by Sarah Gillig Sunu

Tips For Digitally Drawing a Biological Illustration

Biological and scientific illustration can take many forms -- anything from graphics of systems and processes to the detailed depiction of a single subject. They're also created using a variety of mediums, including pen and ink, watercolor, colored pencil, and now digital. The unifying factor in the creation of these images is the use of art to provide succinct visual information to the viewer, and that’s why you’ll often find biological and scientific illustrations in textbooks, museums, and technical or scientific documents.

Here's some tips on how to get started drawing your own digital biological illustration using Adobe Photoshop and a Wacom tablet: 

Choose a Subject

You don’t have to diagram a frog dissection to get started -- just pick something cool that you want to stare at for a while. Shells are a great place to start, but everything from flowers to birds is fair game.

Take Digital Photos

Take pictures of your subject for reference, because most will change over time -- flowers wilt, leaves change color, animals move/die, and pinecones open up more (as I discovered when I compared my initial pictures with later ones!). And of course, the quality of the light changes depending on the time of day, and the angle changes depending on how you're sitting.

Start Sketching

If you're new to digital, sketching on paper and bringing scanned work onto your computer can give you a foundation to begin drawing more refined lines. Capture the basic shape and texture of your drawing early and build from there.

Use Layers

Layers are your friends, and it’s a good idea to utilize a decent number of them. It’s much easier to get rid of a layer of shading that doesn't work out than to redo your whole drawing because you shaded on a single base layer.

Get to Know the Pen Tool

The Pen Tool is your friend too. This kind of art is very detailed, and using the Pen Tool will give you a lot more control than freehand. It's designed to create work paths, create new layers in specific shapes, and to fill pixels in a selected area. The pen tool can also save you time when you’re stacking layers in a digital drawing by letting you work on one piece of a complex subject at a time, like putting together a puzzle.


Aspects of the pen tool that are particularly useful:


●     You can fit paths to your sketch almost exactly, and can split up your drawing into bite-sized chunks, on multiple layers if you so choose.

●     You can select a path to bound the active area, and save yourself cleanup time later (How did anyone stay within the lines before this? Other than painstakingly?).

●     You can move the paths after the fact, if something looks out of place. Just use the black arrow to click on the path.


With these tips, you're on your way to a more productive digital biological drawing experience.