I'm preparing a cover image for a publication for a scientific journal. Instead of being scientifically rigourous, this kind of image could be more artistic and catch the reader's eye while conveying the main scientific idea proposed in the article.

I'm looking for a way to show some electrons (which I'll represent by simple spheres) moving at different speed. One set of electrons should move ballistically, that is, not be scattered or slowed down by obstacles, while the other ones should picture the idea of being slowed down or even completely stopped. It's a still image, not an animation. The electrons will me moving above a plane of some carbon atoms.

Does any one have an idea on how to pass this idea through to the reader? I was thinking about having a long undisturbed trail for the ballistic ones, and having much shorter and more diffuse trail for the other ones. Something like what is often used in cartoons. But here it would be 3D. Any comment or other suggestion? How do you give different speed effects to objects in a still image.

I'm not an artist at all, I only have some experience doing very geometric things in 3ds max, which I don't have access to any more. So I'm planning to do it in Blender because it's free and especially because I have a script that allows me to import the other elements of the 3D setup from my code I'm using for my physics simulations...

Or should I do it using some other software?

Hope I'm at the right place to ask this question...

  • Questions about 3D software are off-topic here, but I'm not going to close this question because it offers up other relevant areas to discuss. Feb 13, 2011 at 12:55
  • I wish I had your job!
    – DarenW
    Mar 6, 2011 at 4:07
  • If it's supposed to be scientifically rigorous, then shouldn't the illustration represent an electron cloud or show the electrons as a wave function rather than discrete moving particles of the Rutherford model a la old pre-quantum-theory textbooks? Jan 26, 2012 at 18:44

2 Answers 2


Your idea for showing the relative speed of objects in the third paragraph is absolutely spot on. Using different length trails to show speed is a well-established, easily understood device.

As to how the generate the image, that's really a very open-ended question. What you are asking about is doable, but it's not a trivial task and some planning will be required. Questions about 3D software are off-topic in Graphic Design, but I would imagine that you would be creating your core image (the electrons in 3D space) in your 3D software, and then using an image editing or illustration application (i.e., Photoshop, GIMP, Illustrator) to put in the finishing touches. I can think of several ways to approach this, and use of said applications could also obviate the need for 3D software entirely in the right hands.

If your skills aren't up to the task, then I would suggest any of the following:

  • finding someone who has the skill set to do it for you
  • search through the myriad of stock image sites to find something that meets your needs, or at least comes close to; Corbis and Shutterstock are good places to start, even if only for ideas since they can be rather expensive, though you get what you pay for.
  • Give it a go, have some fun, and try to do it yourself. When it ceases to be fun, go with either of the first two options.

My company has people whose entire job it is to create cover images, so you're in for an interesting, and likely very fun, challenge.

  • Ok thanks! Maybe also use some color gradients? And, if it's appropriate on this site, could you give me a link to this kind of stock image sites? Simply googling does not give very satisfactory image results...
    – Nigu
    Feb 13, 2011 at 13:39
  • @Nigu: I have updated my answer to include a couple agencies my company uses. Just be sure to read the usage agreement carefully before purchasing anything from them. They have good quality art, but they have good quality lawyers. Feb 13, 2011 at 14:19

This isn't really an answer to your question, but, if what you have in mind looks anything like the covers of science text books with rendered spheres of atom nuclei, can I suggest a different direction?

Try using 2D schematic line-art. 3D renders can look very gimmicky very quickly, and often don't add any extra information that can't be shown more clearly in 2D. I'm imagining some sort of a cross between these images (though not necessarily black & white):

Scientific graph

Black and white line art

Gordon Walters artwork, black and white horizontal koru

A competent graphic designer would very comfortably take the concepts you wish to communicate and produce eye-catching and descriptive artwork that would help your publication grab attention.

  • 1
    Thank you for this input, but it does not fit my purpose. The other elements I'm alluding to in my last paragraph really have to be 3D. It's difficult to go in much detail without having to go into a description of the physics. If it doesn't work with Philip Regan's method, maybe I'll try to combine 2D and 3D in the same figure... in that case, I'll come back to you if I need more help. Thanks anyway!
    – Nigu
    Feb 14, 2011 at 8:23

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