Detail, Detail, Detail: What It's Like To Be A Science Illustrator | WMUK

Detail, Detail, Detail: What It's Like To Be A Science Illustrator

Jul 2, 2014

Most reference books aren’t the most exciting reads. After all, you don’t open up a textbook or encyclopedia to find riveting prose. But next time you have to look something up, take a minute to look at the artwork.

 Behind every drawing there’s an artist like Paul Krieger of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators. 

“If you’re an abstract artist or you enjoy things like impressionism or other forms, this could drive you nuts," says Krieger. "And it’s generally for the person whose very detail oriented, the person who really likes science, the person who’s a good observer of nature, and a person who just really appreciates great levels of detail that’s got it right.”

Krieger teaches anatomy and physiology at Grand Rapids Community College, but he submits science illustrations on the side. He says he’s loved to draw ever since he was a little kid.

Cecropia moth by Paul Krieger
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Krieger is one of 30 illustrators whose work is on display at the Kalamazoo Nature Center in an exhibit called Fourth Coast Illustrated.

It features renderings of Michigan’s plants and animals in just about every kind of medium you can imagine—from watercolors to digital images to just a pen and paper.

For the exhibit, Krieger did a few works on a native Michigan moth called a cecropia moth. One charcoal sketch of the moth and another in colored pencil. 

Each moth is so detailed; you can almost feel the fuzzy fur on their backs. He used paint to illustrate the smooth skin of the cecropia moth caterpillar. 

Cecropia caterpillar by Paul Krieger
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

“And so I did the watercolor because it has such beautiful coloration, and bright yellows and blues and even oranges sometimes for different ones,” he says.

Krieger says an illustrator’s goal is to make the picture look as much like the real thing as possible. But if that’s true, why not just take a photo? Krieger says simply put, cameras lie.

“Photographs often don’t give me the true colors that I know are what that species represents. So they might be washed out. They might be overexposed or underexposed. And if they’re overexposed or underexposed, they might have washed out some of the detail in that. And if I want to represent specific things that might not be readily seen in the photograph, like the details of the scales and the wing of the butterfly or something like that, that requires maybe multiple illustrations brought together.”

Krieger says even if you get the best photo, it takes someone with a science background to know if it’s the right subject to represent the species. After all, what if that squirrel you’re looking at has an extra toe or red eyes?

“Maybe this one doesn’t look too good or doesn’t have the features that I want that I’m going to focus on," says Krieger. "Finding source material—whether it be an actual specimen or a photograph that really represents that well—or as an illustrator, I can choose to develop that myself. ‘Oh, this characteristic isn’t shown in any of these, so I’m going to choose to emphasize it and I’ll do it my way.’”

You can see work from Paul Krieger and other artists in the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators at the Kalamazoo Nature Center through September 10th.