A blog about scientific and medical visualization and all that’s involved.

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FAQ–Why Aren’t Illustrators Extinct?

Posted by Janet on February 21, 2008

The number one question I get from people is “why do we still need illustrators if we can take photographs?” I’m sure many of my readers who are illustrators also get the same question more often than they care to explain. Once I was sitting next to a physicist on an airplane and was just not able to explain to him why the world still needs us. With every explanation I had, he was able to come up with a technology that should supposedly terminate our species. Before I post responses on my FAQ page, I’d like to get some input on what you think the role of scientific and medical illustrators are in today’s world and how it might be changing. Please post responses in the comments section.

4 Responses to “FAQ–Why Aren’t Illustrators Extinct?”

  1. Justin said

    Hey Janet love the blog so here’s my first contribution:
    As you know, I consider myself a photographer as well as an illustrator. My favorite response to the question of “why?” is to ask the protagonist, what does a dinosaur look like? Then promptly ask them how come they know that? That is an absolutely perfect example of something that cannot be photographed and relies on illustration to convey information. Also, did we learn chemistry by looking at ‘photos’ of electron clouds or did we use simplified illustrations?

    When was the last time you saw a picture of a blue whale with the whole body in focus? There are things that just cannot be photographed or the task would be next to impossible. Enter the illustrator.

    There are a handful of photographers that use a spot illustration-style approach and their body of work seems to be appreciated in the Sci Ill community. (David Liittschwager is by far the best, There are things that an illustration cannot do: people will believe a photograph over an illustration, so in the case of rare behavior or a unique species account a photograph will do just fine.

    This train of thought could go on for days, but the dinosaur part usually gets people thinking on the right track and gets the conversation pointed in the right direction.

  2. Alice said

    Here from Ann’s email. I am excited to see where this blog goes.

    I can give you a real life example, as I run into this very situation quite often in my line of work.
    I work as a graphic designer/ illustrator at an aquarium.
    We have a resident photographer and he is an excellent photographer, but since we are working
    with live animals, it is very difficult to get them to pose in the flat side-on position that works
    best for identifying animals. Working with aquatic animals, we have problems with cropped tails,
    3/4 views, damaged fins that look unsightly on a photograph, and problems with color, distance,
    and blur that are caused by shooting underwater and through glass.

    Now, while this can be fixed by moving individuals to a smaller tank, which is impractical for anything
    bigger than a couple of feet, or by asking a diver to take the photos, using an illustration gives you more
    control over all the factors that can affect a photograph. With the amount of work that it would take to
    get a photograph to place the illustration already reaches, you could probably consider the end product
    an illustration. Surprisingly, with the amount of work and post work that can go into getting the right photo,
    it can be quicker to use the illustration.

    It is possible that we also need to broaden the definition of illustrators. Concept art is a place where no ordinary
    photograph can go. It is a place of possibilities and not facts. While you can change the medium you use to
    create the illustration—using a collage of photos or a computer as opposed to acrylic or oil—there is certainly
    no solid object that you can go and photograph because it is still an idea, not an actuality.

    There are certainly many other reasons why illustrators are still running around; we’ve just broadened our
    horizons and use a greater variety of mediums, so maybe people don’t always recognize us as illustrators. 😀

  3. Janet said

    Wow, we got some great responses here 🙂

    Justin–Thanks for sharing David Liittschwager’s website. It’s an excellent example of using photography to express the essence and beauty of these endangered species.

    Alice–I can relate to your experience of photographing fish. Once I was asked to illustrate a new species of fish for a journal publication. The only specimen (in the world, I think) was preserved, and I only had access to it for four hours. I took all the photos I thought I needed, only to realize later that I failed to capture half the details I had to show in my illustration. I also had to make the fish look alive in the illustration, which is probably more easily done through an illustration than photography.

    I think photography is a medium just like all the other tools we use to effectively communicate an idea to an audience. There’s no medium that can replace everything, and it’s our jobs as illustrators to choose the medium most appropriate for what we need to show.

  4. Juan Calle said

    Hello there, I would like to give a simple example of the need for illustrators:

    I was once asked to illustrate an extinct fish, which only had a couple of preserved specimens as reference. One of them had been pulled out of the frying pan before being preserved in alcohol, and the other one was so fragile that couldn’t be taken out of the jar. I had to make a reconstruction of this specimen to show a simple view to put it on a book. And I think that is the real idea with the illustrator, even those that use hyper realistic almost photographic techniques: to put a complex idea in an image, to make people that don’t know about the subject to make complex descriptions more approachable.

    Not only that, It will make Physics books less boring

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