Using Photography in Botanical & Scientific Illustration

I recently received an e-mail from one of my readers about tracing from photographs. Here is her question:

"I'm fairly new to the "training" of natural science illustration. Recently, I have been introduced to "tracing" your subject from a photo. To be honest, I am/was a little shocked at this "technique" and would like to know, do illustrators today practice this so called "technique"? Using photography is a great way to capture your subject if you cannot have it in front of you, but tracing directly from a photo? "

I thought I would share my view points about this topic and I invite you to put your 2 cents in the comment box.

First thing first. NEVER, EVER copy or use anyone else's photographs without permission. The photographer owns the copyright to the photo and it is unethical to copy it, let alone trace it. So do I ever use photographs in my work? Yes, I use photographs that I have taken as well as those from others. I had a job for the NC Aquarium in Kure Beach, NC that required me to do 30 bird illustrations for outdoor signage. I had 3 weeks to do the project. Yikes! How could I possibly get this project done. I had to work fast, my photography skills were poor, it was before digital photography came out (Can you imagine life before digital?) so what did I do???? I had a file of bird photographs that I had been saving from all the National Geographics, Ranger Rick and National Wildlife magazines. I took out as many books as I could find in the library and went to local places like the Museum of Natural History to look at bird specimens.  I began to piece together a composition for each bird. I call it "Frankenstein-ing". I used multiple photos to get the pose, anatomy and environment of each bird and worked it out on paper. The head pose of one bird might be used to depict facial detail, the wing structure another and another photo might show me a good image of the feet. This is crucial to not infringe upon copyright issues. I had to know general bird anatomy and scale to make sure that the proportions were correct. After putting the drawing together they were submitted to an ornithologist for input and corrections. When I "passed" the correction stage I then went to color which again was reviewed by the ornithologist. I was able to create the project in 3 weeks and it is still being used at the aquarium.

Here are the pitfalls of using photography to illustrate from:

Photography can have depth of field issues creating distortion and lost edges.

Color can be misrepresented by light settings, computer monitors and printing processes.

How to make a successful/accurate painting:

Work from life or real specimens as much as possible.

Study morphology and anatomy of your subject.

Take multiple shots of your subject:
   close-up macro shots, body parts, size relations to environment etc…

Create accurate color notes with your sketches.

So in conclusion I highly recommend using photography as means to "assist" you in your paintings. I would never recommend that you just trace a photograph, yours or someone else's…… what is the point? Why not just show the photograph?

This is what we teach in my Artistic Adventure Tours. Nancy Richmond is a photographer and  instructor on the tours and she has made a great impact on how I work. I have been traveling to Costa Rica and other destinations for over 20 years and it is nearly impossible to come home with finished work. I am however able to sketch, take color notes and back it up with photography to have enough research material to paint for an entire year. If you are interested in coming on our Costa Rica tour this coming February 2012 we would love to have you join us! Check out our Facebook Page- Artistic Adventure Tours.

How do you work with photography?