April 14, 2016

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By scientific illustrator DJ Jackson


Science, nature and art have been passions of mine for as long as I can remember. Growing up on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, there were plenty of animals to spike my curiosity. Catching Green Anoles, observing alligators, and watching dolphins play as a child engrained my passion for nature. I was always bringing animals I found in my backyard in for show and tell, frightening my teachers with snakes, spiders and praying mantises. As I grew up, I began to pursue art. I was constantly drawing animals in class. At first, my teachers thought it was distracting me, but soon found that it helped me focus. As my art progressed, I found that I was able to learn a lot about animals through drawing them.

Sphyrna tiburo © DJ Jackson for Shark University

Sphyrna tiburo © DJ Jackson for Shark University

In college, I began to really focus on my art. I was learning new techniques, like painting and printmaking, and was lucky enough to attend a school whose main focus was marine biology. Most of my friends at Eckerd College were biology or marine biology majors, and the curriculum required you to take classes outside of your major. The classes I took at Eckerd allowed me to gain a greater understanding of not only individual organisms, but also how they relate to each other in an ecosystem. At this point in my life, I was also working as a counselor at a summer camp in North Carolina, and I developed a new passion for passing knowledge on to others, especially children. This is also where I began to learn about how knowledge can help people overcome their fears. For instance, teaching children about spiders and insects, one of the biggest fears for children with little to no knowledge about the outdoors, tends to diminish the fear of these creatures significantly.

Metopograpsus frontalis © DJ Jackson for the University of Queensland School of Biological Sciences

Metopograpsus frontalis © DJ Jackson for the University of Queensland School of Biological Sciences

After graduating from Eckerd, I pursued a career in science illustration. I studied this subject at California State University, Monterey Bay. During my time in Monterey, CA, I was able to master many different mediums, as well as learn a lot about a vast collection of organisms and ecosystems. Most importantly, there was a large focus on how to effectively communicate knowledge to others through illustration. The phrase, ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ was taken to a new level through my participation in this course. Going from simple yet realistic drawings to infographics, interpretive panels and comparative anatomical illustrations, allowed me to convey an enormous new wealth of information in my own special visual language.

The final portion of my scientific illustration program was an internship with an institution of my choosing. I worked out an internship with a marine biology professor at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. This opportunity allowed me to combine all of the things I’ve learned through my life and apply them at the most effective level yet. I created illustrations showcasing behaviors that had only recently been observed by PhD students, and were nearly impossible to capture with cameras. I was also granted a once in a lifetime opportunity in a capacity that very few are privileged to. I spent eight weeks living on a research facility in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef, was able to swim with sharks, rays and a plethora of other animals I used to dream about seeing in real life. I made friends with scientists, conservationists and even other scientific illustrators during my six months interning in Australia, and took away so much knowledge, further fueling my passion for learning about nature and animals.

Upon my return to the United States, I was asked how I survived six months in Australia without getting killed by any of the dangerous animals that live there. Two animals I am extremely passionate about that also happen to be some of the most feared animals in Australia are spiders and sharks. I am passionate about these animals because they are feared. In fact I used to be very scared of spiders, and then I began researching them and discovered my lack of understanding was a major factor of why I was scared of them. Now they are one of my favorite kinds of animals, not only to learn about and draw, but also interact with and share knowledge about with others. Just as sharks are feared by many, those who have studied them have allowed curiosity to overcome fear, and have come to realize that they are fascinating animals that don’t deserve to be feared, but should be respected. I have helped many people overcome their fear of spiders and sharks through my illustrations. At a very basic level, scientific illustration allows me to stay curious and learn, while replacing fear and misunderstanding with curiosity and wonder.

Zapteryx exasperata © DJ Jackson for Shark University

Zapteryx exasperata © DJ Jackson for Shark University

Queen Triggerfish © DJ Jackson

Queen Triggerfish © DJ Jackson

Hemiscyllium ocellatum © DJ Jackson for Shark University

Hemiscyllium ocellatum © DJ Jackson for Shark University

Learn more about DJ Jackson’s work on his website.

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