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The art of bringing science to life

Images capture our attention, inform us, and engage our imagination — revealing new perspectives in an instant. Which is why scientists often rely upon visualizations to convey their findings.

But what makes a good scientific illustration? To find out, we spoke with Nicolas Antille, a scientific visualization expert who has produced award-winning illustrations made with tools he engineered for the Human Brain Project and the Blue Brain Project.

His latest work with the University of Geneva focuses on research and development of virtual reality experiences that combine highly detailed 3D reconstructions of reptiles with digital simulations of the evolution of skin patterns. 

The first thing I want to ask is why do researchers hire scientific illustrators? What does custom illustration bring to a research project?

The first reason is to reveal science in a way that words sometimes cannot convey. Quality visualizations allow scientists to communicate to their peers and to the public, to present their results, to get funding, and to increase the visibility of their research.

<strong>The fascinating brain.</strong> Detail from mural commissioned by Human Brain Project, reconstructing the first large-scale digital circuit of human neurons in the temporal lobe. Courtesy Nicolas Antille.

If traditional scientific illustration is rather descriptive, scientific visualization with computers is more active and participative. Visualization experts are more integrated with the actual research and often work at the forefront of digital innovation. They combine experience in engineering and in the arts to analyze, reconstruct, and present digital data in insightful and sometimes novel ways. 

This gives scientists new perspectives on their work, on top of producing impactful results such as images, movies, or interactive virtual reality experiences.

Can you give us some insight into how you work?

I work in close collaboration with scientists. I lead visualization projects, and I work either with a team or autonomously. In my work, there are four parts:

  1. Evaluating requests, analyzing data, learning about the actual research, finding relevant scientific literature, prototyping and seeing what is technically and artistically feasible.

  2. Engineering solutions and tools that use concrete data for reconstruction and visualization. For this I need a working knowledge of programming, data structures, data processing, and linear algebra.

  3. Creating the artwork, blending visual design and artistic interpretation, and making a representation of scientific content with a strong narrative. For certain projects, defining user experience, interactions, and animations. Above all, a design vision and a sound architecture of the visualization is vital.

  4. Leading a team of experts, fostering collaborations, managing projects and expectations from stakeholders, overcoming difficulties to achieve results with available resources.

<strong>Digital neuroscience.</strong> Detail from mural artwork based on MRI data and The Virtual Brain, revealing functional pathways in the human brain. Courtesy Nicolas Antille.

For example, the Human Brain Project requested my services for its new branding and for a major exhibition at the German National Parliament in Berlin where my scientific murals were presented to politicians and to the public. 

I decided to reveal a unique view of the sheer complexity of the human brain at a scale never visualized before: a large-scale digital circuit of the temporal lobe in the human brain. This required making a meaningful visualization of millions of cells made of hundreds of branches, each connected by billions of synapses. That was a big technical and artistic challenge.

I reviewed scientific literature, liaised with neuroscientists, and then I engineered new tools. When it came time to reconstruct this very organized jungle of branches in 3D, I went into this digital forest as an artist and worked on the aspect of cells, on the scientific details I wanted to reveal, and on the global composition.

After many tests, I finally found the equilibrium for the mural as I had envisioned it: a representation of the great structure that we all have within ourselves which emerges from a chaotic, yet very organized and functional jungle of cells and branches, revealing a world of mysterious and beautiful details. The fascination of life, made tangible by art.

<strong> A world of mysterious and beautiful details.</strong> To create this mural series, Antille reviewed scientific literature, curated data, and researched and developed two new visualization tools.  Courtesy Nicolas Antille.

I find the same biological complexity in my current work on the virtual reality visualization of the natural evolution of animals such as large reptiles. I then develop ways to use microscopy and scanner data to reconstruct in detail the skin of reptiles onto which I show simulation data of the evolution of patterns.

On top of that, I use my artistic license to reconstruct a 3D life-like environment for the reptile and I design the narrative and interactions in virtual reality. I also use motion-capture infrared cameras to capture reptile motion and reproduce that in VR. It’s thrilling – and a privilege – to blend biology with computational research and to create novel visualizations. 

How much room is there in scientific illustration for artistic freedom?

There is surprisingly a great amount of freedom in this field. If the scientific content is my canvas, it’s a starting point but not a boundary. I often think and work beyond the canvas. Creativity can be expressed at all stages of a project. As long as I do not misrepresent scientific research, I have the freedom to define what the workflow and result will be, which gives me an idea of the challenges I’ll face to get there.

In digital science, data and models are a simplification—an abstraction of reality. With artistic license, and based on sound scientific knowledge and research, I recreate biologically accurate details that get lost in the simplification process. 

We all relate much better to a visual experience when it contains a wealth of scientific details that we are free to explore. This is part of what takes a scientific artwork beyond the superficial. I also explore uncharted territories, such as revealing new views of data at a larger scale. For that to happen, artistic and technical creativity is mandatory to overcome standard limitations.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Even in this highly digital age, I’m inspired by past masters such as the classical painters of the 17th century (Caravaggio, Rubens, etc.). The dynamics of their compositions and the use of chiaroscuro contribute to the narrative strength of their works. In order to produce quality artworks, an artistic background and a strong sense of aesthetics are necessary. Composition, colors, texture, depth, and shape are essential elements of visual communication.

<strong> Abstraction of reality.</strong> Mural detail of a dark region of the brain, showing cell nuclei and spines. Colors reveal structural properties such as layers, cell morphology type, and synaptic class. Courtesy Nicolas Antille.

I’m also very inspired by the fauna and flora I observe in nature and by reading all kinds of scientific articles. The more I learn about how plants and animals come to life and evolve, the more I want to know and share that with everybody in a visual form. My wife Stéphanie is a great source of inspiration and motivation. Her background in literature and the history of art and her keen attention to details fuel our discussions about art and how we perceive it. She’s also a great critic of my work. This really helps at times of doubt and self-questioning.

Another source of inspiration that contributes to my daily work are scientific publications on applied mathematics and algorithms for a wide range of purposes. Looking at the latest technology, publications, and open source documentation, I can make decisions on whether to integrate certain elements in my work and to explore and test certain approaches.

Do you have any advice for a young person interested in doing this kind of work?

My work is multidisciplinary, so anyone interested in this kind of career needs a background in engineering, management, and visual design in a variety of domains. One needs strong motivation, curiosity, and the will to learn on multiple fronts. In my case, it has been a very rich and rewarding experience.

The field of digital scientific visualization is only at its beginning. New technologies are heavily influencing this domain. Today’s trends are all about data processing, scanning, photogrammetry, machine learning, virtual reality.

Whatever can be automated is given an extraordinary value in our society, which of course leaves many open questions about the ethics of the world we are shaping. In the case of scientific visualization, its future is also bound to automation and this is where someone with a broader vision and a design background will make a difference.

Whatever your orientation, it’s all about communicating scientific research and inspiring people with accurate, insightful and beautiful visualizations.

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All images courtesy Nicolas Antille © 2020. All rights reserved.

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