Summer Series Week 6 - Scientific illustration - It’s all in the detail

Drawing fish is a lot harder than you might think, explains NIWA’s scientific illustrator.

Drawing fish is a lot harder than you might think, explains NIWA’s scientific illustrator.

When Erika Mackay got her first job, she had no specialised scientific knowledge and certainly no particular interest in fish. But she could draw.

In November, when three New Zealand scientists/editors were being feted for their work that has culminated in the largest publication ever undertaken by Te Papa Press, Erika was thanked for her enormous contribution to its success.

The Fishes of New Zealand is a remarkable publication – launched in November it is a four-volume set that describes for the first time all 1262 known New Zealand fish species.

A collaboration lasting more than two decades between NIWA and Te Papa, the book substantially advances knowledge and understanding about the extraordinary diversity of fish found in New Zealand waters.

Accompanying the text are more than 800 colour photographs and 450 hand-drawn species illustrations. The book, she says, is one of the greatest highlights of her career.

“It is great to see it finally come out, I devoted five years of my life to it.”

Erika has been a graphic designer at NIWA for about 14 years, but began her career drawing specimens 20 years ago at Te Papa after graduating from Wellington Polytech.

“Specimen drawings or scientific illustrations have been around for many, many years. Most were done by the scientist and some still are.

“I started at a time when everything was hand drawn from preserved specimens. I would measure the fish using callipers, sometimes under a microscope, make a sketch and then scale it up or down to fit on a piece of A3 paper.”

Occasionally it was smelly work. “Funnily enough, it’s not the fish themselves that smell, but the chemicals they have been preserved in. It’s not that bad.”

She has occasionally worked from good quality specimen photographs but says that is not as easy as having the specimen in front of you and a scientist pointing out the details important to each fish.

“Shadows in a photo make it difficult to see what’s what.”

Erika Mackay uses a drawing tablet and computer software to create her scientific illustrations.

Erika’s drawings have been used in scientific journals, catalogues and a range of publications.

“I like the detail involved. I usually work from specimens at a time – one may be missing a fin, another a tail, so you take a bit from one and a bit from another to make a complete illustration.”

Each specimen drawing takes between four and nine hours to complete, depending on the pattern, size and whether it had scales. A scientist would then examine the pencil drawing before she went over it with ink pens of various thicknesses.

These days, at NIWA, Erika uses a drawing tablet and Adobe Illustrator software.

“Using a computer to do the inking makes changing things easier – the ink doesn’t smudge and I can make brushes for certain elements. It’s a faster way of working.”

Her work illustrating amphipods – small, shrimp-like crustaceans – led to her having one named after her in recognition of her work. It’s called Bruzelia erikae.

The art of specimen drawing is changing and Erika predicts that in the future hand drawing will be a thing of the past – replaced by 3D scans and other forms of sophisticated technology such as laser scanning which enables objects to be viewed from any angle.

“Already we are seeing different techniques being developed that show layers of a specimen. It will all change. People won’t be doing it the same way in 10 years’ time.”