When you’ve got a good thing going, word gets around. The Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design offers a course created and taught by Professor Brad Smith called Making Science Visible that is an introduction to science illustration – and so much more. Scores of students look forward to enrolling once they have completed prerequisite classes that prepare them to draw and design visual narratives.

A unique aspect of the course is that it’s a team effort with the U-M Museum of Zoology. The UMMZ collection managers take students on a tour to introduce them to the animal collections while sharing their extensive knowledge about the creatures. Out of myriad possibilities, students must narrow their choice to a single specimen to spend the semester getting acquainted with on multiple levels.

Iris Sun, a junior majoring in art and design, was drawn to a parrot (Aprosmictus erythropterus). “I love all kinds of birds,” Sun said. She wanted to paint something colorful and beautiful. She appreciates the studio class and all the resources it offers -- drawing from actual species instead of from pictures and the variety of mediums they’re exploring. “I really appreciate how the museum is giving us access to the collections outside of class time. The staff is supportive and patient.”

Angela Yee, an EEB major, sketches the spiny softshell turtle and likes the intersection of science and art the class provides. Image: Dale Austin

Angela Yee, a senior whose major is ecology, evolution and biodiversity (EEB) with an art and design minor chose a spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera). She felt it was less common than hard shell turtles and that it would be more challenging to draw. Regarding the juvenile specimens she is working with that are several inches long from snout to tail, she said they grow much larger. She also had spiny softshell turtle skeletons and was interested to compare them to hard shell turtle skeletons. She likes how the class is “an intersection of art and science,” especially because she plans to pursue both interests in life.

Allysa Benedict appreciates the patterns on the reptiles and amphibians and selected the dwarf chameleon because she thinks it’s cute. Image: Dale Austin

Allysa Benedict is an art and design junior who’s minoring in biology. She’s working with a dwarf chameleon (Brookesia peraramata), native to Madagascar. “Looking at the different reptiles, I liked the patterns on their skin,” Benedict said. She selected her specimen because she thought it was cute. “I don’t think he changes colors at all.” She learned that it’s a leaf chameleon that hangs out on forest floor among dead leaves for camouflage. She’s interested in medical illustration and loves observational drawing, so the course is a perfect fit.

Una Koh explores the sunfish through illustration. Image: Dale Austin

Una Koh, a junior majoring in art and design selected a sunfish, also known as a common black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus).

“When seeing all the different animal groups, I was indecisive, but I really like fish,” she said, and she had heard of sunfish. For her final project, she was thinking about illustrating the fish in a human environment, perhaps tucked into a bed. But, it was early in the semester and plans often change as they learn more about their specimen. Doug Nelson, collection manager for the Division of Fish, shared a book on fish anatomy with her and she is learning the names of various fins and more.

On the day we observed class, Smith advised the students is to “think broadly and be creative.” And to “consider both what you observe and what you want to say about the specimen. What attributes and personality do you want to push forward?”

The winter 2018 semester marked Smith’s fifth time teaching Making Science Visible. He is a professor in Stamps School of Art and Design and a research professor in the Department of Radiology. As students work through the semester’s five assignments with their critter partner, their experience of the specimen morphs with each interpretation they make. The five assignments that comprise the arc of the class are:

1. Draw the specimen with fidelity and accuracy through visual observation only.

2. Photographic representation of specimen.

3. X-ray specimen using digital mammography.

4. Conceptual illustration, to explain an idea about specimen, for example, its behavior, metabolics or evolutionary history. Throughout the semester, students read about, study and investigate their specimen.

5. Emotional response, students explain how they feel about their specimen using a medium of their choice. The sum of the students’ experiences coalesce in the final assignment, which range from sculptures and paintings to a performance.

Smith wanted his students to work with real material that they could touch, turn and interact with rather than just looking at drawings or photos. Additionally, they gain the experience of working with a museum specimen.

Jun Pyo was interested in the butterfly because it has no pigment and yet the light creates its dazzling coloration. Image: Dale Austin

UMMZ provides a great, student-friendly and convenient opportunity. Smith cites the collection managers’ energetic enthusiasm, insightful suggestions, how generous they were with their time, and the productive, unselfish, and knowledgeable support they shared.

“It is one of the most successful and well-enrolled classes at our school because of the expression of interest and support, and the knowledge offered to the students by the UMMZ staff,” Smith said.

The collection managers at UMMZ are: Bird Division: Janet Hinshaw; Fish Division: Doug Nelson; Insect Division: Barry O’Connor (acting collection manager); Mammal Division: Cody Thompson; Mollusk Division: Taehwan Lee; Reptiles and Amphibians Division: Greg Schneider. EEB Ph.D. student Trevor Hewitt, who works with Lee, introduced his research to the class. For the first time, the class took place at the Research Museums Center on Varsity Dr., Ann Arbor, where all the collections are now housed.

Jun Pyo, a third year art and design major, was drawn to a butterfly (Morpha cypris) because of its brilliant color despite it having no pigment. “I like the wings and the color,” Pyo said. He thinks his final project will incorporate light and added, “I want it to look more abstract.”

For her final project, Anna DiNardi is considering creating a garment representative of the bat’s folded wings, such as a wrap or shawl that incorporates the bat’s texture. Image: Dale Austin

Anna DiNardi, a 3rd year student majoring in art and design and neuroscience is working with the greater bulldog bat or fishing bat (Noctilio leporinus mastivus). “I like bats,” she said. “Most eat fruit or insects, but this one swoops down and catches fish from the water.” She also was drawn to its character and facial expression. For her final project, she’s considering textiles and how to create a garment representative of the bat wrapping its wings around the body, “maybe a wrap or shawl using the bat’s texture.”

She’s fascinated by bats in general, but especially how they communicate using sonar. “They are mammals with such a different way of communicating. I’ve been waiting to take this class since I got here.” She was delighted when she had the opportunity to enroll. Clearly, their instructor’s enthusiasm is contagious. Courses such as this one are emblematic of Michigan as the leaders and best.  

To see Smith’s creative photography throughout the class and to learn more, visit the Making Science Visible blog

Previously in EEB web news: Getting to know you: unique scientific illustration class explores UMMZ collection

See some of the final results from the class in this photo gallery