Beautiful Data: The Art of Science Field Notes

By Betsy Mason

  • July 12, 2011
Basilisk LizardJenny Keller, copyright 2010

That science has benefited immensely from technological advances in the last few decades, or even the last century, is a fact. But one research tool that many scientists would argue need not be improved is the handwritten field notebook.

Learn more about the art of scientific field notes and illustration in the new book Field Notes on Science & Nature, edited by Michael Canfield.

Even as powerful digital cameras and high-definition video recorders have enabled scientists to gather more visual data than ever before, there’s something about a drawing that cannot be captured digitally. And the act of making and annotating an illustration itself can help a scientist better understand a subject.

The new book Field Notes on Science & Nature, edited by Harvard University biologist Michael Canfield, makes a compelling case for the value of scientific journals and field notebooks and contains some beautiful and impressive examples of the craft.

“The tradition of field notes that grew into its own genre over the past three centuries is still relevant to anyone who studies nature,” Canfield writes. “Although the diversification of field pursuits and the complexity of their studies have expanded the scope and methods for field documentation, the basic role and importance of field notes are unchanged.”

We’ve chosen some of our favorite examples from the book for this gallery. But be warned: If you are a scientist who is currently pursuing another career — like, maybe, journalism — these illustrations may make want to dust off your boots, grab a notebook and head back into the field.


Basilisk Lizard

“The fact is, scientific illustrations can achieve certain things that a photograph cannot,” writes scientific illustrator Jenny Keller. “A good illustration can portray difficult-to-photograph or rarely witnessed events.”

“Sketches created while in the field can also record valuable information — sometimes even more reliably than photography,” Keller writes. “Although cameras are indispensable for capturing fleeting events and complex detail (and I would not go into the field without one), they cannot do everything. Colors in photographs are typically (sometimes dramatically) inaccurate, proportions are often distorted, and key features of the species may not be recorded clearly (or captured at all).”

Illustration: The wide range of color saturation that can be created with high-quality colored pencils is evident in this drawing of a basilisk lizard made from a captive specimen at the California Academy of Sciences. (Jenny Keller, copyright 2010)

Eulachon Fish

Eulachon Fish

In the forward to Field Notes, editor Michael Canfield notes that Captain Meriwether Lewis received instructions from President Thomas Jefferson in 1803 to notice and record his observations of plants, animals and minerals on his historic journey westward. Jefferson wrote, “Your observations are to be taken with great pains and accuracy, to be entered distinctly and intelligibly for others as well as yourself” and “that one of these copies be on the paper of the birch, as less liable to injury from damp than common paper.”

Illustration: Meriwether Lewis’s journal notes of the Eulachon fish (Thaleichthys pacificus), made on Feb. 24, 1806 while Lewis was near Fort Clatsop, Oregon. Used by permission of the American Philosophical Society. (Harvard University Press)



Ecologist and zoological illustrator Jonathan Kingdon is a world authority on African mammals at the University of Oxford. He credits his mother with getting him started with scientific illustration, writing, “Because there was no school nearby and because my mother was a trained artist and art teacher, my first lessons from her were not in reading and writing but in drawing directly from life. I remember my mother sitting me down at the age of about five with pencil and paper to draw an acacia tree in the yard while she busied herself with her own sketchbook.”

About the above illustration he writes, “A few quick sketches of a hippopotamus allow the difference between sexes, the peculiar architecture of amphibious existence in a giant quadruped, and the combination of biting and antlerlike clashing of enlarged lower jaws at a glance.”

Illustration: Sheet sketches of hippopotamus anatomy and behavior. By Jonathan Kingdon (Harvard University Press)


Jenny Keller, copyright 2010


Science illustrator Jenny Keller’s work has been featured in many books and magazines including National Geographic and Scientific American, and her field notebooks have been exhibited in several venues.

“Drawing makes you look more carefully at your subject. As an observational tool, drawing requires that you pay attention to every detail — even the seemingly unimportant ones,” Keller writes about including drawings in field notebooks. “As it enhances observation, the process of drawing can also reveal different, unexpected aspects of a subject under study…. In science illustration, as well as in science, you never know what will turn out to be important.”

Illustration: The written notes that accompany these moon jelly (Aurelia sp.) sketches supply additional information, and also call attention to important details in the drawings. (Jenny Keller, copyright 2010)

Grinnell Survey

California Survey

In the early 1900’s Joseph Grinnell, the first director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, organized a monumental effort to document California’s plants and animals in their natural state. Teams of scientists embarked on transects across the state from west to east, meticulously documenting the location, density and appearance of the flora and fauna they encountered and collected.

The resulting archive of animal specimens and journal notes has provided today’s scientists with the unparalleled opportunity to follow those same transects and see what has changed during the last century. Grinnell himself predicted the collection’s future value in Popular Science Monthly in 1910:

At this point I wish to emphasize what I believe will ultimately prove to be the greatest purpose of our museum. This value will not, however, be realized until the lapse of many years, possibly a century, assuming that our material is safely preserved. And this is that the student of the future will have access to the original record of faunal conditions in California and the west, wherever we now work. He will know the proportional constituency of our faunae by species, the relative numbers of each species and the extent of the ranges of species as they exist to-day.

Illustration: A page from the field notes of Charles L. Camp illustrating the type of detail contained in the “Grinnell-era” notes. General map (based on the Coulterville 15 min quadrangle available at that time) of area between Coulterville and Dudleys in Mariposa County, with position of traplines marked, elevational contours, life zones and so on given. From the archives of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley. (Harvard University Press)



Biologist Erick Greene of the University of Montana makes a plea in Field Notes for biology field notebooks. “It is ironic that in spite of the rich history of field notebooks in the natural sciences, this tradition appears to be weakening, especially in the very field that spawned the tradition — field biology,” he writes. “I have made the case that field notebooks are still useful — if not essential — in field biology.”

“I can crack the cover of an old field notebook, and these time machines instantly transport me back to watching squadrons of macaws and parrots flying at dusk to roost in palm swamps in Peru, listening to the ‘wahoo’ alarm calls of olive baboons in the Okavango Delta of Botswana as they warn each other of approaching lions, observing teenage male sperm whales flip their tales up as they begin hour-long dives to catch giant squid in a deepwater trench off New Zealand, or watching tens of thousands of migrating harp seals belugas, narwhals, bearded seals, and a mother bowhead whale and her baby stream under arctic cliffs to their summer feeding grounds in Lancaster sound,” Greene writes.

Illustration: Notebook pages from artist and naturalist Claire Emery describing her observations of butterflies in a hawthorne thicket. By Claire Emery. (Harvard University Press)


Geologic Cross-Section

Anna K. Behrensmeyer is Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. She does fieldwork in Africa, Asia and North America and studies human evolution, vertebrate taphonomy, paleoecology and the evolutionary impact of climate change.

“A field notebook is a special kind of journal that adopts the rigorous standards of science while also providing a unique record of our personal experiences as scientists, ” Behrensmeyer writes. “I haven’t counted lately but my career so far must have generated at least 50 notebooks from four different continents and many different countries and field sites.”

About the above illustration she writes, “Photographs are great, but drawing what you see is a more powerful way to learn about spatial patterns and relationships… Much of the documentation in fossil-finding involves recording rock strata associated with the specimens, so it is essential to make ‘cross-section’ diagrams of the layers of strata to show the fossil-producing level or levels and, if possible, their lateral pattern along the outcrop.”

Illustration: A typical notebook from Olorgesailie, Kenya in 2003 diagramming the complex geological relationships of Pleistocene volcanic channel deposits (right-hand page). The Polaroid shows the same area, but only through careful observing and drawing can one figure out the details of such outcrops. By Anna K. Behrensmeyer. (Harvard University Press).

Swordtail Butterfly

Swordtail Butterfly

Tropical ecologist Roger Kitching‘s research at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia focuses on insect ecology, biodiversity, ecosystem management, and canopy science. He has done fieldwork in remote locations in places like India, Papua New Guinea, and Brunei.

“With collecting comes the need to record. It was impressed upon me from the very first that a specimen without a label was simply (sometimes) a pretty object,” Kitching writes about keeping field journals. “I realized at a young age that the circumstances of the object’s capture, the weather, even the feelings of the captor and the experiences surrounding the event were important.”

“Here is a way of bringing to the forefront of my mind events, even incidental detail, which allows a dry, rather telegraphic account of events to be expanded into something that can have a wider appeal.”

Illustration: A watercolor of Pathysa antiphates, a butterfly from Borneo also known as the five-bar swordtail. By Roger Kitching. (Harvard University Press)

Caracal Cat

Caracal Cat

Ecologist Jonathan Kingdon writes that drawing “represents a species of translation that is different from what emerges in photography. Given the new research on how the brain processes visual input and given that drawing is a mental process, no further justification need be made for the utility of drawing in lifting out relevance from within the chaos of actual visual experience.”

About the above illustration he writes, “The iconography of caracal ear- or head-flagging is intricately crafted, and fingers on a pencil can scarcely keep up with the rapidity of their flickering movements. Nonetheless, I believe drawings can be a clearer medium for exploring such a visual Morse code than laborious written accounts or quantified records of frequencies.”

Illustration: Drawings of a caracal cat Caracal flagging its ears and head. By Jonathan Kingdon. (Harvard University Press)

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