Drawing from Nature

Drawing from Nature

An image of a person sketching butterflies in a notebook. Public domain photo from rawpixel.com on Pexels.

Science illustrator Fiorella Ikeue is one of the professional artists who volunteers her time to lead workshops through Yosemite Conservancy's art program.Art is woven into Yosemite's roots as a national park: 19th-century sketches, paintings and photographs helped inspire public-lands legislation that protected the Valley, Mariposa Grove, and the surrounding wilderness.  Science has a long history in Yosemite, too, from John Muir and Galen Clark's early glacier studies and Jean Baptiste Lembert's entomological surveys through modern-day research on songbirds, rockfalls and fire-following flowers. 

Today, with its diverse flora, fauna and natural features, Yosemite serves as an ideal setting to practice a discipline that blends those two worlds: science illustration.

To learn more about how art and science overlap — and why Yosemite is a great place to explore that intersection — we checked in with artist Fiorella Ikeue, who studied science illustration at CSU Monterey Bay, works for the California-based Ink Dwell studio, and will be leading art workshops in the park this October. 


1. How would you define science illustration?

Science illustration is a visual tool to communicate information about science.

2. What first drew you to this field?

I have a background in biology and have always loved creating art, so putting the two together seemed like a good fit.

Science illustrators draw on careful observations to capture intricate details of the natural world, as in this piece by Fiorella Ikeue.3. Why is Yosemite a good place for science illustration?

I recently learned that art and Yosemite have a long history together. Inspired by Yosemite’s beauty, late 19th-century artists and photographers created stunning bodies of work that would play an important role in influencing federal environmental policy — ultimately designating Yosemite as a national park. Because this area has been protected, I imagine than an artist in Yosemite today can experience the same wonder as an artist visiting the Valley over a hundred years ago. 

4. What tips can you offer aspiring illustrators?

Seek out feedback about your work, especially from other artists!

5. How do you think art can play a role in research and/or conservation?

For Fiorella, science illustration isn't just about capturing a particular animal, plant or scene — it's also a way to visualize important concepts, such as how toxins can travel through the food chain. (Artwork by Fiorella Ikeue)Art helps connect the viewer to a scientific concept or an environmental cause through visuals that are easy to understand and compelling. I think this connection with the natural world, be it through seeing a cool illustration or experiencing it in person, is the first step to wanting to learning more about it and protect it.

6. What do you do when you’re not teaching in Yosemite?

I work at Ink Dwell, an art studio that focuses on public art installations relating to the natural world. We are currently in the midst of a national campaign called the “Migrating Mural” where we paint murals along the migration corridors of the monarch butterfly. I also work as a freelance illustrator and recently completed an internship with the eco-conscious clothing company Patagonia. When I’m not making art, I love being outside hiking, kayaking, or learning how to climb.

Sometimes, science illustration gets under the skin — literally! Illustrators often study and sketch the underlying structure of an organism, not just what you see from the outside. (Artwork by Fiorella Ikeue)

7. Rapid-fire question time! What's your favorite...

  • Color: Green
  • Art supply: Colored pencils
  • Thing to illustrate: Iridescent critters
  • Drawing location: In a sunny room or outside, green tea in hand
  • Branch of science: I can't choose — I find them all fascinating!
  • Fun plant or animal fact: The striking iridescence of many animals, such as the blue morpho butterfly, is due to structural color, not pigment.

Do you love sparkling critters, too? You'll find plenty of eye-catching creatures in Yosemite, including rufous and Anna's hummingbirds, whose feather structures can create an iridescent effect. Photos: NPS (left); Ann and Rob Simpson (right)

Want to try your hand at science illustration? Check out our art calendar to find an upcoming workshop! This autumn, we're looking forward to welcoming Fiorella and her fellow CSU Monterey graduate Sean Edgerton (of the California Academy of Sciences) to Happy Isles for a series of workshops in October (Nature Drawing for Beginners and Nature Up Close: Painting Natural Specimens). 

Yosemite Insider