Column Visual Nature: looking at a lion for the first time
Column Visual Nature: looking at a lion for the first time
Column Visual Nature: looking at a lion for the first time
Column Visual Nature: looking at a lion for the first time

Column Visual Nature: looking at a lion for the first time

Visual Loop, a reference platform for data viz and infographics invited me to write a regular column on the subject of scientific illustration. This is how Visual Nature came to be, a bi-monthly collaboration. Read the first post online or below.

Looking at a Lion for the First Time

Today seems to be a good day to begin this column. Sunny days in Washington DC always put me in a good mood, as do the cherry trees blossoming at this time of year.

Introducing myself was probably in order; but I’ll refer you instead to the kind interview done by Susana Pereira which sparked my collaboration with Visual Loop, and thank the gentle and unrestricted invitation by Tiago Veloso to ramble about “a few of my favorite things”: Science, in particular natural history for the purpose of this column + Art, and everything that visually comes in between, namely scientific illustration, animation, data visualization and infographics. I’ll use this space to talk about these topics in the past, present and future, hoping to meet the interest of you out there, with a Visual Nature.

I guess one could say I’m not too difficult to please, sun and flowers seem to make a good contribution. However today had plenty more – a visit to the Albrecht Dürer exhibit at the National Gallery of Art brought the long-waited opportunity to see the original work of that remarkable artist.

Most likely you have heard of Dürer as the influential 15th century German artist, regarded for drawings, watercolors, engravings and woodcuts; fortunately, unlike many others, he got a good share of recognition for his mastery during his lifetime. Portraits, landscapes, religious and allegorical themes, studies of drapery and even designs for decorative arts were some of his subjects, besides thorough research on the proportions of the human body to include in four books authored by him. A true Renaissance polymath in Nuremberg.

However to me, the real dimension and importance of Dürer’s work come from his connection with natural subjects since drawing nature and from nature was not at the top five list of most artists at the time. Inviting the observer to enter the microcosm of a Great Piece of Turf and look at a remarkably alive dead Roller, is something that only Dürer could pull of. These are not sketches or studies to later include in final paintings; these are the final paintings. Dürer could indeed “paint anything” (according to Erasmus of Rotterdam) and he understood that only by looking at nature he could create high level art.

But you know what was most revealing? Looking at the lions. They are a recurrent presence in Dürer’s work and made me a little uneasy throughout the exhibit rooms. Did he mean to draw mythological creatures? Elaborate on a cross between a lion, a dog and a bear?! This can’t be the same person who drew the Hare, I thought.

Well, the answer came soon after, with the following sketch done at a zoo. Only in 1521 Dürer saw a live lion for the first time and was so enthralled that depicted it in different positions and wrote about the animal in his sketchbook. Finally a real lion, with the freshness of the artist’s parallel lines and the accuracy that marks his work. A story not so different than his well-known rendering of a rhino, created from written descriptions alone.

Accuracy and observation from life are still some of the keywords in the current world of scientific illustration. Most of the time, the motivations are the same as Durer’s as well, in the sense that illustrators try to make reality more informative, more conspicuous and clear.

Next time we’re at the zoo (or in a safari in Africa!), lets take a moment to look at lions for the first time.

  • Fig. 1 – Lion sketch (1495)
  • Fig. 2 – Saint Jerome penitent in the wilderness (1496)
  • Fig. 3 – Saint Jerome in his study (1514)
  • Fig. 4 – Lion sketch done at the zoo (1521)