Home Science in Art & Culture How science got its start in art: Science and art were once one and the same

How science got its start in art: Science and art were once one and the same

by Lorraine Renee Skuta

The common impression of art’s relationship to biology is usually that art, or illustration at least, is a convenient teaching tool in classrooms and textbooks. At best, biology makes a nice subject for art, and at its worst, drawings of dissected animals and cells are strictly utilitarian. There is, however, a commonly overlooked role art has played in the history of biology and, to be fair, all science: it helped start it.

Think for a moment about the scientific method. Depending on which version you go by, “make an observation” is either the first or second step alongside forming a question. After that, you test your hypothesis, gathering data by making even more observations. But what about before we had letters, numbers, and Microsoft Excel? It’s not like people weren’t asking questions. We may not have established the scientific method as we know it, but we certainly wanted to record the world around us. In those times, art was the go-to tool.

Cave drawings from France.Cave drawings from France. While they may have been used for storytelling, cave drawings recorded a lot of information about the types of wildlife in an area, as well as how to hunt it. Image by Prof Saxx via Wikimedia CC-BY-SA

Later on, when we started to get a bit more organized as a species, we got awfully curious about how the human body worked and how to fix it. Naturally, we started taking them apart. But as cameras weren’t around just yet, and our methods of preservation weren’t great, there was a pretty small window of time during which we could gather information from a cadaver. If you wanted to study medicine, it was imperative you be able to draw as well. Read that again: doing science meant you HAD to know how to do art. You didn’t hire a guy to come in with you while you cut open bodies. You knew what you were looking at and which bits were important to record.

japanese medical book

Japanese medicine. Doctors were both scientists and artists.

This is where science and art got particularly friendly with each-other. The subject of cutting up a dead body wasn’t exactly looked upon highly back then, and while it’s difficult to make broad statements, in many instances both artists and scientists were considered professions that were largely a waste of time. Acquiring bodies and art supplies were also two things that required a lot of money (assuming you could even get ahold of a body!), so these individuals had high-paying patrons who wanted quality work and quality results. They wanted a nice end-product. So, why not add a few flowers and flourishes to the picture while you’re at it?

Medieval Medicine. Notice how this isn’t exactly a “bland” image. It’s highly decorated.

Not all science was so gruesome, of course. Much of it revolved around botany and thus produced lovely botanical drawings in higher volume.

An herbal manuscriptAn herbal manuscript. View the Cotton MS Vitellius C III manuscript on the British Library website.

The trend of requiring that science and art be practiced simultaneously continued on until quite recently. In the age of exploration, and once paper and bound books were more common, it was the norm for traveling biologists to carry a journal. The drawings recorded therein were the only way to preserve what was seen; specimens brought back across months-long ship journeys didn’t exactly look too fresh, and gathering specimens wasn’t always possible.

FishA fish painted by Dutch explorer Jan Brandes in the 1700s. That certainly wouldn’t keep on the trip home. (Artwork in the public domain, uploaded by the Rijksmuseum)

A painting of a South American Monkey by German naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian in the mid 1600s. (Source: British Museum CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Perhaps the most familiar scientific drawings are those made by Charles Darwin and John James Audubon. As Darwin made his way so famously across the Galapagos islands, making drawings of finches and their beaks, he began to postulate that those little birds were all related and, at one point, all lived together. He came with a question and art was his way of recording his data. Without his skill, we might not have the same ideas about evolution we do today– or we might at least be a bit behind.

Darwin's finches

Darwin’s famous finches

Around the same time, in the early 1800s, John James Audubon had moved from France to live in the United States, capturing and observing North America’s birds. We non-native settlers had almost no knowledge of what lived in the western half of the US, and this guy was on a mission to find out. His largest book contained paintings of over 700 birds. Darwin cited his work three times in On The Origin of Species.


A drawing by John Audubon of Carolina parakeets, now extinct.

At some point, for some reason, the attitude toward art and science split. We got the notion that one must either be left- or right-brained—something that isn’t even a thing — and that creatives are not poised for logical thinking. The advent of the camera meant we could capture exactly what was there, not just what we thought we saw. Art became science’s side-kick. Sketching became a thing to do if you forget your camera on field trip. This isn’t entirely unreasonable; if you’re looking for perfect accuracy, photos are the perfect tool.

single atom

That’s the world’s first photo of a single atom, shot by David Nadlinger. Some things can’t be captured by the human eye! (Photo was the winning entry in an image competition by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council)

But art still has a few things of use for scientists. Text books still use drawings in place of photos in instances where parts may be hard to discern. A drawing can look as neat as you want it to. And if you’re teaching health class to a younger audience, real pictures of open bodies might not be the best choice.

frog dissection

Sometimes a drawing is more effective than a photo. (Image sources: Photo by Russockshitha on Deviantart. Illustration by Sheri Amsel on Exploring Nature. Both images shared under artist’s terms as noted on their sites.)

Something less obvious about doing art is that it can actually make you better at doing science. Anyone who has taken a college-level biology course on anatomy, or even botany, has likely been handed a coloring sheet with instruction to appropriately color and label each part with the intent to memorize them. But taking it a step further, drawing what you see enhances your observational skills. And remember, doing science is all about making observations.

The truth is, while art and science may not be the best buddies they once were, they still hang out sometimes. A growing number of artists use science as a subject for their work, and some scientists still choose to use art as tool for capturing what they see. Some have even found it useful as a means of engaging with the public, a notoriously hard thing to do. Art is wonderful because it has the capability to be both expressive and practical. We can use it to learn as well as teach; it can speak volumes. One picture is worth, if not a thousand, then at least several dozen words.

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