• Miguel Balbin

How to draw your research with simple scientific illustrations

Turn sketchbook ideas into scientific masterpieces: a student’s journey

You know the phrase. A picture speaks a 1000 words.

And often, a research paper speaks for much longer than it really needs to. SEVERAL thousand words more beyond what you may want to know. So why don’t we try and make your long story short with your very own scientific illustrations and infographics? And the good news is that you don’t need to be a fancy high-level artist to draw for YOUR science.

Not a Picasso? No problem! But you could be a Da Vinci - most people know him as a famous painter, but he was equally versed in the sciences.

Let us take you through the process of becoming a scientist just like him, one step at a time.

scientific illustration davinci
He's known for more than just the Mona Lisa! (Image credit: The Day)

In this blog, Juan Miguel Balbin, Science Communicator at Animate Your Science and PhD Candidate at the University of Adelaide, talks about his experiences and life lessons growing up with a sketchbook, and the fundamentals of making simple scientific illustrations to add visibility to your research.

The boy with a sketchbook, now a scientist with a lab book

Juan Miguel Balbin

As a scientist you’ve gone through school. Several levels of school more than what you originally intended. For now let’s cast our minds back to primary school (or elementary for our global readers!). We all had a pencil case with several coloured pencils, broken and blunt ones, and maybe some notes you’d sneakily pass around in class.

For me, I had a sketchbook in there that was just a little bigger than the size of my hand.

sketchbook scientific illustration

Artist lesson #1: No piece of art in the world is completely original

I liked to draw, but I wasn’t the best at it. I had friends who could draw hyperrealistic animals or put together entire comic book strips. Me? I wasn’t super original. I’d draw characters from my favourite video games or TV shows growing up. But I always felt like I was “copying” from something that already existed. Was I a fraud because I couldn’t come up with my own unique ideas? Little did I know at the time that every artist “copies” and dare I say “steals” ideas as inspiration for their own style. It’s only human to be influenced.

So anyone can draw if your imagination is up for the task!


Artist lesson #2: Start doodling with a simple medium that’s accessible to you

Eventually my sketchbook ran out of pages, so I wondered if I could go digital. I first tinkered a lot with Microsoft Paint (the classic one that needed Windows XP or older!) as well as Microsoft PowerPoint. These were great starting points for someone wanting to test out digital art and to learn about bitmap vs vector graphics.

microsoft paint illustration

Artist lesson #3: Refine your way of drawing with new tools as you progress

In the end, doodles in Paint and PowerPoint could only go so far when it came to looking professional. So, in high school I picked up classes for Adobe Illustrator (AI) which was industry-standard stuff in graphic design. AI was a fantastic tool to equip myself with to really get that polished look in my work.

But one thing didn’t change. I still drew very simple things, just using new toys.

Artist lesson #4: Thinking like a scientist makes art easier

I realised that I had a very methodological way of drawing where I would reverse-engineer an image in my mind and list the shapes it was made up of. Wait, was this how an artist thinks? I wasn’t sure. Perhaps this style of thinking paved the way for me on the path to becoming a scientist with a little bit of art and graphic design under my belt. Take the Twitter bird for example!

twitter bird illustration shapes

Artist lesson #5: If you can draw, you fill a very special niche on a team

Fast forward to University, and I came across the concept of scientific posters. I had a group assignment where we needed to make a poster about insecticide resistance in moths. Nobody else wanted to be responsible for making the poster, so I put my hand up for the job. My group was thankful for someone with a graphic design skillset. I didn’t know what a poster was really meant to look like, except that it shouldn’t be an intimidating wall of text where you would have to squint to see the Size 8 No Spacing Times New Roman.

post for ants meme

Instead, we filled it up half-way with pictures and catchy titles while giving a good oral commentary. No intimidating text, just a gigantic moth in the middle of the poster (apologies to those with a phobia!). We scored a very high mark, and it set the bar high for every science poster after.

Artist lesson #6: Art is your ticket to a good first impression

Heading into my PhD, I was being trained to be a clear and concise scientist. Creativity was gauged on research novelty, not by how prettily I could label up some tubes. What was an artist doing here? Then came my first lab meeting where I presented my initial project proposal. I’ve seen everyone else do theirs, but I wanted to try something different - my own way.

My slides had colourful illustrations of genetically-modified malaria parasites that I would engineer to glow green and red - this was the moment I made my artwork known to my research group and they loved it! However for more formal seminars, the “traditional” slides were needed. Yes that meant reverting back to a bunch of statistics and references. Oh well.

boardroom meeting meme scientific illustration

Artist lesson #7: A story is told better when you use art to show what’s happening

The next step was to present at scientific conferences and excite people with my research! But how could I possibly do this with a project that had mostly negative results? Why was hypothesis A wrong? Because of reasons B and C? How could I tell people this was really hard? With little data on me, I sought to fill up the gaps in my posters and PowerPoints with visual introductions to my topic, drawn schematics of my experiments and used these to tell my story.

scientific illustration malaria lifecycle

And it worked well. Really well.

My storytelling worked well enough to be awarded two prizes at two separate events for the same seemingly basic research project. You don’t need to cure cancer or make a Da Vinci-level painting to make an impact, I certainly didn’t. There’s room for artists of all skill levels in science.

scientific conference award winner malaria

Hopefully at this point you’ve been inspired to give scientific illustrations a try! Let’s now talk about the process of making your graphics and why scientists might hesitate to give drawing a go. I guarantee your next grant or presentation will be GLOWING with these tips.

Identify what shapes make up your research object

“But I haven’t got any drawing skills!”

If you can draw basic shapes, you’re all set. Really, that’s it, plus a healthy dose of imagination. Basic shapes form the basis of any complicated (or simple) drawing.

how to draw an owl meme illustration shapes

Okay sure, maybe an owl’s a bit too much. But you can see it’s just made up of a million different shapes. And just like any science experiment there’s method to the madness, so hold on to your pencil and paper. What shapes make up your “owl”?

Let’s draw a cell for example, a red blood cell (my specialty!). A simple red circle is a good place to start. But then you go back into Google Images and find that these cells aren’t just red circles, they’ve got some dimension to them, with a little bit of a dip in the center. So, draw another red circle, but make it a little darker to make it fancy.

scientific illustration red blood cell RBC

Voila! You now have a mostly medically-accurate red blood cell. Of course, you could always add more details, but the point is that beauty lies in simplicity, and science loves to keep things clear, concise and simple. But simple doesn’t need to mean boring and made in a rush. See our article on graphical abstracts to see why you don’t rush these things.

So no, we’re not drawing owls unless you specifically work on owls. Be relieved.

“My work is too complicated for me to turn into a picture.”

In that case, let’s make it less complicated by using symbols.

Symbols are easy to understand and will allow your audience to quickly get a hold on the topic you’re presenting. You can use symbols to illustrate your literature review, methodology, or even as icons for your dot points. Let’s try and make these, using shapes.

  • microscope (circles and rectangles)

  • chemical flask (triangles and rectangles)

  • viral particle (triangles in an icosahedron)

  • leaf (pointy oval)

  • atomic models (three ovals and circles)

scientific illustration icons

For researchers who work on more abstract or non-tangible topics, we’ll have to be a little more creative. But this is the fun part! Allow me to introduce metaphorical symbols - your new best friend. These represent broader concepts and methods that could closely tie with your topic and methods. Take these for example.

  • magnifying glass (representing “investigation”, circles and rectangles)

  • gears (representing “mechanisms”, circles and squares)

  • keys (representing the keys to “unlocking the unknown”, circles and rectangles)

  • thought bubble (representing “hypotheses”, circles)

  • stopwatch (representing “time needed for a study”, circles and rectangles)

  • lightbulb (representing “novelty”, circles, rectangles and lines)

  • ladder (representing “progression”, rectangles)

  • stick figures (representing “participants”, you know how to make this!)

  • check boxes (representing “tasks” in your study, squares and rectangles)

scientific illustration lightbulb speed draw
scientific illustration icons

Once you have your individual symbols together, you could display them as a scientific infographic like this.

scientific illustration icons flowchart

Then give yourself a pat on the back, you’ve earned it for making your first set of scientific illustrations!

“I don’t know what software to use to make my drawings”

Worry not, you likely already have something you can use! Many researchers love to use Microsoft PowerPoint to arrange figures because they’ve already been trained in it. PowerPoint is a fantastic starting point for making illustrations using the Insert shape tool.

microsoft powerpoint insert shapes tool

Levelling up past PowerPoint? Try out InkScape for free to gain that edge in your vector artwork. We also recommend Affinity Designer which you can access with a one-time payment! Affinity Designer allows you to tinker with both bitmap and vector graphics for that added flexibility.

inkscape affinity designer logo

The holy grail is definitely the Adobe Creative Suite of software products, including Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator and Adobe InDesign. For starters, try out Illustrator! A free trial is available, so give it a try before you commit to a subscription!

adobe illustrator photoshop indesign logo

“I haven’t got the time to learn to make these myself”

Understandable, completely understandable. Though I would bet that if you’re reading this blog right now that you would be keen to give it a try with some trial and error.

There are also online resources, such as BioRender, which provide you with base illustrations that you can move around and assemble into a figure yourself.

Alternatively, we’re at your beck and call. Have a look at our gallery to get an idea of the services we provide so we could draw your research for you!

Other tips for new venturing scientific illustrators

  • An illustration is only good if it can be easily understood! Pair it with an equally descriptive figure legend and/or very clear labels.

  • Visibility is everything - make sure it is suitably large for your purpose, and is coloured in a way that matches the palette for your poster/presentation etc.

  • Your pictures tell a story, but they need you to narrate them. Use your illustrations as a tool to better structure your oral narrative.

  • Once you’re confident with illustrating, why not breathe life into them in a video abstract or animation?

Take-away points

  1. Every artist starts out simple!

  2. You can draw anything if you can pick out what shapes to use to make an image.

  3. You can tell a story by drawing simple symbols and icons.

We’re only at the tip of the iceberg with what you could do to make scientific illustrations. If you found this blog useful, perhaps you'd consider subscribing to our newsletter?

Until next time!


Juan Miguel Balbin

Dr Tullio Rossi

#scientificillustration #Twitter