Jan Altmann aimed to explore the functions and effects of drawing as a technique and mode of scientific observation. Even seeing is not a passive process but a mediating activity. In a paradoxical simultaneity the eye generates what it perceives. Seeing involves focusing, noticing, ordering, attributing meaning, and it is also shaped by its negatives, namely overlooking and disregarding. These constituents are becoming still more pertinent when performing a visual scientific observation with its highly standardized and specialized habits.
When the observation is carried out and preserved in the form of drawing, the complex interrelationship between the visible or the invisible and its vision is complemented by another agent, the image and its material support. As the configuration on the paper evolves during the occurrence of the observation, the drawing intercedes between the detecting eye and the observed object as a third element that receives increasing attention. To retrace the correlations between eye, mind, hand and body, the project undertakes to go down to the repeated strokes on the textured paper from which the finished (or unfinished) image emerges.
Planning a series of French case studies that are mainly situated in the field of natural history and range from the early years of the Académie royale des sciences to Georges Cuviers proto–paleontological scrutinies, Altmann has started to investigate the mediality and materiality of observational drawing. He covers material that reach from rough sketches to finished delineations.
The individual drawings were analyzed as both primary sources for addressing methodologies and practices of observing and as visual traces for describing experiences of scientific observation in history. The cultural technique of drawing requires crucial tactile and cognitive skills. Sometimes they can and have to compensate the lack of artistic talent. This is typically the case with travelling naturalists like Michel Adanson or Philibert Commerson who were not accompanied by professional draughtsmen.
The project reconstructed different historical constellations of cooperation between scientist and artist when executing or preserving observations. One main goal was to locate different "styles" of observation, both in the aesthetic and epistemological sense.