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Drawing on Real Life

Click on the image for an enlarged view.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Jennifer Landin, a teaching assistant professor of biology at NC State who teaches a course on biological illustration. Check out why she thinks biological illustration is valuable – and some of the art created in her classroom.

While other universities have biological illustration courses, as far as I know this is the only one that uses illustration to teach biology. Most courses are taught through an art program and focus on illustrative techniques. In this course, we generally use pen and ink. Thus, the focus stays on biology rather than art. Nature is already beautiful, so the students’ work ends up looking fantastic.

So why teach Biological Illustration in a digital world? Technology is a terrific tool; it can save a lot of time if you use the tool effectively. That is precisely why we don’t use it – time and expertise. There is a very small learning curve when using a pencil or pen so most of our time is spent observing, researching and recreating the specimen.

The course is a basic diversity class; we hone in on the anatomical structures that separate groups of plants or animals. While the lecture covers a wide range of biological concepts, students select a specific organism or structure to illustrate each week. During lab, they make detailed observations and measurements, plan their illustration, research their topic and begin the drawing.

Observation and attention to detail are vital skills for scientists (and artists). Unfortunately, we are so bombarded by information, we tend to ignore much of it and make broad generalizations. In this class, we slow down, look closely, and concentrate on the unique structures that have evolved over billions of years.

The best part about biological illustration is that students use their illustrations to teach others about biology. They show off their portfolios, sharing all the information they learned with friends and family. When students display their work for the public, that excitement for biology gets passed along.

Those of you in North Carolina can see for yourselves. The North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke Island will display student illustrations from January 7 through April 3, 2013. And the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences will show compilation pieces of student work from April 30 to June 3, 2013.

Some examples of the students’ work can be seen below. More information about the course – and another online gallery – can be found here.

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