Where art meets science

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History is packed with wonders: fossilized mammoths on the first floor, carefully preserved dioramas of African animals on the second, and exquisitely detailed watercolors on the third. Why is a watercolor exhibit hobnobbing with fossils instead of the Monets and Cézannes next door? The exhibit, Backyard Invasion, showcases work of the New York chapter of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (GNSI), whose illustrations portray invasive and endangered plant species of Pennsylvania. The field of science illustration is one of the few realms where science and art come together.

On display until July 1, the exhibit includes around 20 plates in various media, including watercolor, colored pencil, and silverpoint (a method of drawing with a stick of silver which looks like graphite but is so much cooler) depicting native Pennsylvania plants and the invasive exotics from Europe and Asia that are wiping them out. Cynthia Morton, curator of botany at the museum and biology professor at Carnegie Mellon, remarked on a painting of an innocent-looking rose. “This is the bad guy,” she warned, pointing out the fringed bracts (hairy growths) at the base of the plants’ stalks that distinguish the rose from its victims. This kind of attention to detail is one of the hallmarks of a skilled science illustrator.

Science illustrators depict the natural world in painstaking detail. “We are technicians, NOT artists,” GNSI member Joan Lee stated in an e-mail. “We like to make things beautiful, but accuracy is paramount, and beauty, if achieved at all, is a by-product of scientific illustration.” Science illustrators may love art, but their first responsibility is to science.

One of the exhibit’s contributing artists, Mark Klingler, works as a science illustrator with the museum’s vertebrate paleontology department. Klingler, who began volunteering at the museum when he was a student in Carnegie Mellon’s graphic design program, explained that a science illustrator plays a dual role. “As an artist, you’re trying to do homage to your specimen,” he said, “but when your project is complete, it has a life of its own.” Klingler sees art as a way of “preserving a piece of history”; unlike photographs, art “conveys a concept — the speed of a peregrine or the delicacy of a butterfly.” The science illustrator’s job, Klingler said, is to “accurately depict or interpret the natural world for future generations.” Science illustrators’ work is the only image we have of extinct species such as dinosaurs and passenger pigeons, and soon — if invasive plants have their way — it may be all we will have left of many of Pennsylvania’s native species.

As an illustrator in the museum’s paleontology department, Klingler produces reconstructions of ancient animals millions of years old. His illustrations have been featured on stamps, posters, and the cover of Science magazine. Starting with fragments of fossilized skeletons, he reconstructs the critters’ muscles, skin, and fur (or scales), basing his reconstructions of these unknown features on living descendants. In an office crammed with fossils, models, reference books, drawings, feathers, and scientific journals, he flipped through a file on a new project, a reconstruction of an ornithopod (a herbivorous dinosaur once common in North America). The folder was crammed with sketches of fossils covered with notes in red ink, photographs of crocodiles and birds, and preliminary drawings. These kinds of projects give visitors a mental concept of animals they will never see, Klingler said, “giving a face to an idea.” Although he uses a computer to render certain effects, Klingler prefers the freedom of a paintbrush and pencil. He knows an illustration has succeeded when viewers react as if his animals were alive: when, for example, children beg their parents to get them a hadrocodium wui — a 195 million-year-old, paperclip-sized mouse — for a pet.

Klingler has always been interested in science and has been raising moths and butterflies since he was a child; his eyes lit up as he described a rare ghost moth he is rearing in a potato. He was lucky enough to find a way to combine his love of science with his love of art at the museum. Although full-time jobs as a science illustrator are rare, Klingler encourages anyone interested in science and art to look into science illustration.

The Phipps Conservatory offers classes in botanical illustration; other local resources include the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators (pittsburghillustrators.org), the Allegheny Highlands chapter of the American Society of Botanical Artists (http://huntbot.andrew.cmu.edu/ASBA/) and the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, located on the fifth floor of Hunt Library. GNSI’s Joan Lee was encouraging, too — science illustration, she wrote, “can be learned by just about anyone with the motivation to do it.”