Visualizing Science: Illustration and Beyond with Jen Christiansen

Where does illustrator end, and infographer begin? How does data visualization fit in? And what does science have to say about the design decisions we make? With the goal of strengthening connections between communities, Jen hopes to get folks thinking about what they can learn from — and teach to — different visual sub-disciplines within the broader orb of science communication.

We are excited to learn about the role of science illustration in data visualization as we continue to feature our virtual exhibition of science illustration, The Art of Nature.

Jen Christiansen, senior graphics editor at Scientific American

About the speaker: Jen Christiansen is senior graphics editor at Scientific American, where she art directs and produces illustrated information graphics and data visualizations. She completed undergraduate studies in geology and art at Smith College, then happily merged the two disciplines in the scientific illustration graduate program at UC Santa Cruz. She began her publishing career in NY at Scientific American in 1996, moved to DC to join the art department of National Geographic, spent four years as a freelance science communicator, then rejoined the SciAm team in 2007. She writes on topics ranging from reconciling her love for art and science, to her quest to learn more about the pulsar chart on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album cover.


Meet the Artist: Diane T Sands

A 4-panel comic from Life On Toast by Diane T Sands that says "Start Where You Are"

These pieces are a part of Life on Toast — a window into how I view the world. Essentially a one-panel comic, it is delineated into four frames. I had been enjoying other webcomics on Instagram and my favorites would show one panel at a time, with the fifth image being the whole comic. I designed Life on Toast for this medium. It followed from observations and doodles in my sketchbook, many with puns added but also bringing in elements of the scientific illustration work I’ve done and daily encouragements. Unlike other webcomics, I wanted mine to be hand-drawn and hand-painted, yet shared electronically. Little did I know how important this would become once shelter-in-place was established. On many days, this tiny window is my only contact with the world. 

A 4-panel comic from Life On Toast by Diane T Sands depicting 3 ducks and 1 goose
A 4-panel comic from Life On Toast by Diane T Sands saying "You choose: One day, or day one."
A 4-panel comic from Life On Toast by Diane T Sands saying, "No, I DON'T know the words."

For years I have taken photos — many of them blurry or cluttered — as a way of keeping track of nature I see on hikes and dog walks, or the growth in my garden, when my sketchbook is out of reach. I use these reference photos later as part of Life on Toast and other art, like the piece I have in this year’s The Art of Nature exhibit. I draw the items I have collected over the years and keep around my house — rocks, bones, paint tubes — the detritus of my life as inspiration. Art can be made anywhere out of the things you see in the world around you. Take a look inside my electronic window and share my Life on Toast.

Diane T Sands describes herself as “illustrator, librarian, writer, nerd.” Explore her website and the virtual exhibit, The Art of Nature, featuring her piece Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia).

Lecture: Exploring Science Through Art with Andrea Dingeldein

Art is essential to increasing scientific knowledge and inspiring conservation. This lecture from Andrea Dingeldein, a local artist and educator featured in the Museum’s 2020 exhibition of science illustration, The Art of Nature, explores science illustration, both historical and contemporary, and its importance as a tool to observe and connect with nature.

Andrea Dingeldein is a marine biologist, naturalist, and general lover of nature. Andrea’s focus is in marine illustration, but she enjoys drawing insects, reptiles, and any other creepy-crawlies she can get her hands on. She specializes in illustrations for peer-reviewed science articles and has published illustrations in Ecological Modeling and Bulletin of Marine Science. Other clients include NC Department of Marine Fisheries, Friday Harbor Laboratories, and Western Society of Naturalists. Explore her work.

Andrea has two pieces in our 2020 exhibition of science illustration, The Art of Nature. Explore the virtual exhibit.

Science Illustration Prompt: Sequential Observations

Explore science illustration with artists featured in our annual exhibit, The Art of Nature, and get tips for how to make your own science illustrations at home. This post is from Megan Gnekow, recipient of the Museum’s 2019 Laura Hecox Naturalist Award.

A watercolor of a bird of prey feeding a chick

I make scientific illustrations because I want to inspire folks to look closely at the world around them. I want to make complexities and relationships more clear, helping people understand that all organisms are connected to each other. — Megan Gnekow

Prompt: Sequential Observations

There are so many great ways to use a nature journaling project to connect to your local habitat(s). One of my favorites is sequential observations — making notes and sketches about an organism you observe over time. Spring is a great time to do this because there are so many visible changes happening in our environments.

Choose an organism that you can observe regularly over a period of time (the period of shelter-in-place is a good place to start!). Observe the organism you have chosen as frequently as you are able to and make notes and sketches about what you observe. Note date, time, location (macro-habitat and micro-habitat). Use as many of your senses as you can and record what you learn!

Recording your observations over time gives you insights into an organism and the environment in which it lives. Hopefully this plants a seed for further observations and exploration. Don’t worry about making beautiful drawings. Just sketch and/or note what you observe! 

If you can’t get outside or have other limitations to observing organisms, there are plenty of webcams available to inspire you — I would suggest a bird camera hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology or the falcon cam at UC Berkeley.

Read more about Megan Gnekow here and visit her website here. Explore all of her illustrations from this peregrine falcon series here.