How Sam Falconer transforms science and geology into digestible, elegant illustrations

Ahead of his first solo exhibition, Sam tells us about his fascination with human history.

Most of us have wondered at some point how we got here, living on planet Earth. It will always be baffling. Although for most of us, it usually stops at wondering – we haven’t actually researched much else besides what we learnt in school, and perhaps the odd Google search.

But English illustrator Sam Falconer is fascinated by science, nature and the history of humanity. And how could he not be, after regularly illustrating for the likes of Scientific American and New Scientist. To try and visualise complex data and information, which even he admits is hard to digest, Sam creates beautiful cross-section illustrations made up of a number of intricate and detailed subjects usually sitting within a silhouette or outline. Take your time to look at the detail of each of his illustrations featured here. We’re almost certain you will learn something new. We’ve put a little explainer next to some of the images in case you’re not a science whizz either.

Using texture, bright colours and hidden detail, Sam explores geological time, psychology and neurology - adapting his artistic style to the scientific framework of a cross-section diagram, which shows the structural geology along a vertical plane in the earth. It makes for a beautiful combination, and shows the beauty when science and art work hand-in-hand.

Image: 'Mitochondrial Eve'. 

In human genetics, the Mitochondrial Eve is the matrilineal most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of all currently living humans, i.e., the most recent woman from whom all living humans descend in an unbroken line purely through their mothers.

His new illustrations are inspired by key events in ‘deep time’ (a modern philosophical concept of geological time, based on the age of the Earth to be around 4.55 billion years) and aim to show where they appear in the broader timeline of the universe.

“The idea was to try and show things in perspective and give some sense of the awesome scale of it all,” says Sam.

“Many of the images will be around human development, so the timeline zooms in a little more as we get closer to the present, so it’s really deep time but through a human lens.”

Ahead of Sam’s first solo exhibition, Deep Time, taking place at The Coningsby Gallery from April 9-20th, we catch up with him and find out what he hopes people will take away from his exhibition, insight into his creative process, and what it’s like to illustrate concepts of science and nature.

Image: 'Earth'.

In his first upcoming solo exhibition in London, Sam will present a series of around 20 new works inspired by moments in the history of life and human development, positioned across a cosmic timeline, in the hope of giving some sense of where we find ourselves in 2018.

Alongside his new pieces, ‘Deep Time’ will also exhibit works from the past seven years of his career, including editorial illustrations for The Guardian, National Geographic, The Independent and his largest publishing project, a graphic book based on flora in the garden with Guy Barter (seen here).

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Sam freelanced in London and now the Midlands following his study in illustration and animation at Kingston University. He’s been represented by Debut Art since 2012. Sam often collages different elements together before painting over them, and recently he’s experimenting with drawing from scratch. Timescales and geological time are his big interests, and he hopes others will be able to share his fascination from the exhibition.

"I’d love for people who haven’t been that interested previously to perhaps take away some key dates and a deep time perspective on things," he says.

"For example, how relatively early in Earth’s history life began (around four billion years ago. The earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old) but then how long it took for multicellular life to evolve (at least another three billion years) and how very recently large mammals came on the scene after the dinosaur extinction 65 million years ago.

"These timescales are pretty difficult to digest but I think once you start relating a few dates together it can really help to give a basic, broad understanding of it all."

Image: 'Nature'.

Sam has always been interested in the cross section approach since his final year at university, and although his style has evolved since then, he’s never parted ways with cross-section.

"The process will start with some rough drafts in Adobe Photoshop using elements that I’ve usually saved previously, such as head shapes that I like, combined with a rough sketch," he says.

"Then it will be a case of arranging and rearranging elements in Photoshop and painting during the final stages with either my Wacom tablet or iPad."

Image: The 'K-T extinction event'.

K–T extinction, abbreviation of Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction, a global extinction event responsible for eliminating approximately 80 percent of all species of animals, including Dinosaurs.

When it comes to creating illustrations for scientific publications, some art director will have seen Sam’s portfolio and will ask for something similar, but Sam says the really interesting projects are ones where he’s given the article and a blank slate on how to approach it.

“Often times the concepts being discussed are very theoretical and may lack any physical reference in many cases, so it’s reducing things down to the basic concepts and trying to make something engaging that adds to the article,” he says.

That sounds extremely challenging.

Image: 'Rachel Carson'.

Rachel Carson was an American marine biologist, author, and conservationist whose book Silent Spring and other writings are credited with advancing the global environmental movement.

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But working for numerous publications, Sam has learnt that analogies can be very useful for describing complex ideas, and illustration is actually perfect for these articles. Plus the sheer fact the world is extremely complicated, he says.

Image: 'Neanderthal Dreaming'.

Looking to the year ahead, Sam’s interested in learning to create 3D models in 3D software.

"Moving into the physical world with 3D models is exciting but it’s just finding the time to learn these new skills that’s difficult. I would like to collaborate with other illustrators, animators and designers too," he says.

Image: 'The Ediacaran'.

The Ediacaran Period, spans 94 million years, and occured around 635 million years ago.

Aside from work for his upcoming exhibition, Sam is working on an illustration for a BBC Focus issue and a project for the Arts Society’s 50th anniversary.

Find out more about Sam’s exhibition here.

Image: 'The domestication of the gray wolf'.

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