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New course merges science and art

Florida Scrub-Jay illustration by Emily HillWith one parent a physician and the other an artist and musician, Dr. Amy Keagy went off to college thinking it was likely that only one would be happy with her career choice. That all changed when her biology professor saw a sketch Keagy had made of a specimen and suggested she explore the field of scientific illustration. It was the first time she realized that she could combine her love of science and art.

Now a biology lecturer at UNF and a freelance scientific illustrator, she wants biology students to see that art is a great addition to science. To do that, she is teaching Scientific Illustration as a summer elective. Thirteen biology majors are learning the techniques they will need to create scientific illustrations for presentations and publications. They will create a portfolio, submit two illustrations to a gallery show Aug. 4 in the Biology Building, and develop a presentation on an organism they have been observing and illustrating during the course.

“I would have loved to have taken a class like this,” said Keagy, whose personal oil painting and illustrations of plants embellish her office walls. “I think there is a strong connection between the arts and sciences, and that many people who gravitate to the sciences have that creative experience of music or art in their background.”

To pursue both her interests and a love of teaching, Keagy earned undergraduate degrees in biology and art, a master’s degree in botany and later a doctorate in education. She also discovered the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators where she found many kindred spirits.

As a freelancer, she continues to help other professors who need illustrations for publications, explaining that photographs are seldom used because details can be missing depending on the angle and lighting. For example, to determine the species of certain snakes and reptiles requires counting the number of scales on the head. “Rather than rely on the resolution of the photo, an illustrator will study the reptile under the microscope, count the scales and depict them accurately,” Keagy said. “It’s that kind of detail that you can’t get from photography.”

Yet photography can be used as a first step in creating an illustration. Emily Hill, a rising senior and student in the class, took a photo of a juvenile Mexican alligator lizard at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens during a class trip. She was then able to use the image as a first layer in the digital illustration app Procreate® and add layers of ink and air brushing for texture. When she removed the photo layer, she had an accurate illustration.

Mexican Alligator LizardHill said they explored many art concepts in the course and also the importance of being detail oriented and applying the knowledge from their scientific courses to make accurate works of art. “I loved having a creative outlet that combined my two passions of art and science,” Hill said. “I am so grateful for having the opportunity to take this class.”

After hearing similar positive comments from students, Keagy hopes to be able to teach the course again. She had originally thought of offering it as an interdisciplinary course and making it available to students in other sciences as well as art students. “In that way, art students would be learning more science, and science students would be learning more art,” she said.

Illustrations of the Florida Scrub-Jay and the Juvenile Mexican Alligator Lizard shown above were created by biology student Emily Hill in Dr. Amy Keagy's Scientific Illustration class this summer. All student work will be on exhibition Thursday, Aug. 4 from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the UNF Biology Department, Building 59, 2502.