Questions on Scientific Illustrations of Morphological Characters

I’m always amazed by the level of detail in published illustrations of morphological characters, especially for microscopic features (e.g. Fig. 1 in this paper). This has led me to several questions regarding common practice for illustrating structures to distinguish between species:

  • The Wikipedia page on biological illustration indicates that illustrators usually collaborate with scientists, but is there significant overlap between biologists and illustrators (i.e. do many scientists do their own illustrations)?
  • Are illustrations usually made from direct observation or from reference photos? Do freelance illustrators have taxa in which they specialize?
  • What is the current breakdown of digital vs. hand-drawn illustrations?
  • How are specimens chosen for illustration when there is significant variation in a meristic/morphometric character? Is each illustration based on the specimen best exemplifying that feature, or is a single specimen with the most typical set of characters used as the basis for all illustrations?
  • Are there any online resources/courses for amateur scientific illustration (digital or hand-drawn) with an emphasis on microscopic morphological structures?

You really want The Guild Handbook of Scientific Illustration because it answers all of your questions, but I won’t blame you for balking at the price

  • Some scientists do their own illustrations; when they do not there has to be collaboration so that the characters are illustrated in a “representative” way (Edited to add: usually (always?) the illustrator is, if not a scientist themselves, have knowledge about the organisms and structures they’re illustrating)
  • I can only speak for plants, but the illustrations are usually made from a combination of all of those things as well as collected specimens
  • digital vs. hand-drawn… not sure
  • It would be unusual to illustrate based on a single specimen (unless only a single specimen is available). Generally illustrations are done in a way that they represent an “average” of characters. That’s why they’re still usually preferred over photographs
  • I’d like to know about online resources as well

From my experience, scientific illustrators are often biologists themselves (I’m one ;) ). Drawing illustrations is taught on biological studies. Of course it doesn’t mean that everybody there must be an artist but they should be able to illustrate important features of an organism on a drawing. Making scientific illustration without scientific background is tricky and can lead to mistakes. Illustrating is not like taking a photo,is also interpreting what you see.

There are many guides to identification of birds. These with drawings instead of photos are often more valued because on the drawings illustrator can make “compilation” of traits of many individuals he or she saw, and draw an “averaged” member of a given species. Of course if variation is substantial it can be necessary to picture a few individuals which cover this variation


That is an excellent book, but does cost a pretty penny.

In undergrad, way back when, I took a scientific illustration course and that was one of our required texts. We only wound up using around 10 pages of the book in the course, but I kept it and have gone back to it many times over the years as it’s such a great reference.


Yeah, don’t give it away if you have a copy :)

These are not microscopic illustrations, but there are many macroscopic morphological characteristics of plants and animals here:


There are quite a few papers on the subject, I can point to some examples mainly insect-related:
Holzenthal RW. 2008. Digital illustration of insects. American Entomologist 54: 218–221.
Bowestead S, Eccles TM. 2013. Drawing Techniques for Publication (old school but beautiful, the pdf should still be available somewhere in the net)
Bevilaqua M. 2020. Guide to image editing and production of figures for scientific publications with an emphasis on taxonomy Image editing for scientific publications. Zoosystematics and Evolution 96: 139–158.
Burington ZL “Kai.” 2017. Using Inkscape for Biological Illustration. – useful if you go for Open Source as I do .

I try to make my own drawings using a reference photo as basis, mostly because my drawing skills are limited.


Found it at the library, checking it out today :)

Unfortunately, I don’t see this offered in my university’s course catalog, though I might ask around if it’s offered in one of the museums. Out of curiosity, were your courses on illustration taxon-specific or broad with the ability to specialize?

Thank you for sharing all these; I think it’s time to do some reading, download some software, and work on my microscope photography skills!


I had elements of scientific illustration on courses about particular taxa (botany, zoology of invertebrates). There are also courses for willing students organised by thematic students’ association on my faculty. However, most of my drawing skills I developed by myself. Knowledge about organisms pictured helps much.


It was back in the early 90s at UCSC, under their Science Communication sub-heading. It was an introductory general scientific illustration course, so it didn’t focus on any specific taxonomy or style.

We had a broad range of subjects for our drawing exercises, some done in the classroom, some done in the field, with a mix of quick sketching and detailed drawing. Sometimes we drew plants, other times farm animals, other times models came in, sometimes we were instructed to focus on just one small aspect of a particular subject, etc. For the mid-terms and finals we picked our own subjects, and we kept a drawing journal for the course as well that was part of the requirements.

The only real restriction was that everything we drew had to be of a specific object that actually existed. Nothing from imagination, no interpretations, no “fixing” things (eg. if a leaf or flower petal had a piece missing, then that had to be included).

It was a really good course. There were some art majors in the course, as well as a few art grad students and they all said it was the best drawing class they’d ever had.


I don’t know if this will help in your case, but I believe the Field Museum in Chicago offers a course.


I’m guessing mostly still hand-drawn. But for what it’s worth, I drew this illustration entirely digitally for a new species I was naming, starting from scans of pressed specimens, and supplementing with observations through a dissecting scope. No photos of living material were available, and still aren’t to my knowledge.


If only the field guide market would remember this.


Another paper on the subject:


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