What do you see? The brilliance of candlelight illuminating the dusk and smoke of a dark, grand chamber. A masterful mix of garments, surfaces and fabrics wrought in the finest detail. Allow your eyes to wander further, deeper, and you’ll begin to make out the carefully expressive faces of the onlookers surrounding this intimate nocturnal scene. But what are they looking at? And why such a strange diversity of feeling amongst them? Some are aghast with horror, some rapt with curiosity, and other consumed with deep philosophical thought. One young girl cannot even bear to look.
This is a moment of intensity – the intensity of experiment, of science in action.
A glance at the name of the painting reveals all. We are looking at An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, painted by Joseph Wright of Derby in 1768. Our minds begin to make sense of the scene. We are in the house of a scientist and, like the excitable guests around the table, have been invited to witness what happens when a bird is deprived of oxygen through means of a vacuum chamber. A cruel thing to do, you might be thinking, but that is exactly what the painting is asking us to think about.
Would you avert your eyes like the girl in pink? Her younger sister, in white, seems distraught but cannot quite take her gaze off the flailing bird. The boy to the left of the table is totally caught up in wide-eyed interest, twisting his body to get a better view, while the old gentleman with his head atop a cane silently contemplates the gravity of the moment. Most important of all is the penetrating glare of the scientist himself. Clad in a crimson evening-gown which seems to assume the character of a wizard’s robe, he looks fixedly at us from beneath silvery-black eyebrows. No one can stop him from carrying out the experiment. With right hand extended, he invites us to answer one simple question – ‘What do you think?’
There’s a conflict between the beauty and richness of the scene and the challenging (and very modern) scientific element of the experiment which wakes us up as observers and sets our minds to work, and it’s this tense alchemy which makes the painting a truly wonderful example of Science Art.
Making Sense of a Curious Discipline
So what, exactly, is Science Art? Put simply, it’s what happens when science meets art. Wright wasn’t painting at a time when Science Art existed as a well-defined concept – he was simply painting what he wanted to paint – but looking at his work from today’s vantage point, we can see just how great an example it is, blending the beauty and wonder of art with the thought-provoking edge of modern scientific inquiry. It’s an unusual combination, but one that, when carried out with enough precision and elegance, can really stir our thoughts.
We could list plenty of historical examples that, whether by accident or design, would fit into this category – think of Leonardo’s anatomical drawings for example – but we want to dive straight into the modern age, where a multiplicity of styles, colours and techniques swirl around us every day. How are today’s self-confessed science artists using them to get us thinking in new ways? Let’s find out!
Nature is art in itself, which is why serious animal illustrations have been popular (and invaluable to science) ever since the age of Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy. But some artists are defying the traditional arrangements found in those old pages to breathe new magic into the way we look at these creatures.
Meet Zoe Keller. Her work is full of gorgeous, finely-textured line drawings of snakes, mammals, birds and fish. But her arrangements in colour are truly stunning, taking animal illustration to entirely new heights altogether.
Look at the way she places the members of the crow family (Corvidae) in this piece. When we see them all together, a wonderful whirl of iridescent blue, black and white, we gain a new appreciation of the majesty of nature and her complex relationships. Thick, heavy-set ravens, thieving green-eyed jackdaws and delicate, sharp-beaked nutcrackers – we see birds from every continent and culture, and can even trace the lines of evolution as we try to sort out the symphony of colours, sizes and body-shapes. There’s a touch of humour too at the heart of the composition, that any ornithologist will surely note – the jay and blue jay squabbling, one from the Old World and one from the New, symbolic of a playful tussle between Europe and America.
Honourable mentions in this category to Mafalda Paiva for magnificent levels of digital animal detail, and Ingrid Elias, whose close-up flowers reveal the gushing waves and soft crescendos of botanical anatomy.
Life Under the Microscope
Would you expect the life of a chemist to be an artistic one? Anna Chan is determined to prove that it can in fact be true. Inspired by the technological prowess of modern microscopy, she gives us glimpses of a minute world where forms normally invisible become playful, enchanting characters in a mixture of science and fairytale.
Ever heard of a water bear? These microscopic minibeasts, known more formally as tardigrades (from the Latin for ‘slow steppers’), dwell in wet environments all over the world, like sand, soil and moss. Trundling along on eight legs, they pack their plump little bodies with tiny plant cells and other creatures even smaller than themselves. So, why are they called water bears? Anna’s paintings make it comically clear:
Bonus points if you can spot the visual pun on the water bear’s name in the full painting!
Anna’s work invites us to consider the astonishing complexity of life even at the most miniscule scale – stories that unfold around us every day, often in the very ground we walk upon.
Honourable mention to Karl Gaff, also known as Electron Micronaut, for revealing the dreamy, psychotropic, forest-like landscapes that make up the surfaces of crystallised chemical compounds.
The Symbolism of Anatomy
Collage art can sometimes be seen as derivative, but Amy Salomone, Anatomical Collage Artist, working under the name Forms Most Beautiful, use the medium with elegance, poise and a deep eye for symbolism and meaning. And she does it with dazzling effect. Take a look at this piece, depicting the miracle of our anatomy:
Amy envisions the heart, lungs, arteries and veins as the dense roots of a profusion of plants, flowers and mushrooms. The bloodstream becomes a kind of xylem, drawing nutrients from the soil of life to feed the growth of branches, petals and leaves. Under the stars, are our bodies so different from those of plants? Just as they bear flowers and fruit, we give birth to ideas, words, and even the ability to understand concepts like science and art in the first place. Amy’s visual language is full of masterful comparisons like this, allowing us to draw new meaning from both fields.
Honourable mention to…
The rest of Amy’s work. No, seriously, whether you’re a scientist or an artist (or neither), go and spend half an hour contemplating one of her pieces. We guarantee you won’t regret it.
Jellyfish, taken as a whole, seem to be the ocean’s very own floating science art exhibit – each one a shimmering display in the great gallery of the ocean. Perhaps nobody understands this better than Julia Charlott, the self-styled Queen of Jellyfish.
Her fluid, intoxicating studies of these delicate creatures reveal new dimensions to the intricacies of underwater life. Often, it’s the translucence of jellyfish that we find so captivating, opening a window on the wonders of marine physiology We can see every tentacle, every tissue, bell-shaped bodies pulsating and undulating in the water. Even their simple digestive systems are on show – these generous animals hold no secrets from the observer.
The bioluminescent species are even kind enough to switch on the lights for us, enchanting our eyes (and our scientific curiosity) with rippling streams of colour. When a defensive manoeuvre against predators inspires a painting? We think that’s truly Science Art. Julia’s work makes us want to dive into the nearest body of deep, dark water.
Honourable mention to Researcher Lucy, who couples provocative pink neon art with intriguing scientific stories to intrigue and delight. We call it electro-science.
The alchemy of science and art is a marvellous one. Mixing these two vital ingredients together can, as we hope you’ve seen, result in countless combinations that delight, inspire and provoke in equal measure. In the interest of prompting ever more wide-eyed wonder, we urge you to keep thinking, keep drawing and painting, and keep that flame of alchemy burning strong.
And, as always, keep asking questions! ✨