Interview: Diana Marques (part 1)

First part of an interview with one of the top names in the field of Scientific illustration

December 20, 2012
(Diana Marques)

Diana Marques loves tea, cats and insects and is fond of art in its various forms. She is known as a Portuguese scientific illustrator, author of several national and international works. She stood out most recently as the responsible for creating the animal illustrations for a collection of stamps for the United Nations, with the theme of “endangered species”.

She went to the United States to study, and for several years has collaborated with the Natural History Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington.

Diana was kind enough to talk with me for this two-part interview. Hope you enjoy!

Susana Pereira – How did the passion for scientific illustration start?

Diana Marques – It started when I still didn’t know what was scientific illustration. I always liked to draw and enjoyed nature, despite not having had truly rural experiences, like many illustrators have.

Endangered Species UN Stamps series
(image: UN)

When attending compulsory education, Diana was advised to study landscape architecture due to the results of vocational tests, but she knew it just didn’t match what she was looking for. Then opted to study sciences, however she missed the artistic side, which led her to attend a drawing course for 3 years at the National Society of Fine Arts, in parallel with a Biology graduate course. In the meantime she had the opportunity to attend a course in scientific illustration with Pedro Salgadoand refers that:

DM – I remember that, somehow, I felt a “click” at that moment, there was a certain understanding that the two areas could combine in scientific illustration and that made sense to me.

When asked about the importance of scientific illustration, Diana analyzes it from the perspective of its usefulness in the past and present:

DM – The scientific illustration had a very large historical importance of registration of flora and fauna when there was no other form of visual communication.

The illustrator also raises awareness of the importance of scientific illustration, even after the advent of photography:

DM – Everything that is not photographed, needs to be communicated in science, such as chemical processes (usually communicated through diagrams) or phenomena and geological structures, such as the way a volcano works, or what happens when an earthquake occurs, and the way gas exchanges occur between cells. These are all communicated through scientific illustrations.

Diana also points out that the notion of scientific illustration associated with a very detailed picture of an animal or plant isolated in a narrow page is a very reduced way to look at it.

DM – Depending on the purpose, we use more or less diagrammatic images, which may vary also in the scientific subject, the graphic style and the techniques that are used.

When questioned about the graphic style she prefers, the illustrator said that, more recently, she has given greater preference for digital illustration and explains why:

DM – It’s a style that I like and that has a lot of challenges, not only by the continuous development of graphics editing software, but the methodical process that must follow the graphic illustration and because, in digital, the tools we use give us a bigger number of possible combinations and results than when using traditional techniques.

However she emphasizes that digital techniques cannot replace the traditional ones. She adds that a good illustrator should start with pencil and brush, master them and then move to the computer, because as an initial learning tool it is more difficult:

DM – Just because a computer has copy-paste, it doesn’t mean that we make an illustration better and more easily. We are the ones controling the machine, the illustration comes out of our head. A scientific illustrator who is not good at what he is doing, will not make a good illustration on the computer. He can do it faster than you if he has mastered the tools, but doesn’t have an easier task.

Thinking about photography and illustration as visual media in science communication, Diana stresses the fact that the photograph, despite being extremely valuable and essential in visual communication, has limitations that don’t apply to scientific illustration:

DM – The scientific illustrator is the one who controls the information that is included or omitted in an illustration. On the other hand the photographer is restricted to a number of decisions that have to do with the time of day, the light, the position and has to deal with technical limitations such as depth of field.

The truth is that the camera captures just what is ahead of the lens. The illustrator has no limits: you can look at several photos, you can talk to experts, can read texts, take a look at illustrations made by others on the same subject, and it is the compilation of all this information that makes the output, the scientific illustration.

This editing and customization of the visual information is not controlled by a photographer, but it is by and illustrator. Also, there are many topics in science that cannot be photographed, like the Milky Way or the dinosaurs. The interpretation of the existing information allows an illustrator to make representations of these things that cannot be photographed.

Milky way, illustrated by Diana Marques
Milky Way, illustrated by Diana Marques


The illustration as a result of interpretation of scientific data suggests two interesting issues: the emergence of differences between representations of different illustrators (even when concerning the same subject) and the fact that scientific illustration follows closely the evolution of scientific knowledge, with all its advances and backwards moviments:

DM – If we look at the first representations of dinosaurs and the most recent ones, they reflect the evolution of scientific knowledge on the subject. If at any time we thought a particular dinosaur was sedentary or that used to lie down in a certain way, the illustrator translates that into images, but later science might contradict itself, which happens often.

On the evolution of scientific illustration:

DM – I think the scientific illustration has been “changing”. The goal we have is the same. However, now we cover more topics and there is greater variety of media and techniques, which I think has created the need for a scientific illustrator to be a generalist. This need is also due to the fact that today there is no “market” for illustrators who focus too much on one topic and there is a need to respond to offers that arise in this area.


In the second part of this conversation, Diana talks about some of the works in which she was envolved, as well as the projects she is working on, that bridges together scientific illustration and the use of technologies recently become practicable, to bring a new look at the future of science museums. Don’t miss it!

Written by Susana Pereira

Susana Simões Pereira, maths teacher and PhD in science teaching and communication. I enjoy games and photography and I'm passionate for science and art, specially when together in the same context. You can follow my updates on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.