Typically, art and science are considered two polar opposite fields that would not typically mix. One is creative, the other logical, and both are meant to be apart. Yet they are more closely linked that one might think. Science depends on art to help explain concepts, often through the process of scientific illustration. 

Scientific illustration is a “technical drawing or artwork” of a scientific concept, according to Dr. Steffen Poltak, a lecturer in the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA) at the University of New Hampshire (UNH). Poltak, when he does not teach anatomy and physiology classes, is a scientific illustrator completing his first-year teaching at UNH. 

Scientific illustrations are the images on a PowerPoint slide, or in a textbook, depicting everything from how blood moves through the body to a satellite in space. These illustrations visualize concepts that can be hard to picture, and emphasize biological or physical features that a picture alone may not do justice.  

“A lot of times, especially with tissue or something like an insect leg,” a scientific feature is simply too small or unassuming to the naked eye, Poltak said. Scientific illustrators “can contrast the image, or…colorize [it], or do something to emphasize the segments.”  

Poltak has dabbled in scientific illustration as long as he’s been a scientist. His father was the director of state parks in New Hampshire, and his mother was artistic. When Poltak was little, he spent a lot of his time outdoors, armed with guidebooks on different animal species. He was fascinated by what he saw outside, but, in his words, “needed to record what I was doing and I started to draw everything.”  

People have been “drawing everything” for centuries – with the ancient Greeks illustrating the human body, for instance – but scientific illustration developed as a discipline with Leonardo da Vinci. da Vinci, the artist of The Mona Lisa, is also known for his iconic notebooks, which he filled with illustrations of his proposed machines, as well as anatomical structures from dissecting cadavers. He accompanied these illustrations with notes on what he was seeing, teaching others, for example, what the tendons of the shoulder look like without actually dissecting a cadaver. 

  Many artists followed da Vinci’s work, from Albrecht Dürer to Rembrandt. Artists became vital to science; think of “Grey’s Anatomy, the textbook full of detailed anatomy. “There was this combination of art and science,” Poltak said of the time artists were illustrating. “But then there was this rift that we formed between art and science; art was supposed to be its own separate thing, and science [has] its own imaging.” 

This “rift” is the division well-established between art and science today. Luckily, though, “there’s this new renaissance of those two things coming back together.” Poltak said. “Being able to make illustrations for publication that you’re submitting for a journal article, those illustrations can make or break your article, [be]cause it actually pulls you in….being able to use that visual side of things can really make your work more visible and more acknowledged.” 

Many scientific organizations depend on scientific illustrators, from Science Magazine to the Smithsonian Institution. One illustrator who worked for the Smithsonian and the National Institute of Health taught Poltak traditional scientific illustration techniques.  

Poltak has used these techniques, as well as photography and digital imaging courses he took in college, to make illustrations for textbooks and presentations he has given, and diagrams in papers he’s written on genetics, evolution, and biofilms, which are species of bacteria that produce a fibrous structure (think slime).  

Poltak’s and others’ scientific illustrations teach not only scientists and students of science, though. “You see it as the movement now for science to be conveyed to the average person.” Poltak said and mentioned Neil Degrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist who has hosted TV, museum and a variety of other educational programs, and written books to teach people about the cosmos.  

“Science can be really intangible for a lot of people based on the jargon we use and the technicality of it, but it’s really accessible when you use different stimuli to get people interested.” Poltak said.  

Currently, as Poltak settles into teaching at UNH, he is focusing more on personal and commissioned work. Illustrations on his website, made of mixed media such as watercolor, pencils, and carbon dust, show a lionfish, a nautilus, a portion of a human skeleton.  

Recently, some of his illustrations have strayed from being totally realistic. “I’m not just doing strict scientific illustration. Sometimes I take artistic license, and combine forms and play with proportions and make cooler things…that I think are interesting in terms of form and function.” He has drawn a ‘brain fish,’ a fish covered in the grooves of a brain, and a candy cane-striped seahorse. One of the reasons Poltak draws these fantastical organisms is to study a particular feature; to emphasize that feature. 

Poltak looks to the art noveau period from the turn of the 20th century, expressionism, and Michelangelo’s David for inspiration for his fantastical organisms. “I felt very restricted by some of the parameters of scientific illustration traditionally,” which expects that illustrations are drawn and scaled as accurately as possible. “With Michelangelo and [his] David sculpture, the hand is way out of proportion from what it’s supposed to be, but it really emphasizes…the power of the hand and the anatomical form.”   

Soon, students interested in traditional scientific illustration may be able to enroll in a scientific illustration course with Poltak. The course is currently in the proposal process, but is intended to focus on bioengineering and biomimicry, or building inventions and sculptures after features found in nature. Students would learn computer-aided design, 3D printing, and 3D modeling techniques.  

For now, though, Poltak works individually with students interested in scientific illustration, and welcomes others to participate as well.