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I Can Get Paid for Scientific Illustration?!

By Jordan Kushins

For tens of thousands of years, humans have used drawing to make sense of the world around them. And we may have come a long way from prehistoric cave paintings, but illustration remains one of the most effective ways to explain the world around us and render complex concepts in clear, concise ways that complement—and even enhance—scientific research and studies.

Scientific illustrators can be called on to draw just about anything found in nature (illustration by Martha Iserman). 

“To me, scientific illustration is the accurate portrayal of any subject from nature,” says Amy Bartlett Wright. She’s been teaching at RISD’s natural science illustration certificate program since 1998, after having studied there herself. “Artists who really understand how something is built, and how it moves, are great facilitators.”

It’s a field that is both broad (covering everything from subatomic particles to distant galaxies, and appearing everywhere from textbooks to murals) and niche (a small community visualizing all those incredible things that make you go “Oooh”).

OBSERVATION AND INTERPRETATION

“Oftentimes people think that science and art are opposites,” says Jen Christiansen, a senior graphics editor at Scientific American. “But they’re about both observation and interpretation.” Bridging the gap means applying a singular sort of rigor to the creative process and perspective.

“The principles of traditional and standard scientific illustration are observational drawing and accuracy,” Wright says. “But if it’s accurate and not beautiful, no one’s going to look at it. So it has to be appealing—to hold your attention long enough to look, and then learn.”

Bringing the microscopic to life is all in a day’s work (illustration by Jen Christiansen).

Achieving this balance means first mastering the basics; field sketching is foundational. “A lot of people think that means plein air painting,” says shark lover, insect specialist, and scientific illustrator Martha Iserman. “It doesn’t. It’s a skill to record what you’re seeing quickly and accurately, while also taking notes around your subject. It’s about more than just drawing a bird in the wild. You’re recording the weather, and doing a sketch of the tree you see it in; if you can’t identify the tree then, you’ll sketch a leaf so you can look it up later.”

Illustration by Amy Bartlett Wright.

In addition to working in situ, Wright’s students spend a significant amount of time in the campus’s nature lab; there, they can study preserved specimens from every angle, rather than rely on existing images. “We’re all assisted by photographs in our work, but I don’t let my students use them—ever,” she says. “A photograph represents everything in perfect detail all over, which isn’t always helpful to show a viewer the most important characteristics. An illustrator uses their understanding of form, plus light and shadows, and value and design, to put greater contrast or create a sharp edge where they want to draw the eye.”

Depending on your focus, you’ll need to cultivate additional techniques. “If you're doing something in entomology, for instance, you’ll rarely get a single insect that looks good,” Iserman says. “So you need to take multiple specimens under a microscope, measure them out, and create a kind of grid system where you Frankenstein parts of them together on the page as you draw.”

MASTER YOUR TOOLS

Field sketching requires little more than a pencil and paper; for hyper-detailed drawings, pen and ink are critical. Then there’s watercolor, acrylic, colored pencils, and even sculptural and 3D materials. Anything in a standard artist’s toolkit can be used for scientific illustration, but regardless of your chosen medium, being a pro in the industry now means mastering digital tools, too.

An attention to detail is key, as scientific illustrators may draw subjects as diverse as Pluto, cicadas, and burrowing animals (illustrations by Martha Iserman). 

“At first I was resistant because I was hardcore fine arts,” Iserman says. “It’s been a huge learning curve, but I love it. Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator are so nice for editing. Sometimes someone will come back to me and decide they want something completely different—a plant instead of a dinosaur!—and if you’re working in watercolor, it’s like, ‘Well, that’s twelve more hours.’”

Up next? Making those digital drawings move. “I feel like every recent job posting that I’ve gotten excited about requires animation skills,” she says. “The software is getting easier to learn, and it helps so much in conveying information.” The future will be explained in GIFs, for sure.

COURSE CORRECT

Educational programs and courses are, for the most part, made up of a mix of science-inclined artists and art-inclined scientists; the former have a fascination with the field and are interested in launching a creative career, while the latter are looking to develop the means to bring their own (often super-specific) research to graphic life. While both have unique skill sets, the courses teach everyone key fundamentals while also establishing a sense of community and building a strong industry network for potential jobs and opportunities.

Amy Bartlett Wright, who teaches at RISD’s natural science illustration certificate program, says that for a science illustrator, relying on photographs may not be enough. Her students spend plenty of time in the campus’s nature lab, where they can study preserved specimens from every angle.

Jenny Parks is a working artist who studied scientific illustration at UCSC—the program is now at CSUMB—and found a place where she was able to connect for what felt like the first time with truly like-minded creatives. “Early on, a bunch of us [students] were walking down the street and saw a dead animal,” she says. “Normally someone might think, ‘Gross.’ But we were all interested: ‘Ohh, what is that?!’ It felt like a group of people who had the same fascinations coming together, and that was really cool.” These close-knit cohorts will also become your allies in the industry, and it’s not uncommon to pass opportunities along to others whose specialties may be better suited to a certain gig.

Is it strictly necessary to get a degree? It’s complicated. “Broadly, there are self-made folks who maybe went to art school but have a passion for, say, dinosaurs, and pour themselves into learning everything they can,” says Christiansen. “But there some niches where you really do need some formal training; medical illustration, for example, has certification processes and programs, and requires constant education.”

DO THE HUSTLE

Like many creative careers, scientific illustration is a hustle. Full-time positions do exist—some journals, newspapers, and museums are still hiring, and Christiansen suggests exploring educational organizations, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies—but freelance is the most common reality. “The truth of the industry is that it’s hard to succeed,” Wright says. “The graduates who have been the most successful are assertive and aren’t afraid to put their work out there.”

Illustration by Jen Christiansen.

Being a proactive self-starter can make a difference. “I remember my teachers sitting me down and asking where I wanted to go with things after graduation, and how they could help me get there—which was tough because I didn’t really know yet,” Eventually she decided it would be cool to do signs and graphics for Yosemite National Park. “I basically sent a letter outlining what I’d like to do and what I could offer them, and they said, ‘OK.’”

During her three months in the Sierra Nevadas, she collaborated with on-site researchers, and in doing so she paved the way for future artists. “It turns out I was the first one to do that internship there, and now it’s a standard thing.”

LEARN TO LOVE THE EDITING PROCESS

“You can’t be that cliché artist who’s really stubborn about their style,” Iserman says. “You're working with people who are really passionate about what they do, and it’s very specific sometimes. Like, when you’re drawing something for the guy who is the world expert on caddisfly genitalia, and this is his whole life’s work, you’ve got to get it right.”

In other words: The editing process is exacting. It involves a lot of listening, a lot of questions, and a lot of moving parts. “I usually work in a three-step process,” says Christiansen. “A concept sketch is a quickie, super rough pencil cartoon. Once that’s approved, I’ll begin to tighten it up and flesh out the details, and I'll probably shift into Photoshop. Once that’s approved, it’s really about getting all the details right; there shouldn’t be any major changes at that point.”

REMEMBER YOUR ROOTS, EXPAND YOUR SCOPE, AND PREPARE TO PIVOT

Iserman’s first-ever drawing was of a spider. “It was a circle with 300 legs sticking out everywhere,” she says, and remembers that she would be happily distracted on family road trips as long as she had something to scribble on. Parks grew up bringing fictional species like vampire cats and dragons to life on paper, along with the weird worlds they’d inhabit. Wright’s grandmother would sit her and her siblings down at the kitchen table on the farm and ask them to draw an animal starting with every letter of the alphabet. And Christiansen was a young doodler in need of direction. “I loved creating images but would always ask people, ‘What should I draw?’” It wasn’t until she started drawing her notes in science class that things began to click.

An ability to draw animals in meticulous detail may lead you down some very interesting creative paths (illustration by Jenny Parks). 

For each of these artists, simply discovering scientific illustration—realizing it could be pursued as a career—felt like an “aha” moment that synthesized their personal interests and talents in an exciting way. After committing to an education came the hard part: landing work.

“You might have to stretch your definition of ‘scientific illustration’ to get a regular paycheck,” says Iserman, who has done everything from textbooks to technical illustrations, and who is currently on contract depicting radio waves and Wi-Fi routers for a Silicon Valley firm to supplement her freelance gigs. In addition to teaching, Wright specializes in large-scale public arts murals, having completed 51 in 11 states across the country. And Parks has edged out of scientific illustration almost entirely to focus on pop-culture cats. (Seriously! Realistic cats as characters from Star Trek, Dr. Who, and more.)

Social media has made it so much easier to share work and build a following, which can lead to all kinds of unknown opportunities. Ultimately, however, staying curious is key. “I'm constantly learning new stuff, calling up people or getting in touch and asking them to explain things to me,” Christiansen says. “It’s wild that a Nobel laureate will answer my emails to explain how the brain works! So crazy. I love it.”