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How The Father Of Neuroscience Used The Power Of Illustration

January 16, 2019

Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934) is the father of modern neuroscience.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Most scientists of the time believed the brain was a continuous, interconnected network. Cajal argued that the brain was composed of individual cells: neurons. In the 1950’s, high-resolution electron microscopes proved him right.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Why would someone like me, an illustrator, be interested in Señor Cajal?blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Because he was also a wonderful artist (he studied art before attending medical school).blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

During his lifetime, he created more than 2900 drawings of the brain and other nerve tissue. Some of them are still used in textbooks. His work was the subject of a major exhibition last year.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Here are some examples. Click on the composite below to see a larger version. On a personal note, I loved seeing the early “white-out” he used to correct his mistakes.blank vertical space, 32 pixels high

three freehand sketches brain neurons nerve tissue by Spanish neurobiologist Santiago Ramon y Cajal medical illustration

blank vertical space, 32 pixels highCajal taught himself photography and made carefully posed self-portraits throughout his life.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Here he is in his lab, in his mid-thirties, circa 1885. He’s definitely putting out that moody artist vibe… 😊blank vertical space, 32 pixels high
self portrait taken by Spanish neuroscience pioneer Santiago Ramon y Cajal his mid-thirties in lab circa 1885

blank vertical space, 32 pixels highCajal used a microscope for his observations, and cross-hatching, dots, ink washes, and occasionally watercolor for his drawings.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Here’s his 1904 drawing of cells in the retina of the eye:blank vertical space, 32 pixels high

human retina nerve tissue freehand illustration drawn by Spanish neuroscience pioneer Santiago Ramon y Cajal

blank vertical space, 32 pixels highI write these posts to demonstrate the power and appeal of illustration to prospective clients– how does Cajal’s work fit into that?blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Because it makes this very important point:blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Working freehand, Cajal summarized what he saw under the microscope rather than making an exact copy. In a single sketch, he combined observations he made at different times, using different methods. He did this to illustrate a larger hypothesis, rather than just copying what he saw.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

In other words, he did what every good illustrator tries to do: to render a fuller reality or “truth”– one that a photograph can’t fully capture.blank vertical space, 24 pixels high

Here’s an electron microscopy of the retina next to Cajal’s sketch. The photo is colorful, precise, literal, passive.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Cajal’s sketch has energy; it’s telling a story, emphasizing certain points, making connections. It’s trying to convey a truth that goes beyond a mere photographic record.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

That’s the value you get with a custom illustration: it fits
your brand, and speaks your truth:
what it is that makes you different: a brand worth choosing.

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human retina nerve structure compare: electron microscope micrograph vs. freehand illustration by Santiago Ramon y Cajal neuroscience pioneer

blank vertical space, 32 pixels highI’ve done a few “brain drawings” over the years. I’ll admit they’re not as ambitious as Señor Cajal’s. I’m not sure this one conveys a “truth”– more like a suspicion… 😊blank vertical space, 32 pixels high

cartoon doctor has removed brain from patient's head tells him: bad news, it's past the expiration date

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About Mark: I’m an illustrator specializing in humor, branding, social media, and content marketing. My images are different, like your brand needs to be.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

You can view my portfolio, and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.blank vertical space, 16 pixels high

Questions? Send me an email.blank vertical space, 40 pixels highRecommendation testimonial for Mark Armstrong Illustration from Tara Meehan head social media content Guardian Life Insurance Company

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2019 12:42 PM

    Good day, Mark!

    I had enough of Twitter, for right now, and I have deactivated my account. I may return and stick to promoting the blogs that Julie and I do- and speaking of that, I reckon we need to start blogging more, again.

    Such a fascinating article. I didn’t know of Ramón y Cajal; I had some Latin American history in my schooling, but of course, the history of Spain was rather minimal. But, since I’ve had “street” and “book” education in the Spanish language, I should like to see his written notes sometime.

    I also find this fascinating as a subset of art and science. It’s something my divergent-analytical mind can really appreciate, because I haven’t done well in more sequential-analytical fields, like computer science, software engineering, and mathematics, although I find their concepts engaging.

    I’m still working with scalable vector graphics, making Sanity Signs in the U.S. road sign style. I will remember to stay better in touch and keep reading your blog, as I especially appreciate the the artist tips. It’s still a dream of mine that my family of four might be able to work as a graphics and animation studio someday, but, we’ll see.

    Always a pleasure, sir. Hope to hear from you soon.

    Like

    • January 18, 2019 8:06 AM

      Hi, Jak!– always good to hear from you. I’d never heard of Señor Cajal either until I read a Wall Street Journal article a few weeks ago about his brain drawings. The author, Frank Wilczek, said the following:

      Just as a skilled painter can render scenes that are “truer than life,” so Cajal brought out neural realities that photographs don’t fully capture. How do such artists work their magic? Somehow, they bring the meaningful features of their subject into sharp relief. It takes a human to see like a human.

      You’re right: it’s a fascinating intersection of art and science, and I think it teaches that art isn’t something apart from life, but rather a means of achieving a deeper understanding of life, in all its complexity and many facets.

      Glad to hear you’re still making art yourself– you and yours are a creative bunch, I know! A pleasure at this end, too, Jak– thanks for stopping by! 👍😊

      Liked by 1 person

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