Even with all of this research, there is room for artistic licensing. Illustrators follow certain color conventions based on what is generally true in nature: Veins are always blue, for example, and arteries are always shown in red. But the microscopic structures inside cells are smaller than the wavelengths that create visible light, so they don’t have their own color. As a result, no standard color code exists for them. “The good thing about molecules is that they’re too small to have any color, so I can choose anything,” Falconieri says.
Falconieri does her best to be as precise as possible but, she says, “‘precise’ is a moving target.” After finishing it illustration of SARS-CoV-2 for American scientist in mid-May, for example, researchers discovered more details about the virus. “If I had to redo the illustration, it would reflect new science, like the flexibility of the spike protein’s stem, and the organization of RNA and protein inside the virus,” she says. . “This is the great thing about medical and scientific illustration: because science is never done, my job is never done.”
Often, illustrators will have to decide when to sacrifice precision in favor of creating an image that more clearly explains a concept. “If a researcher talks about that particular spot in a protein as a binding site, of course we’re going to be specific,” says Alan Hoofring, senior medical illustrator at the National Institutes of Health Office of Research Services. But if the illustration is meant to emphasize something other than that specific site, Hoofring could simplify that part of the image, substituting a general shape for the protein and binding location, rather than trying to replicate them. in intricate details. This is because other parts of the information design might be more important.
As another example, if an illustrator is attempting to show how SARS-CoV-2 binds to a lung cell, enters it, and begins to reproduce, it’s important to make sure that viewers can clearly follow this process. In this case, the top priority is to clarify the timeline. “Medical illustration is all about putting the arrows in the right places,” Hoofring jokes.
And the amount of information included in each image depends a lot on the destination of the image. For example, a DNA image that does not show the correct number of base pairs may not be exactly accurate, but that may be enough to convey an idea to a viewer who is not an expert in genetics. “It’s a matter of judgment,” says Joanne Muller, president of the Association of Medical Illustrators. “You don’t want anything to be untrue. It must be correct. But you don’t necessarily have to tell them everything about everything, because it’s confusing.
It’s not the same as making mistakes, and a few common mistakes are huge pet peeves among illustrators. Sometimes the brain is pulled back, with the brainstem and frontal lobe in the wrong direction, or the knee and elbow joints are shown bending in the wrong direction. There are bladders shown to be half full, even though the bladder is not actually holding air. (It just gets bigger as it collects more urine.) And there’s the industry’s number one complaint: DNA twisting left instead of right. “Reverse DNA always catches up with me,” Falconieri says.
These details may seem small, but as more and more scientific topics such as Crispr, vaccines, and Covid-19 emerge in pop culture and politics, it is increasingly important that the public have access to precise information that he can understand. “This is a really interesting time to get involved in scientific illustration, as more complex science is becoming more and more relevant in everyday life,” says Maya Kostman, who does illustrations for the Innovative Genomics Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. For example, she said, take the Covid-19 vaccine. People want to understand how it was created, studied and tested. But just releasing a Food and Drug Administration report may not be enough to answer people’s questions. “How is someone going to interpret this? It’s very difficult and it’s becoming more and more important that it’s an understandable concept, ”she says.