Sketchy information: illustration as a tool of understanding

Symposium considers drawing’s role in refining and communicating knowledge, from geology to surgery to unicorns

November 14, 2013

Sketches of reality: illustrations can communicate information but can also be used to mislead

The role of illustration as an “active means of interrogating, investigating and communicating knowledge and understanding” came under scrutiny at an international symposium in Oxford last week.

Paul Smith, director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (which hosted the event), presented a paper on Charles Lapworth, “one of the great unsung heroes of Victorian science”.

Even now, he observed, geology is a discipline where “primary data-gathering is done through illustration, boiling down the landscape into a testable hypothesis”. In Lapworth’s 1882 notebooks, it’s possible to see him “trying to get a feel for the patterns in the landscape” and developing a radical new theory about the formation of the Scottish Highlands solely through sketches and maps with only an occasional few words of text.

Illustration can play an equally important role in medicine. Francis Wells, a cardiothoracic surgeon who is also an associate lecturer at the University of Cambridge, described how his own interest in draughtsmanship, and particularly the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, had provided crucial insights into the progress of a disease affecting the valves in the human heart.

Uta Kornmeier, a researcher at the Center for Literary and Cultural Research in Berlin, recalled being approached by a surgeon who did not consider himself an artist but was required “literally to sculpt the bones of babies affected by craniosynostosis into a different shape”.

The very idea of “reconstruction”, she went on, “implies a correct shape, though what that means is not discussed in the medical literature”. Surgical textbooks offer little guidance on the shape of a “normal” skull, and even anatomy textbooks have little to say about babies’ skulls.

Adopting a more historical approach, Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of the history of art at the University of Oxford, examined the “rhetorics of the real”: the visual tricks that artists use to convince viewers to take on trust what they are shown. In the past, he argued, “it wasn’t daft to believe in unicorns”, since people could cite seemingly reliable sources and pictures classifying a number of subspecies. Equally important were the techniques of what Leonardo called “combinatory imagination”, which can be highly effective in producing “convincing monsters”.

Designer Johnny Hardstaff, meanwhile, turned to “future graphic languages” as he described three short films he made for director Ridley Scott to address the question of how “humanity might broadcast its existence to alien life”.

Science, Imagination and the Illustration of Knowledge was the fourth International Illustration Symposium organised by the Illustration Research Network, supported by the University of the Arts London and Camberwell Press. The third symposium was held at the Ethnographic Museum in Cracow, Poland in 2012. Material from that event features prominently in a peer-reviewed publication, the Journal of Illustration, which was launched by Intellect at this year’s symposium.

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