Scientific illustrations

Hand-coloured lithograph of Magnificent Riflebird from Gould’s “Birds of Australia” 1840-1848, QM library. Hand-coloured lithograph of Magnificent Riflebird from Gould’s “Birds of Australia” 1840-1848, QM library. A life history plate of two moths from the family Notodontidae. London, 1864, QM library. A life history plate of two moths from the family Notodontidae. On the left is Aglaosoma variegatum depicted on Casuarina. On the right is Cerura australis on Scolopia braunii. Hand coloured lithograph by Harriet Scott from A.W. Scott’s “Australian Lepidoptera and their transformations drawn from the life…..”, London, 1864., QM library. Watercolour and gouache painting by Ellis Rowan of Weeping Bottlebrush, Callistemon viminalis, with Macleay’s Swallowtail Butterflies, 1891. Watercolour and gouache painting by Ellis Rowan of Weeping Bottlebrush, Callistemon viminalis, with Macleay’s Swallowtail Butterflies, 1891.

Scientific illustration and photography is used to save thousands of words in scientific papers. Although a scientist naming a new species must always write a complicated formal description (using measurements and standard anatomical terms to describe colour, form and texture) illustrations and photographs shorten and improve them. An illustration can clearly show the important features which distinguish different species at a glance. Illustrated web-based or CD-Rom keys make identifying animals easier.

Ever since Australia was discovered by Europeans, our plants and animals have been drawn by talented artists; helping scientists understand our environment.

Insect Illustration

Australia is known world-wide for some of the best scientific insect illustration ever done.

The Scott sisters, Harriet (1830–1907) and Helena (1832–1910), were two such artists whose hand-coloured illustrations are in rare books in the Queensland Museum Library.

Insects were often included in the work of Ellis Rowan (1848–1922) who was a wild-flower painter in Queensland. Original paintings by Ellis Rowan are part of the collection of the Queensland Museum.

Frank Nanninga was a Dutch-born artist who produced many of the best illustrations for the first edition of CSIRO’s “The Insects of Australia” (1970).

Sybil Curtis also worked for CSIRO on illustrations for “The Insects of Australia”. She learnt scraperboard technique from Frank. She continued to illustrate for CSIRO for many years but sadly many of her later illustrations were never published.

Queensland Museum’s Geoff Thompson learnt from Sybil Curtis to hand draw scientific illustrations of insects in 1975, using ink on scraperboard. Since starting work at QM in 1982 he has produced many detailed drawings and more recently, digital photographs taken down a microscope.

He uses these methods:

  • Black and white drawing - done by hand while looking at the specimen down a microscope.
  • Digital micro-photography - high-depth-of-field photographs, combined from all the focussed parts of a series of photographs of the specimen taken down a microscope.
  • Digital scientific drawing - drawn in colour by hand on the computer while looking at the specimen down a microscope.

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