Bring Your Camera and Your Drawing Pad

New group welcomes photographers and illustrators with an interest in science and nature

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Rose Weevil

Merhychites bicolor (Rose Curculio) is a common weevil that feeds on roses. David Cheung photographed this one feeding on rose hips in the conservatory gardens outside the University Centre.

If you’re a nature or science lover with an artist’s eye ― or if you’re an artist keen on science ― this might be the club for you. Bringing together illustrators and photographers to record and interpret the natural world for researchers and for the masses is the purpose of the newly formed Southern Ontario Nature and Science Illustrators (SONSI).

The group numbers about 30 people. Their “meetings” consist of field trips to nearby nature reserves, zoos, museums and research institutions for sketching and photography sessions, says SONSI vice-president Dave Cheung, a master’s student and technician in the School of Environmental Sciences (SES).

So far, he’s the only U of G member. But he hopes to interest campus scientists and artists in bringing their pens, pencils, brushes and cameras to the field. The goal, says this would-be scientific illustrator, is “to be able to show people how amazing nature is, whether through photography or illustration, and how beautiful it is.”

SONSI members currently hail from between Toronto and Kitchener. They’re a mix of amateur and professional illustrators, including freelancers, teachers, photographers and authors. Among them are illustrator and author Fiona Reid, a mammal expert at the Royal Ontario Museum; Kathryn Chorney, an instructor in Sheridan College’s applied illustration program; and Celia Godkin, who has taught in the biomedical communications program at the University of Toronto.

Group president Emily Damstra, a freelance illustrator, and medical illustrator Dino Pulerá have both won awards for works being shown this year at the New York State Museum. “I see art as a way of learning about something for both the creator and the viewer,” says Damstra, who also belongs to the Washington-based Guild of Natural Science Illustrators.

Besides networking, the group hopes to teach the public about science and nature, promote scientific illustration, and support intellectual property rights of visual artists.

Members have visited the Kortright Centre for Conservation in Woodbridge, Ont., and the Wings of Paradise butterfly conservatory in Cambridge. Cheung says the group gained a fan in one preteen at Kortright who stopped to observe their work and joined in. “She drew this amazing tree. She was just inspired by everyone else’s drawing.”

In addition to nature and science illustrators, says Cheung, the group hopes to attract medical illustrators, says Cheung, who earned an undergraduate degree in biology in 2007 and now works as a technician on the U of G Insect Collection housed in the Bovey Building.

Most of his scientific illustration has consisted of photography, including snapping specimens for his master’s project. He’s completing a digital guide to almost 200 common nursery and landscape insect pests that is slated to appear later this year in the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification. Cheung is technical editor of that publication, which is edited by his supervisor, Prof. Steve Marshall.

Marshall says photography is an invaluable tool for researchers and naturalists. But there’s still a place for illustrators able to portray detail that eludes the camera, not to mention what he calls the “raw beauty” of natural history illustration. “You can still illustrate with pen and ink, or a combination of pen and ink and bits and bytes, not only more accurately, but more clearly than what you can do with the highest-quality photography.”

This year Cheung ― who runs his own photography and design business ― has also branched into digital illustration. His first digital image portrays a species of rove beetle previously unknown in eastern North America. That bug was discovered in Canada during field work by Adam Brunke, another master’s candidate working with Marshall and SES Prof. Rebecca Hallett.

Click here to view that example and other work by SONSI members.