Art and Science: Contrary or Complimentary?

Updated: Sep 19, 2019

As an artist and scientist, a lot of people can't see the connection I feel between my fields. Here I look at the link between art and science and what it can mean for both after I attended a drawing in science workshop with Gemma Anderson. This article was published in Exeter University's Life: Nature Magazine.

As Science evolves, there is greater and greater reliance on technology as documentation. The long-standing classical practices for scientific documentation are being replaced by digital technologies such as photography, microscopy and electron microscopy, MRIs and satellite imaging. Is the loss of these time-honoured classical techniques a loss to science?

An interview with Falmouth graduate and Artist, Gemma Anderson, brought to light the issues surrounding the loss of drawing from scientific practice. Drawing has ‘long been the backbone of zoological taxonomy’ as discussed in the paper ‘Endangered: A study of Morphological Drawing in Zoological Taxonomy’ published by Anderson in Leonardo Journal in 2014.

The decline of morphological drawing from science is not just a concern for artists, but for scientists as well and a workshop at the beginning of the Easter term for Bioscience and fine art students allowed us to appreciate how scientific drawing can be beneficial to both practices.

The workshop, led by Gemma Anderson, introduced us to her work which has been influenced by collaboration with scientists and scientific institutions to preserve morphological drawing. Science is key to knowing the natural world and so her work is often in scientific context, exploring the nature of the world. It is a way of accessing and exploring Morphology. She herself has conducted field work in places such as the Galapagos Islands, Japan and Belize, and considers drawing a dynamic form of learning.

We were led through various drawing techniques and encouraged to look at specimens in great detail, including individual sections, and then re-form the ‘pieces’ into an imaginary organism. This really demonstrated that drawing itself is a method of learning and produces knowledge in its own right and feedback from both artists and bioscience students underlined the importance of preserving drawing as part of scientific practice, especially within the study of Morphology. A group discussion following the workshop addressed various questions:

Do you think this method of drawing could be useful in your artistic/scientific work? If so, how?

'When developing identification skills in species, knowing some of the morphological features needed to identify would be very useful, so studying examples from different families of animals and plants could be very useful' - Kate Buffery, BA Biosciences

'Yes, in so many ways. I think its been useful to see potential patterns in nature that can be copied and used creatively' - Minna Gawler-Wright, BA Drawing

'It is great to think there is a place for drawing in science, and that applying drawing skills could help the scientific field.' - Kate Buffery, BA Biosciences

Nevertheless, there is much debate over the subject. Digital media is so relied on by many modern scientists that the relapse to 'analogue' methods could be seen as controversial. Would modern scientists accept drawing and artistic method back into the practice?

There will always be conflicting views. Many argue that drawing isn’t an accurate enough method of documentation due to human error and even artistic licence. So, undoubtedly, drawing is problematic, but scientific method is also liable to human error and drawing is another unique form of learning. Training in drawing could mean the difference between documenting and not documenting a species in the field when technology is not available. Examples of exceptional use of drawing in science can be seen in the work of scientist Mrian Syllbia and Leonardo Da Vinci (recognised also for his scientific work). Darwin also documented a large majority of his work through drawing, although not done by himself.

Drawing is an essential skill for scientists. It promotes observational skills by increasing capacity for attention to detail, improves focus and gives a deeper engagement with the specimen. The beak morphology of Darwin’s finches is a preeminent example of this. The observational skill and engagement required to perceive such an array of morphologies is huge! Inevitably it is far quicker and easier now to use digital media where available: there is nothing more detailed than an image from an electron microscope, but it is also important in parallel not to lose the practice of scientific drawing.

Today, morphological drawing is rarely used, and although drawing is more and more seen as controversial, it can, and is, still practiced. Gemma Anderson works closely with a few scientists, including Greg Edgecombe, Rony Huys and Nathalie Barns.

All three still use drawing in their work alongside digital media. It is likely that many modern scientists will disapprove of drawing alone as part of scientific practice, but this does not mean it has to be abandoned and regarded as 'out-of-fashion'. Mixed with other media it can be hugely beneficial; where digital media falters, drawing comes into its own. Drawing is the only technique that can produce a noiseless image, ensuring clarity and focus on the subject.

Scientist Rony Huys uses a Camera Lucida incorporated with his work studying Copepods, but a few other scientists at the Natural History Museum use the device as well. This is a device of optical superimposition and allows the user to see the object and the drawing he is creating at the same time. The Camera Lucida could well hold the solution to many objections held by scientists. The direct scale increase created by the camera increases the accuracy of the drawings produced. Limitations of the device are however widely recognised, but can be overcome, as stated by Giorgio A. Ascoli in 2006; 'can be avoided by the procedure of digital reconstruction'. Until recently, the Camera Lucida was the standard tool of microscopists and is still the most common method used by neurobiologists for drawing brain structures.

From being the main basis of knowledge and documentation, drawing has now become a rarity which needs to be preserved. Like a rare species, it has the capacity to be lost un-perceived by the general public and needs to be retained for its understated benefits.


Gemma Anderson’s Website:

‘Endangered: A study of Morphological Drawing in Zoological Taxonomy’ Gemma Anderson, August 2013.

‘Metabolising the base of Neuroscience data: the case of neuronal morphologies’ by Georgio A. Ascoli in Nature Reviewsm Neuroscience. Vol.7, April 2006, p. 319.


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