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Student Roadmap - Sketching and Drawing in Science

It’s All About Seeing, Really Seeing

You don’t have to be an artist to create sketches and drawings of plants. That goes for birds or bones, cells or shells, or any natural object you are observing. You might not have been asked to draw since grade school. With any grade level or subject, recording your ideas or observations in illustrations can add detail to the learning experience. Drawing can help you actually see and remember more about your observations.

With a few helps and a bit of practice, you will probably find it isn’t too intimidating to do. Once you start sketching or drawing, it just might start a life-long habit of keeping an illustrated journal.

Sketching or drawing for science projects isn’t about making the most beautiful or creative artwork. The aim is to create a visual representation that is meaningful to you and to people who have not directly seen what you have. It is thinking with a pencil to record scientific features.

Scientists share their ideas in words to be sure. But in their published articles and public presentations, you will find illustrations, diagrams, graphs, photographs or other images. Thumbing through a selection of scientists’ laboratory notebooks or journals, you would also see drawings scattered throughout some of these. For example, a lab researcher might diagram how an experiment was set up to test how depth in soil affects germination rate. A field biologist might sketch the location of stream and the slope of a hill in a vegetation study plot.

Techniques

Sketching is the method of quick, gestural drawing to capture the important ideas rather than a true-to-life drawing. The aim is to explore the process of seeing and to gather information. Sketching is visual note taking.

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

It can be for scientific illustrations. Art and science have a long history together. Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of human anatomy and diagrams of flying machines are stand-out examples. Before adequate preserving techniques or cameras, explorers used drawings as the way to record things that could not be brought back. Some famous plant hunters like Sir Joseph Banks took artists along on travels. Other naturalists like Maria Sibylla Merian published volumes of their own illustrations. Illustration is still an important part of the scientific enterprise. Descriptions of new species and floras typically include line drawings of plants.

Why not use photographs?

Line drawings can show features not easily seen in a photograph. Today it is common for large museums and botanic gardens to have botanical illustrators on staff. But many work as free lance illustrators. You can learn a bit about botanical illustrators at ArtPlantae.

Botanical or scientific illustration is a method intended to produce a finished work of art that has scientific value because of its accuracy and detail. The organism, habitat, or biological process is shown in realistic shape, texture, arrangement, and color if not illustrated in black and white. Other standards for scientific illustrations include:

  • a legend below the drawing describing what is illustrated, including the species
  • labels to identify and describe parts of interest
  • an indication of the object’s size and magnification if a microscope was used for the observations

Artists usually also sign and date their illustrations.

Drawing includes the full range of simple, rough to detailed, finished illustrations. Artists often make several sketches before starting a complex drawing or painting. Whether your purpose is to record general features or create a life-like illustration, the most important thing about drawing in science projects is showing what you see. It is amazing what details start to become visible when you spend more than a few seconds looking carefully at something.

If you haven’t done much drawing before, start out by experimenting with the pencil line. Get a feel for the range of marks, lines, shades and symbols your pencil can make. A pencil is like the human voice. Both can be used in a monotonous way or with a range of tones. Are you a soprano or a baritone? Does it feel more natural to use a light touch with your pencil line or a heavy dark line?

After you have a feel for a pencil or pen in your hand, you will be more confident to draw outlines of objects. Drawing objects from different perspectives and adding details of shading or color are techniques you can include later. These techniques take a bit more time to learn.

Tips

  • Don’t worry about the results.
  • Have your drawing tools handy in case something curious catches your eye.
  • Gather interesting objects -- diverse leaf shapes from the garden or fruit types from the grocery -- for practice. Keep practicing.
  • Take the time to observe natural objects carefully, from every angle or view. Do you notice new things from a top view, a side view, a close up? What similarities or differences do comparisons of several organisms of the same kinds show?
  • Ask yourself some targeted questions about what you are observing: Why are you making the sketch or drawing? What is important for you to illustrate? Is it the pattern, arrangement, or number of parts, typical characteristics or variation? As you look closely and draw don’t be surprised if questions about the object pop in to your head (e.g., where did this come from?, why did it grow this way?).
  • Use labels and notes to describe the object and key features. Don’t try to label or describe absolutely everything. Keep your writing to the point, but include details that will help when viewing the drawing later. For example, did you make observations from a microscope or draw something smaller than life?
  • Think about your drawing and what you are learning about the object or nature.