10 Great Books on Scientific Illustration

I would like to thank Tessa Koumoundouros who put together this great list of books on Scientific Illustration for us. Check out the titles and I aim to feature the books over the coming weeks.

artist-and-the-scientist1. The Artist & the Scientists: Bringing Prehistory to Life by Patricia Vickers-Rich, Tom Rich, and Peter Trusler

Peter Trusler creates the most stunningly photorealistic paintings of extinct animals that I have ever seen.  This book showcases these illustrations while providing  fascinating insights into the working relationships between Trusler and his palaeontologist colleagues, Pat Vickers-Rich and Tom Rich.  As a team they combined scientific and artistic observation and expose paleontological mysteries, from recent Australian megafauna, to dinosaurs, and the first traces of animal life on Earth. They demonstrate how their desire to share their passion for palaeontology by inviting the public along with them on their scientific journey fostered greater public enthusiasm and support for the science.  Expertly written and lavishly illustrated, The Artist & the Scientists is a fascinating read and as well as a feast for the eyes.

art-of-australian-geographic-illustration2. The Art of Australian Geographic Illustrations by Alasdair McGregor

Like many Australians from my generation, I have fond memories of the beautiful, photo-realistically illustrated covers of Australian Geographic.  The Art of Australian Geographic Illustrations showcases these paintings, and many of the exquisitely detailed illustrations and diagrams that filled the pages of the magazine.  Artists’ work ranges from long time contributors such as Ego Guiotto’s traditional wildlife paintings to newcomers like Alex Ries and his digital space illustrations.  Alasdair McGregor discusses the context of these illustrations and profiles some of Australian Geographic’s long term contributors.  The resulting book is a beautiful, and often nostalgic compilation of Australian scientific illustrations.

art-of-space3. The Art of Space: The History of Space Art, from the Earliest Visions to the Graphics of the Modern Era by Ron Miller

While The Art of Space does revel in speculative fiction and the more fantastical realms of imagined aliens, it also explores illustrations commissioned by NASA and other space institutions.  Some of these images aimed to engage public support for scientific exploration, while others depicted new space technologies or celebrated contemporary achievements in spaceflight.  The Art of Space also shares the history of early space inspired illustrations, drawn from a time when humans grappled to understand the heavens, and tracks how space art changed as our knowledge expanded. This book is an intriguing look at the interplay of art and cutting edge science.

ArtOfScience4. The Art of Science: Remarkable Natural History Illustration from Museum Victoria by John Kean

The Art of Science displays the natural history illustrations from the collections of Museum Victoria, ranging from field sketches to paintings and high-end photography.  John Kean, the curator of this collection, describes the tradition of scientific illustration from Renaissance times, followed by the awkward attempts of early explorers to document Australia’s unique animals, to the more refined efforts of the legendary John Gould and modern artists like Rhyll Plant.  Kean explores the history of the art and artists and how their work contributed to our understanding of Australia’s natural history.  However, it is a shame that no indigenous Australian depictions of the natural world are documented in the historic section of this collection.

Art Forms in Nature von Olaf Breidbach

5. Art Forms in Nature: The Prints of Ernst Haeckel by Ernst Haeckel, Olaf Breidbach, Richard Hartmann, Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt

From the delicately intricate architecture of micro-organisms such as diatoms and algae, to the graceful variations of hummingbird species, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) visually explored the diversity of life on Earth through his stylistic and painstakingly detailed illustrations.  These artworks opened people’s eyes to the complexity of life forms rarely seen by his contemporaries. Even in today’s world of high resolution photography and digital archiving, these illustrations remain wondrous.  While it would be ideal to have more information about the images themselves, Art Forms in Nature is a mesmerising collection of science and art history.


a-fragile-balance6. A Fragile Balance: The Extraordinary Story of Australian Marsupials by Christopher Dickman and Rosemary Woodford Ganf

A Fragile Balance is an excellent example of natural history illustrations in action.  The painstakingly rendered illustrations, by Rosemary Woodford Ganf, depicts each species of marsupial with diagnostic clarity and without distractions or distortions that can arise with photography.  The illustrations support Zoologist Christopher Dickman’s accessible and informative story on the biology, historical, cultural and ecological value of Australia’s unique marsupials.



astonishing-animals7. Astonishing Animals by Tim Flannery and Peter Schouten

This well written and exquisitely illustrated book could serve as a fun way to foster youngsters’ interests in zoology by showing them just how wacky and wonderful animals can be. It’s also a great read for any adult animal enthusiast, as many of the creatures depicted are so obscure almost every reader is bound to encounter something new. Especially since, in a rather mischievous act, one of the featured animals doesn’t actually exist!  Peter Schouten’s vibrant illustrations bring the creatures to life, while Tim Flannery’s descriptions are informative and entertaining.  And despite being a qualified zoologist, I am struggling to pick out the fictional animal!


technical-image8. The Technical Image: A History of Styles in Scientific Imagery by Horst Bredekamp, Vera Dünkel, Birgit Schneider

In my hunt for books on scientific illustration I have come across few that analyse how images actually aid communication and understanding of science. The Technical Image promises to do this by exploring technical imagery as a “process of generating knowledge”, using historical case studies. It aims to provide analytical tools for creating and understanding scientific illustrations. The Technical Image is due to be published in April 2015.



9. The Guild Handbook of Scientific Illustration by Elaine R. S. Hodges

This textbook is a valuable resource for any aspiring science illustrator.  It is a comprehensive reference book that covers the fundamentals and materials of fine art and illustration, the use of microscopes, as well as the business aspects of working as a scientific illustrator.  The handbook describes well tested methods for depicting accurate scientific subjects across many fields of science including molecular biology, botany, astronomy, earth science, zoology, archaeology, medicine, cartography, and the design of charts and diagrams.



10. Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter by James Gurney

I have read many books on colour theory for painters and understand the physics and biology behind our perception of light and colour, but it wasn’t until this book that I finally understood how to apply this knowledge practically to create illustrations.  James Gurney, of Dinotopia fame, shares his knowledge on how to use colour and light to create realistic illustrations.  He explains how to create restricted colour palette for an illustration and why, as well as methods to avoid or exploit the optical illusions our visual systems are prone to. Gurney uses his broad portfolio of illustrations, from his fantasy world of Dinotopia to his historical recreations for National Geographic, to provide diverse examples for his techniques.   If I was to recommend just one book for aspiring illustrators in any field, it would be this one.

Tessa Koumoundouros

tessa-koumoundouros400I’m a science communication student, who loves science, writing and illustration. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Hons.) in Zoology and Genetics from The University of Melbourne, I have completed an editorial internship at The Conversation and have been a volunteer communications assistant for The Gould League.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/tesskou


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