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Michael Wall, Ph.D.
Director of the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias

Sea of Cort?s (Gulf of California)
Sowerby, Lear and Gray. Tortoises, Terrapins, and Turtles. 1872.
Testudo radiate from Madagascar.

A  Thousand  Words

By Margi Dykens, Research Librarian

Since earliest times, humans have felt compelled to interpret nature artistically. Although we can only guess at the significance of such images, the graceful and iconic cave paintings of animals and figures that we find in places such as Baja California and Lascaux, France give silent but eloquent testimony to mankind’s early desires to express natural forms in an artistic medium.

Aerial view of the Sea of Cortes
Tools of the trade from Jim Melli's desk.

Trying to draw or represent what we see in nature continues to be one way to try to make sense of the complex and mysterious in nature. Sunflowers and pine cones and beetles are common objects we all encounter in our daily lives, but the day you sit down to try to actually draw one of these objects, will become in a sense the first time you truly “see” them, in all the beauty of their intricate design.

Scientists and artists, through the process of scientific illustration, often work together to try to elucidate natural phenomena around us, such as what makes one species of plant different from another closely related species. Once photography became a highly developed form, it was widely believed that scientific illustrators would become obsolete. Wrong! As anyone who has tried to identify a bird or a butterfly using only photographs can confirm, a skillful scientific illustration can trump a photograph every time. This is because the artist discriminates between what details to leave out, as well as those to leave in. The illustrator can create a composite image, often based on many encounters with the object to be drawn, whereas a photo represents literally one snapshot in time. The artist can examine dried or preserved specimens, photos, collecting data, live specimens, field sketches, whatever material is at hand. After integrating all that information, the artist can create a representation of the object that no camera could capture.

Mural cave paintings
Brad Riney

At the Museum, artists involved in scientific illustration fulfill an important role. Jim Melli, who works as museum artist and preparator in the Exhibits Department, has created illustrations in the Museum in almost every medium, from colored pencil drawings to fabrications to murals to sculptures. His work is highly visible throughout the Museum. Brad Riney, a paleontological monitor and fossil preparator in our Paleontology Department, is a talented artist who does scientific illustrations of fossils, some for publication. Elegant, detailed illustrations of mammal skulls by Jennifer Zee, a scientific illustrator currently finishing her graduate study at the University of Michigan, are a critical component of the San Diego County mammal atlas project, currently underway in the Birds and Mammal Department under the direction of Scott Tremor. These and other artists, who carry on in the distinguished tradition of those cave artists of long ago, enrich our understanding of the natural world, through the compelling language of the eye rather than the written word. A picture is truly worth a thousand words.