Digital scientific illustrations

Kanakamiris krypton Cassis and Monteith (Hemiptera: Miridae) described as a new genus of plant-feeding bug from New Caledonia in 2006. Digital illustration by Geoff Thompson.

Hand-drawn illustrations are fast becoming a thing of the past. Modern illustrators use powerful digital illustration programs such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to create images entirely on the computer. Although micro-photography has replaced some illustrations, there is still a need to illustrate some specimens, especially when the artist has to make a drawing of a damaged specimen appear undamaged.

In 2005 on a Queensland-Smithsonian Fellowship, Geoff Thompson worked with J. Marie Metz an illustrator at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Systematic Entomology Laboratory (SEL). SEL is in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC. Marie generously shared all of her digital drawing methods, even supplying copies of her specially made Photoshop “brushes”.

A digital illustration still starts with a pencil drawing as described in Black and White Drawing. This outline is scanned and then traced as vectors in Adobe Illustrator, taking care that each structure is clearly drawn with an unbroken line. This is like creating a stencil. These vectors are then imported into Adobe Photoshop as ‘paths’. They form an outline of the whole insect which is made up of many separate structures. This means that individual structures can be selected and painted with pixels without going outside the outline. At the same time the artist is looking at the specimen down a microscope, so the drawing process is very similar to drawing by hand.

Close up of colour digital illustration of Kanakamiris krypton by Geoff Thompson.

Scientific illustrators now combine micro-photographs with digital drawing. This gives most of the advantages of illustration with increased speed. High quality scientific illustrations can be produced faster and photographs altered to make them more useful as identification tools.

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