In The Nature Of

An illustrator’s eye

Wildlife illustrator Marc Dando on how the act of drawing can help us to ‘see’

It’s fascinating how much more you see when paying the close attention needed for drawing.

I once took a group of scientists to the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, where they spent an hour or so drawing various creatures. They were amazed by what they noticed, even in fish they had spent years studying but never ‘seen’ so fully before.

I feel that illustration has always been been the most engaging way to explain and understand the natural world. Scientific writing is just as important, but I suspect you are looking at my pictures now more than this text.

Marc Dando drawing of moon jellyfish lifecycle
Lifecycle of the moon jellyfish (from top-left, moving anti-clockwise): A jellyfish medusa releases a fertilised egg. The egg grows into a small larva called a planula, which resembles a microscopic flatworm covered in tiny hairs. The planula swims about seeking a place on the seabed. Once attached, it turns into a polyp. When conditions are right, the polyp becomes a scyphistoma and begins to clone itself. It creates a stack of tiny juvenile jellyfish clones, which are released into the ocean to grow on and become adult medusas. In July and August, the adults are often seen drifting in UK harbours and on beaches.

In the past, before photographs, illustration was the only way to visually represent the natural world. Some antiquarian prints show some rather strange interpretations of the living world, especially the rare and bizarre, and can lead to us wonder how they misinterpreted creatures we are now familiar with. Dead, often decaying, specimens were often drawn, and not having seen the living specimens, a bit of guesswork was added to complement the exaggerated descriptions of travellers’ tales, hearsay and myth.

Today there is much more visual information to hand, but even so, it is still up to the illustrator to interpret this information. Illustrators need to observe not only the visual shapes that make up the whole, but how they layer up and fit together. A photograph, no matter how good, can’t always show everything in one view, which is what an illustrator aims to do.

Collation of correct descriptions, correct photographic material and in person descriptions, as well as a meticulous observation and understanding, is key to any scientific illustrator’s work.

Marc Dando illustrator

Marc Dando is a scientific illustrator who made his name with Sharks of the World, working with Leonard Compagno and Sarah Fowler. Alongside more traditional watercolour, pencil, and pen-and-ink work, Marc uses computer-based illustration. His work has been exhibited at the Musée Océanographique de Monaco, The Mall Galleries in London and the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale.


The life-cycle of the moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) is from The Marine World by Frances Dipper, Wild Nature Press.

The colour illustration at the top of the page is of a wild rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), drawn for WildFish.

Images copyright © Marc Dando 2023.