientific Illustration Class at the USBG: WOW

The class in the United States Botanic Gardens classroom with our teacher, Mary Ellen Carsley, at the head.

I (JT) was foiled by a zig zaggy, "plaid" cactus!

By Judy Thomas, Celeste Johnston

On January 12th and 13th, 2013, CJ and I took a class at the United States Botanic Gardens/Corcoran entitled "Scientific Illustration."  This introductory course, taught by the excellent Mary Ellen Carsley,  included the basics of scientific illustration. In the course we learned the conventions of this type of art, one that involves visually portraying accurate scientific information about a subject (generally a plant or animal) so that scientists can clearly communicate to one another in printed form.

First, we learned about the basic materials, than spent some time learning about measurement.  Obviously, measurement (and accurate counting of repeated features) in this field is critical.  Mary Ellen shared that scientific illustration(SI)  is a collaborative process between scientist and illustrator and should answer these questions: What is my subject? What am I trying to say, specifically? And, lastly: How can I communicate this clearly and concisely? The four elements of this method are line, value, texture and color, though most of these illustrations are black and white line drawings and value does not have the same meaning as in botanical illustration.  SI uses no cast shadows, no interior shadows, does not really depict depth, nor is it concerned with shading or intense value gradation.  

Next we learned about the "hierarchy of the line," that has three basic levels, though there can be many more: the profile, or thickest, line at the outer edges (which thins as it crosses behind another part of the object); a mid- or medium-weight line, the next level inward, and; a detail line, often drawn using a fine, crow-quill dip pen or technical pen.  Contrary to the way we usually draw, the thickest, darkest line is the outer line, and the line thins as you enter the interior of the object. Lastly, texture and some minor sense of depth are achieved by using a broken line or dashes, and stippling, which also vary in size as you proceed inward.  In some cases, the profile, mid-level and detail lines may become "lost and found," or break up, when there is something (not air) behind it.  Below is my (JT's) humble attempt at an illustration of a bell pepper.

Two basic (draft) scientific illustration sketch attempts of a bell pepper.  The top is the vertical section view (entire object from the side, cut)(in technical pen) and the bottom is the horizontal section (dip pen with India ink) (by JT)

There are other views in addition to the two depicted above.  The plan view is the entire object, uncut, viewed from above. Elevation is the view from the side, uncut. The top of the object can be called a roof plan to continue the use of architectural terms. A reflective view includes two, sectioned halves. Another important view is the habitus view is how the plant appears in nature, with the fruit, flowers, leaves and stems drawn in correct relation to each other, and sometimes in color.  The habitus view, distinct from the others, does include a greater sense of depth and movement and can be seen as more "artful" than the other views.

The greatest benefit to me (JT) of taking this class was the reminder to measure. Like many people, I just want to get down and draw, but drawing a plant without measurement leads me into trouble. During the class, and afterward, I tested myself by drawing first and measuring afterward: each time I found I was off, drawing the object at least 20 to 25% too small!  And that was when I thought I was being careful! One good tip from the class about measurement:  never mark more than three points that you have measured without connecting them, or you lose track of what it was you measured.  I will invest in a pair of calipers and a gridded, transparent ruler to make measuring easier.  Another valuable lesson to me was the value of being able to render a subject down to its simplest components.  This helped me to see the object in a "macro" sense and give me an idea about the overall "presence" of the object transferred to paper.

Mary Elen is an excellent teacher, explaining the process and theory with clarity and moving the class along through different skills.  She offered some great ideas, and here are two:  to plant a "forcing bulb" (paperwhite, amaryllis, etc) indoors and draw it each day, even just a quick sketch, to improve observational skills and; to draw from many master botanical artists (copy even) to learn how they did it.  She taught us much more, and this is but a bit of it.  I am so glad I ventured to DC and took this class!

Link to the USBG schedule:  http://www.usbg.gov/programs-and-events

"Take the attitude of a student, never be too big to ask questions, never know too much to learn something new."
Og Mandino

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