A career in science illustration


Periodically, I receive e-mails from people who are interested in a career as a science illustrator and who would like to know how to get started in the field. They politely ask if I might be willing to answer some questions, and I typically reply that I’d be happy to do so over the phone, but that I’d rather not type out replies via e-mail. I consider it important for my health to stay away from the computer after work hours. 🙂 However, due to the increased frequency of these requests over the past year or two (as I write this in mid-2019), I decided that it might be more efficient for me to put into writing my responses to the more frequently asked questions and share them at my website. If you find this page to be valuable, I’d appreciate a quick note letting me know.

If you’re one of the people who hope to combine the fields of art and science into a career in science illustration, and the following information doesn’t address all of your questions, I’m still happy to chat with you on the phone. I just ask that you first read through the Q&As on this page and thoroughly explore these links:
The Guild of Natural Science Illustrators website 
My page on the rewards and challenges of science illustration

How did you get started as a science illustrator?

As an undergraduate art major, my work tended to be careful renderings of nature, but I didn’t know about science illustration as a possible career until after I graduated. Then, I heard about an MFA degree in Science Illustration at the University of Michigan, and I applied. That two year program was wonderful, and I learned a great deal about both science and science illustration. (Unfortunately, that program no longer exists.) During that time, I had a work-study job drawing fish bones for the Curator of Fishes at the Museum of Zoology, and it was he who hired me to do some fish illustrations after I graduated. That connection and the resulting portfolio of fish illustrations led directly to more work doing fish illustrations, and from there work began to trickle in from people I knew and from repeat clients. For a few years early in my career I supplemented my freelance income by teaching art at a community college.

How do you get work?

Two main ways:

  • By having an easily accessible, carefully planned website with a portfolio of my work, and adequately tagging images and titling pages.
  • Passive networking. As in many other professions, it’s all about who you know—especially when you’re just starting out. Most projects have come my way directly or indirectly through people I’ve met, sometimes in surprising ways. I call it passive networking because I’m not seeking to meet people for the purpose of furthering my career; I’m just being social and doing things that naturally interest me, and the work follows. I always suggest to people who want to become a freelance illustrator that they become involved in their community by joining groups that interest them; one might be surprised at the connections one can make. 

How do you know what to charge for your work?

Mainly from experience. Two sources can help with this:

  • The Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines, a book published by the Graphic Artists Guild. Consider this to be a very general guide.
  • Stock photography websites can give you an idea of what a client would have to pay for a photo, and this can be helpful in many situations.

A good rule to remember is that, if every quote you submit for potential projects is accepted, then you’re probably not charging enough.

Do you take all of your own reference photos?

The short answer is no—that would be wildly impractical. As every freelancer knows, time is money. The internet is a rich source of reference photos and information, and I rely heavily upon it. However, I’m very careful to use other people’s photographs as references only; I do not copy others’ work because that would be unethical and unoriginal.

Of course, having my own reference photos or specimens is the ideal situation. Sometimes this is practical, and sometimes it is necessary. I’ve made many trips out in the field to look for specific plants or animals, or into a museum collection to view specimens. It’s nice to get out of the studio for awhile, though tracking down specimens can be time consuming.

Do you teach courses in science illustration?

Not at this time.

Where can I get instruction in science illustration?

See the education link at the GNSI website.
I’ve heard good things about the graduate certificate program at the University of California Monterey Bay, and about the online learning course offered by The University of Newcastle, though I do not have personal experience with either.

What other advice do you have for someone wanting to enter the field of science illustration?

  • Have a professional-looking website and keep it updated. This can be time-consuming but it is important.
  • In your online portfolio, display the kind of work you’d like to be doing. If you have mainly pen and ink drawings in your portfolio, chances are that’s the type of work you’ll be hired to do. If you only show your botanical work, that’s the subject most clients will hire you to illustrate.
  • Be willing to step outside of your comfort zone. You might not know anything about a subject a client has asked you to illustrate, but that shouldn’t stop you.
  • Always sign agreements with your clients so the expectations are clear to both you and your client. Update your agreement template as you learn from your mistakes.
  • If your client provides a standard contract for you to sign, don’t assume that the terms aren’t negotiable.
  • Educate yourself about conventions of intellectual property and licensing. One helpful resource is the The Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines I mentioned above, and another is this website: https://www.workmadeforhire.net/blog/
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out to content experts when you need help. In fact, I encourage it because you’re making new connections. Reward them when they’re gracious with their time – such as with a thank-you card or print featuring your artwork.
  • Avoid being exploited in the hopes of gaining some reward. Working for free on someone else’s terms tends to devalue the work of all illustrators. See my article about exploitation in v.47 no.4 Journal of Natural Science Illustration (2015).
  • Consider attending one of the GNSI’s annual summer conferences; they can be a great source of information and inspiration.