The Way Nature Works (1992) / by Justine Lee Hirten

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The Way Nature Works (1992) was a perfect find for my library — illustrated encyclopedias on natural history are always brimming with inspiration and useful examples of science illustration and diagrams. It’s a 350 page book with over 900 illustrations so I had a tough time being selective with my scans. I have broken things up into a few sections.

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This book is unlike a lot of the books I have covered so far since it involves a wide array of artists and some licensed images rather than being illustrated by a single person. As I have collected more natural history encyclopedias I have seen some of the images return and repeat in different books, it can feel a little less special than some of the encyclopedic volumes like Singer’s Birds of the World which I featured in a previous post. Working solo on projects like this is a huge undertaking and creates something truly unique but on the other hand, books featuring a high volume of artwork from a wide array of artists are incredible in their density of information and in their diverse aesthetic and communication styles. You could flip through the pages and find a helpful example for almost any kind of science illustration project.

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These illustrated encylopedias are excellent for visual learners and a great source of inspiration for young readers — this is definitely the kind of book I would’ve grabbed from the library as a kid and been amazed by the complexities of nature even if I couldn’t understand the text. The graphics you find in these books feel harder to find now that they are just not as accessible online — it’s hard to find websites or online encyclopedias that have this much graphic information all in one place. Consider taking a minute to look up the topics from the following pages online and see if the web results are comparable in the images they provide — for the most part you will find that online resources are text heavy with some photographs and there is a lot of information that is left up to the reader to visualize in their mind. These visual encyclopedias have tons of information and visualizations in one place and are designed for a general audience who may not be able to grasp the information without more visual tools. These books are a great addition to any illustration collection and a helpful reference for science communicators.

Diagrams, charts, clades, visualizations…

I love this lake volume illustration. It’s very stylish and impactful — a little unclear on how accurate it is (no units) but it’s a graphic that really grabbed me in its simplicity. I paired it with a much more complex diagram showing the transmission cycle of malaria which requires a lot more text accompaniment and fits a much more complicated concept into a single illustration. These kinds of graphics are a huge challenge to me — I don’t abstract information well, my brain primarily wants to do representational art showing what can be seen by eye. It’s easy to see diagrams as being less “artistic” than something like a detailed scene or colorful rendering but these pieces require a lot of creativity and problem-solving to look at information differently and create visual languages necessary to show viewers unseen information.

I also included some family trees below — I like stylish clade illustrations and I thought these were pretty cute, I like the color and the style of these silhouettes. There are always little ways to make a simple chart both clearly readable and visually attractive.

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Earth science

This is not something I feature very often since my collection is very bird-centric but I’m interested in seeing more and learning more about this type of science illustration. I gravitated toward the more richly painted and scenic graphics in this section of the book rather than the more flat-colored or simplified pieces — I love the sort of surreal quality the detailed rendering lends to these artworks, the glacier piece feels particularly like the Earth is some kind of rich layer cake being carved open. I also love the patterned look of the cutaway in the ocean floor illustration contrasted with the detailed surface.

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Cutaways and glow-throughs

Cutaways and glow-throughs are everywhere in books like these — It’s a go-to for anatomy and physiology, and I think everyone loves a good cutaway habitat illustration that lets us peek inside of nests and burrows and other hidden worlds. I love this strange, slightly creepy hedgehog drawing and the wealth of information in the ant symbiosis pages.

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Sequential illustrations

I had a hard time narrowing down choices for scans in this category — changes over time, movement through space, behavior, interactions, there are tons of great applications for sequential art in science communication. I tried to choose a nice variety of approaches and compositions. The “Water Babies” graphic is a favorite, looks like a little board game!

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Habitat illustrations

Another beloved natural history illustration genre! All the wildlife and environmental information crammed into one space but rendered in colorful realism — it’s like a staged family portrait for ecology. I included some that are more painted and some that have more graphic design elements. For me it’s the painted scenes that make me feel nostalgic admiration, I’d love to take a stab at this type of illustration. It’s a feast for the eyes.

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I hope you find these selections inspiring and fun! Unfortunately I had some trouble discerning the creators for most of these images, the artist credits page doesn’t cover every illustration in the book but if you would like to know the artist for any of these images please let me know and I will see if I can do some detective work. These are the kinds of books I use for inspiration for self-imposed “homework” — I keep a list on my computer of challenges I can give myself based on the content, methods, and styles of images in my encyclopedias and collections. These days I mostly use the list as a basis for the Natural Science Illustration Discord server’s Sci Art Challenge, which provides monthly prompts to our users. You can join here if you are interested in participating.