Drawing Bones and Mapping Worlds

Title aside, this post has nothing to do with the summers I spent designing tombstones; instead, it’s about how 2 of my favorite things come together: drawing and science. I don’t think it surprises anyone to say that art and science can go hand in hand; scientific illustration and imagery is often the easiest way for the public to engage with new research – think how exciting new images from Hubble are, or pictures from the latest deep sea dive of new species that look like they came from the Black Lagoon. The field of scientific illustration allows access to concepts otherwise unobservable, from microscopic to macroscopic. Physical and natural sciences like botany, biology, etc all rely on a long tradition of illustrators providing precise diagrams and figures, which communicate in a more universal language than any text. In the case of geology and archaeology, something that has always delighted me is how vital bringing together artistic skills with field research could be, from sketching artifacts and mapping outcrops, even to planning geophysical surveys.

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Finback whale

Being able to draw well is a great field skill, both because of the simple ability to accurately translate your observations to the page and because the way drawing trains your eye helps you make better observations. The important thing is distilling the essential aspects of a specimen or a context from the background and from surface details; on a piece of pottery, for example – what lines and color changes come from the lighting or wear rather than the design of the piece. Or making a structural drawing of exposed cliff – you have to look beneath vegetation or erosion to figure out what the underlying pattern is, so that you draw what’s really there, not just what you see.            100_2004

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Mapping is important to most disciplines with field research components like geology and archaeology; even as a geophysicist, I still need to sketch out the grids that I’m working on and elements of the landscape that might affect my data. For GPR or magnetic surveys, this typically ends up looking like a lot of rectangles with blobs for trees or fence posts or other structures, but a trench at a dig site requires a little more precision. The map above is of the same area shown in the photo, but the map gives you a clearer understanding of what’s been uncovered; it details each rock and brick and also outlines structures that are harder to distinguish in the photo, like the curve of the ruined walls. This is from the field school I did in Torano, Italy; the building was from approximately 5th century Romans and may have been an outbuilding of a villa. On the left on the map and to the upper left in the picture, there are two big cracks through wall USM3 caused by an earthquake in late antiquity. Drawing a map like that takes significant effort and at least two people – each one of those rocks and tiles have to be measured individually and to fix their position in the trench, but the result captures the situation far better than a photo could.

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Jawbone of a fish

I won’t pretend that I get to draw much as a seismologist now, but in the artistic sense this type of work still appeals to me. I particularly enjoy the clean lines and smooth shapes of bones or shells, and the act of focusing in on one small item and trying to capture its essential details. Drawing something requires becoming intimately familiar with its form and shape, where corners come together, the precise arc of a curve, how the light falls across it. The best way for me to commit something to memory is to sit with it and draw. This can be a bitch if you travel with me – I’m a slow mover in museums – but filling a sketchbook is the closest I come to keeping a travel journal, and it counteracts the fact that I’m a pretty terrible photographer. I do have to work harder to find time to draw these days, though there’s no shortage of beautiful spots in Ithaca to sketch. My challenge for myself for the summer is going to be to take my lunch break in the Snee Hall museum some days – I’d like to get better with colored pencils and watercolors, so I’m going to work my way through the gem collection.

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