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10 Differences between scientific illustrators and general illustrators

Hi, I’m Ikumi, and I’m a scientific illustrator.

The usual response to that is , “what’s that?” and “I’ve never met one, how cool”. Then the conversation drifts to how one becomes a scientific illustrator. Usually the scientific illustrator loves both science and art and found a field where they could combine both. If you’re curious about my personal story, you can read it here.

Scientific illustrators make illustrations for journals and textbooks, park posters and signs, information brochures, education materials, etc etc.

When a scientist shares their findings via research articles, posters, books, speciality textbooks, etc. an illustration becomes a valuable tool.

Here are a few examples:
red lionfish scientific illustration poster

Have you seen a poster showing what an animal looks like, or how it is affecting the environment? The illustration above is showing what the red lionfish looks like, and how it has become an invasive species in the Atlantic Ocean. Educational posters are done by a scientific illustrator too.


neuron alzheimers

Scientific illustrators don’t just create illustrations for students and the general public. We also create complex and detailed illustrations that are used extensively by researchers to understand cellular and molecular mechanisms.

What makes scientific illustrators unique?

Scientific illustrators are unique because we are not just artists. We know about  science so we know what to show and teach to the wide variety of audiences. I like to think of scientific illustrators as a science teacher who uses pictures for teaching. Instead of writing pages and pages of text, scientific illustrators can create a picture that is worth a thousand words.

Most scientists are visual learners, so using a picture really helps them understand and see the main ideas.  Since modern science is so specialized these days, an introductory illustration helps get everyone to the same page quickly.

labeled neuron


Another quick example: anatomy of a neuron. We got the basic structure of the neuron covered at the cellular level.

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Why it’s helpful to work with a scientific illustrator

For a quick example, using graphics instead of graphs in the graphical abstract will help draw more attention to an article. Scientific illustrators are trained to show the science through pictures to quickly communicate the essential information presented in the article.  Every time I work with a researcher, I hear that working with a scientific illustrator is so much easier than a general illustrator because we understand the basics of science and research.

Here are 10 traits that set scientific illustrators apart from general illustrators.

1. Knows scientific jargon and took many science courses 

Scientific illustrators read scientific publications on regular basis. For my scientific illustration degree, we had to take human anatomy and physiology, major-level biology, and comparative vertebrate anatomy. The courses also included cat dissection lab. Then I went on to take anatomy and more science classes with medical students and grad students for my master’s degree.

These days I attend as many scientific meetings as possible-I’m part of the Audubon Society’s Prince George’s Chapter in Maryland and attend monthly birding trips and meetings. I also am a member of Maryland Entomological Society.

2. Passionate and genuinely interested about science

Scientific illustrators are truly interested in the sciences.  Science isn’t boring, it’s fascinating! I’d be happy to tell you all about it! We are all about turning on lightbulbs in the sciences.  Scientific illustrators know how and where to get references and conduct research on their own. Scientific illustrators are great advocates of advancing scientific knowledge. Give a scientific illustrator an idea about how to visualize the latest research results, he or she will jump right in and start brainstorming different ways of showing abstract concepts into something tangible and understandable.  Some scientific illustrators have also published scientific findings in various fields of study.


3. Obsessive about details and accuracy

Scientific illustrators don’t throw paint around and call it art. We are interested in realistic renderings of the natural world. That doesn’t mean that we just copy photographs. Scientific illustrators are interested in capturing detail and creating accurate artwork that describe and teach the natural world.



Scientific illustrators know the difference between spleen and kidneys, can tell apart different species of sparrows, and know the difference between mushrooms and plants. Scientific illustrators understand that, in order to accurately portray a subject, first we need to understand the basic anatomical structures.

6. Has an (odd) natural history collection

Scientific illustrators love to draw from life.  From our everyday lives trying to create realistic drawings, we have collected various objects as references. I have an extensive pine cone collection, small mammals cranium collection, and beginnings of an entomological collection. Pinning insects is oddly relaxing and not gross. There’s also specimens in the refrigerator and/or the freezer. Scientific illustrators also take photographs of unusual things such as branching patterns of plants.

scientific illustrator 17 year cicada ento2 ento1

7. Knows how to use microscopes and various scientific instruments

When illustrating small specimens, scientific illustrators use a camera lucida attached to a microscope. Scientific illustrators also dissect plants and animals to understand the structures better. To visualize molecules, we navigate through the Protein Database (PDB) and use various 3D programs to create teaching illustrations.  For medical work, we borrow anonymous MRI data from the radiologists and recreate artworks using MRI data as reference.

8. Knows Latin/Greek, and scientific names of animals, plants, and human anatomy

Scientific illustrators know where the costal margin on the butterfly and the human can be found. Also, from seeing “albicollis“, I know it’s something with a white neck…as in Zonotrichia albicollis.

white-throated sparrow puffed up

9. Points out scientific inaccuracies in pop culture and everyday life

Scientific illustrators are very visual people, so when they see something that’s scientifically inaccurate, we blurt them out. Sometimes I find a flipped organ on a health poster (oops! someone didn’t work with a scientific illustrator), or there are wrong number of legs on insects.


For example, I love Indiana Jones movies. But it’s funny to me that the snakes make a rattling sound even though the snake on the screen is a cobra (they don’t have rattly parts).  Well, it’s just the movies, but you know. Don’t get me started on that cardinal sign when driving into Virginia.


10. Don’t mind studying and learning more

I met an illustrator at a show opening the other day. He told me that when he was a student, he looked into becoming a scientific illustrator. “But then,” he continued, “I didn’t want to study for science tests, you know? It’s so cool what you guys draw, but I really didn’t want to study.  Now I mainly do fiction book covers”.   The studying of the sciences turn a lot of illustrators away from scientific illustration.

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Now, here’s what I want you to do:

So, do you know any scientific illustrators? Next time you read a journal article, attend a scientific presentation, read a science textbook, or see a poster, be sure to think about us scientific illustrators!

I’m getting ready to write more articles that help researchers and physicians to share their research and expertise through custom visuals…

So, I want you to leave a comment below telling me what you’d like me to cover. If you like to keep it private, please feel free to use the contact form instead.

Also, I’d love it if you could share a lesson learned from visuals as medical media below, and please share this post if you know others who have benefited from learning more about scientific illustrators.
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Ikumi Kayama specializes in working with researchers, doctors, teachers, and publishers to create custom illustrations that makes modern science accessible and relevant. She also gives PowerPoint Design Tip seminars for the scientists and various illustration technique courses for the illustrators.

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More posts:

Medical & Scientific Illustration 101

Preparing a Scientific Presentation? Read this First.



  • Trudy Nicholson
    Posted 10/21/2013 11:55 am 0Likes

    Scientific illustrators know traditional as well as digital media that general illustrators often have never learned. These media are very useful in creating realistic very detailed illustrations.
    Best, Trudy

  • ikumikayama
    Posted 10/21/2013 4:34 pm 0Likes

    Hi Trudy, thank you so much for the comment! Yes, you’re absolutely right about all the different techniques and tools scientific illustrators use to create accurate and detailed drawings. Some of the tools include: pen/ink, graphite, watercolor, gouache, Photoshop, various 3d modeling software to silver point and carbon dust.

  • Jane Hyland
    Posted 10/23/2013 4:48 pm 0Likes

    The biggest eye-opener for me, being first a traditional painter working in oils, and then working in scientific and natural science illustration, is the world that we humans inhabit, is a vastly different world to the micro-world that animals and insects inhabit. Seeing a a house fly through the microscope for the first time, or the venation of a leaf, or the genitalia of a Noctuid moth, is a world that we do not normally see with the human eye, it takes a special instruments to see this world. To see the microsculpting on the the elytra of a beetle and the setae and scales on a butterfly that are usually invisible, We need the eyes and hands of scientific illustrators to show people this other world that lives side by side with us. Scientific illustrators make this unseen world, seen. I think people are enriched and in awe of this micro-world that surrounds us.

    • ikumikayama
      Posted 10/25/2013 12:32 pm 0Likes

      Hi Jane, thank you so much for your feedback! You’re definitely right, the scientific illustrators see the world a little differently and are able to share their knowledge through art.

  • Frances Topping
    Posted 10/23/2013 5:22 pm 0Likes

    Well said. The importance of accurate representation cannot be overemphasized. Once a thing is learned incorrectly it sticks. Better to learn it right the first time and in a scientific paper it would put the scientists credibility at stake if it was inaccurate. If a piece is just for aesthetic pleasure it might not have every fin and feather but for identification or in learning about a species specifics are essential and as you say, that takes study, learning and observation skills. There are times when it is more important to portray , for example, a bird’s posture and gesture, when every feather need not be there but the main essentials still have to be accurate. Those less detailed images are often based on years of actual live observations in the field and skill in rendering them. Are they bird/wildlife artists or scientific illustration artists or both? They can both be useful for learning about birds and other animals and plants as long as they are accurate. I wholeheartedly agree that illustration can interpret more than a photograph or what the human eye can see. I hope other people start to appreciate the skill and study involved.

    • ikumikayama
      Posted 10/25/2013 12:35 pm 0Likes

      Hi Frances, thank you so much for your feedback! You have so many great points.

      I think the most “simple” looking illustrations for identification purposes generally has so much research time to re-create the anatomy and the ‘personality’.

      Illustrating takes longer than photographs (most of the time), but there are definitely advantages of using illustrations over photos.

  • OC Carlisle
    Posted 10/23/2013 5:23 pm 0Likes

    This is fabulous! I have forwarded this to Gene Wright. We are having an open house at the Lamar Dodd School of Art 07 Nov 13. I also forwarded this to Gail Guth who is organizing Interviews With Students, see her post on the GNSI web site. This article is also helpful to me. Albrecht Durer used silverpoint in some of his works; a medium I would like to work with. Thank you for your valuable tips and this article!

    • ikumikayama
      Posted 10/25/2013 12:36 pm 0Likes

      Thank you OC! Hope things are well in Athens! Let us know how the open house goes.

      Have you checked with some Guild members for silver point? I took a course with Gerald Hodge few years ago.

  • Ryan Kissinger
    Posted 11/06/2013 4:55 pm 0Likes

    Awesome article… I do medical illustration so it’s nice to read about other weird people like me… When people ask me what I do I get a variety of responses not all positive and mostly baffled. I have been focused primarily on digital projects but my first love is traditional media.

    • ikumikayama
      Posted 11/07/2013 6:09 pm 0Likes

      Thank you Ryan! So nice to meet another medical illustrator. I’m actually writing up the medical illustrator version now. I agree about the medium we use–I do most of my work in graphite and Photoshop, but it’s so nice to go back to pen/ink and watercolor from time to time.

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