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
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.
Two main ways:
Mainly from experience. Two sources can help with this:
A good rule to remember is that, if every quote you submit for potential projects is accepted, then you’re probably not charging enough.
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.
Not at this time.
See the education link at the GNSI website.
I’ve heard good things about the graduation 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.