Drawn to Ecology: How sketch notes can enhance your science experience

Enhance your sketching toolkit at the #ESA100 “Communicating Science Vividly” workshop!

Guest post by Bethann Garramon Merkle

Everyone can sketch – even you.

Researchers have demonstrated that drawing (even without training) can:

There is even evidence that collaboration between scientists and artists may result in better science.

This makes sense, because the history of science and art are closely intertwined.

Prior to the advent of cameras, scientific inquiry required drawing. The drawings and paintings of Leonardo da VinciMaria Sybilla MerianJohn James Audubon, and the maps drawn by Samuel Champlain and Lewis & Clark were tools and data that drove scientific discoveries around the world.

Fast forward to the modern era – our understanding of the world back then would be impoverished had those scientists and citizens not made drawings. At the same time, we now collectively avoid sketching because drawing has become art, and art (like science) has become specialized.

And yet, drawing is not a domain exclusive to the pros.  

After all, the curiosity, close observation, recording, and critical thinking required for drawing should seem quite familiar to any scientist.

This is exactly why drawing has been part of the SciComm Section’s workshops for the past two years.

I lead the workshop section on drawing and sketching, and participants have a blast doing blind contours, tracings, shadow tracings, and other basic drawing technique exercises in a roomful of fellow scientists and science communicators. We focus on observation over “art,” and build a drawing toolkit anyone can use.

Conference relevance: Visual note taking (aka “sketchnoting”) isn’t just for artists

At last year’s conference, in response to the drawing workshop, a handful of mountain ecology researchers launched a #sketchyourscience initiative that drew colorful responses from a host of researchers.


As we wrote at the time:

“Like Tweeting, but arguably more compelling (and perhaps more daunting), compressing your work into a single sketch is a true exercise in honing your multimedia multi-disciplinary SciComm skills.”


And, scientific sketchnotes aren’t exclusive to ESA conferences, either.

Right now, social media is awash with visual notes from other science conferences, and many of these sketches were inspired by an American Fisheries Society Fisheries magazine article penned by  Natalie Sopinka (@phishdoc). Natalie’s article succinctly distills several science illustrators’ advice for making meaningful and satisfying sketchnotes.



Try it yourself. Quick tips for sketching at #ESA2015:

  • Using only two complimentary colors (blue & orange) can make you look like you know what you’re doing! Sketched from conference exhibit (ballpoint pen & crayon)

    Keep your supplies simple and portable. A ballpoint pen and one color (marker, colored pencil, even a crayon!) can produce delightful results.

  • Use frames to organize/design page layout. You can even set up your pages in advance, making frames for intro, main points, conclusion, key questions, etc.
  • Incorporate text into your sketches. Be sure to include your own questions and observations. Your personal “feedback” will make the sketches particularly interesting/valuable to you later.
  • Use only one spot/accent color. Realistic colors are hard to achieve quickly in a dark room. Instead, use color as a design device, to highlight key points or thought flows.
  • Using a quick sketch to capture the essence. Even if your sketch isn’t technically accurate, it will help you make or remember a point.
  • Think of yourself as a curator. Don’t try to capture everything, and don’t worry about what you should capture. Sketch what interests you.

Want to take sketching seriously? Here are a few resources for sketchnoting and drawing:

What doodling can do for your brain:


About the author: 

Bethann Garramon Merkle is an award-winning artist/science communicator currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Wyoming. Connect with her online via Twitter (@commnatural.com) or her website (www.commnatural.com).

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This article is the third in the SciComm Section’s 2015 series on science communication in ecology. Click here to view the full series, or click here to check out our 2014 series!