How Lithography Shaped the History of Biology Illustrations

man working on an illustration of a grizzly bear
A man working on an illustration of a grizzly bear

Biology illustrations are visual representations of biological subjects, such as animals, plants, cells, and organs. They are used to communicate scientific information, such as anatomy, classification, function, and evolution. Biology illustrations have a long and rich history, dating back to the prehistoric cave paintings and ancient manuscripts. However, one of the most influential techniques that revolutionized the field of biology illustrations was lithography.

Lithography is a printing method that was invented in 1796 by Alois Senefelder, a German author and actor. The word lithography means “stone drawing” in Greek, because it originally used a smooth and flat limestone as the printing surface. The principle of lithography is based on the immiscibility of oil and water. The artist would draw the image on the stone with a greasy substance, such as oil, fat, or wax. Then, the stone would be moistened with water and inked with an oil-based ink. The ink would only stick to the greasy parts of the stone, where the image was drawn. The inked image would then be transferred to a paper sheet by pressing it against the stone. Lithography allowed for the production of high-quality and detailed prints that could capture the colors and textures of the original drawings.

Lithography was widely used by artists, scientists, and publishers to create illustrations of various subjects, including biology. Lithography enabled the creation of realistic and accurate images of living organisms, as well as artistic and expressive ones. Lithography also made it possible to mass-produce and distribute biology illustrations to a wider audience, thus increasing the accessibility and popularity of biological knowledge.

Some of the most famous and influential biology illustrators who used lithography were:

  • John James Audubon (1785-1851): An American naturalist and painter who is best known for his monumental work The Birds of America, which contains 435 life-size prints of North American birds. Audubon used lithography to reproduce his original watercolor paintings, which he made from observing and sketching live and dead specimens. Audubon’s lithographs are remarkable for their realism, detail, and beauty. 
  • Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919): A German biologist and artist who is famous for his work Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature), which contains 100 prints of various organisms, many of which were first described by Haeckel himself. Haeckel used lithography to illustrate his discoveries and theories, such as the concept of the phylogenetic tree and the recapitulation theory. Haeckel’s lithographs are stunning for their symmetry, diversity, and aesthetics. 
  • Edward Lear (1812-1888): An English artist and poet who is well-known for his nonsense poems and limericks, such as The Owl and the Pussycat. Lear was also a prolific and talented biology illustrator, who specialized in birds and mammals. Lear used lithography to create vivid and expressive images of exotic animals, such as parrots, monkeys, and elephants. Lear’s lithographs are notable for their humor, charm, and personality. 

These are just some examples of how lithography shaped the history of biology illustrations. Lithography was a powerful and versatile technique that allowed biology illustrators to showcase their artistic and scientific skills, and to share their discoveries and insights with the world.

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