Career Advice

I am just starting my scientific illustration career. I am hoping you could give me some advice.

I have a BSc in Biology, and have already had a few commissions within my circle of connections. However, I am not sure how to get my name in the right places. I run a science blog, which has gotten some attention, though none of the employment kind. How did you find work, when you started your career?

I am also considering going to art school (especially since there seems to be a bigger job market for graphic designers than junior biologists in Vancouver, BC). I have experience with Adobe programs as well as 3D animation. From your experience, would a formal art education be more beneficial than learning from the University of Google?

Any advice would be greatly appreciated,
All the Best

I will make a couple of basic points, but please realize that I do not know particulars nor have I seen Laura's work.

The article Emma pointed out is interesting, but a bit one-sided. One doesn't need to go to RISD… there are programs at many colleges and universities. If you have established residency, state colleges/universities offer lower tuition. But like anything, there are good programs and programs that are not so good. I have known superb programs at small, lesser known institutions. And just because an institution is well known doesn't necessarily mean it's a good fit for everyone.

In the course of advising students, I generally do NOT recommend that a student pursue TWO undergraduate degrees. If a college degree is required for a job, the degree is the main thing, and the major may have some bearing but is generally less important than the degree itself. Some students, however, choose to get two degrees for reasons of their own.

Without having all the details, I would generally recommend that someone in your position consider taking some art courses, but not necessarily go after a second undergrad degree. I would highly recommend page layout and typography. This does not mean just a working knowledge of associated applications (though that is part it), but includes a working knowledge of what I refer to as the "rules of typography" as well as finer typographic points. A strong foundation in drawing and design provides a good start for any artistic program. Some knowledge of web, animation, 3D is a plus.

One advantage of classes is the critique. This is not just a bunch of people chiming in about a particular piece. The instructor should direct the critique so that it is constructive, with students participating (and understanding the context of the work). This helps develop important skills, in regard to discussing work with future clients/bosses. You need to be able to explain why something works; why it doesn't; what could be done to make a piece more effective… and in a way that is honest yet constructive. In the classroom, the critique doesn't just happen when a piece is completed, but it takes place at various stages of a project. For example, I worked with students individually while they developed 3 different ideas for any given project. These were developed into "comps" (more or less finished pieces, but not proofed and polished) - these were critiqued by the class, and a single composition would be selected for final development. THEN, once finished, the project was prepared for print, a hard copy made, and a final crit was given. (I have been teaching design for many years; it would be somewhat for other disciplines.)

Personally, I would not have accomplished what I have had I not pursued both an undergraduate and graduate degree. I made lasting friendships that have have been important both professionally and personally.

If you would like structure, and is specifically interested in scientific illustration, there are certificate programs in scientific illustration and/or botanical illustration. I do feel that in-person programs (as opposed to online programs) offer more of a sense of community and comradery. But then I am older, and did not grow up in the current technology. So my comfort level may be different from someone who has grown up with technology from day one.

So as the saying goes… Your mileage may vary. This is just my take on things, and what works for me might not be a good fit for someone else.

One thing I would say, of course, is to join the Guild and attend a conference. Everyone is warm and welcoming, and there are presentations, workshops and field trips There are technique showcases and portfolio sharing. And yes, some silliness and fun. The Guild is an amazing resource, providing both information, community and friendship. Best wishes for success.

-Karen

Your science connections are going to be key so keep yourself in that community. The Guild Meeting is amazing and I would definitely recommend it but try to go to some of the meetings where some of your scientist friends are presenting too, bring lots of cards and tear sheets.  Esp if they are presenting and using something of yours.

Would also suggest finding a good solid class in figure drawing, one that covers the basics of light and line.  Line and light are the foundations to any successful piece of art.  Karen is right class critiques are important and its a good place to learn how to objectively critique yourself.

Keep drawing! 

Liz

 

My first several projects (at least!) were for people I knew or for people who were referred to me by someone I knew.

These days my website does bring me some work, but I think the majority of projects I work on can be traced back to someone I know. I have acquired some excellent clients thanks to volunteering at a local nature reserve and to being active in SONSI (sonsi.ca).

My advice to anyone who is looking for illustration work:

1) Be active in your community – though not for the express purpose of getting work. Volunteer, join clubs, be social, engage. Not only is it good for the soul, but someday one of those relationships will probably lead to work - and it might be in the most unexpected way.

2) While working on a project, don't fear asking for help from scientists or other content experts. The worst that can happen is that they won't reply; the best that can happen is that someone enthusiastic about the subject your illustrating is really helpful and now knows you exist and might hire you in the future. If they do help you, be sure to thank them with a card or print featuring your work.

3) Have a website and put as much good quality work up there as you can. Sometimes people will end up at your website after searching for an illustration of something specific. Do keep in mind that potential clients who find you via your website are likely to hire you to do the same type of work that they see in your portfolio.

4) Others might say to be active on social media. Personally I have not maximized the potential of social media, but I can say that (for me) Twitter is definitely showing potential (I just joined last month).

Emily

I joined Twitter during the recent SciArt tweet storm (see here, for anyone not familiar:) http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/symbiartic/2015/03/13/aftermath-sciart-tweet-storm/

I am by no means a Twitter expert!

I started posting some of my illustrations and tagging them with relevant hashtags like #sciart #fossils #echinoderms #MolluscMonday #TrilobiteTuesday etc.. Then various people see my work via one of those hashtags or because they're already following me or because they are following someone who retweets my original tweet.
So far I have been able to license a few illustrations to one person who found my work that way, and I am connected to several potential clients.

I am under the impression that one does have to be at least somewhat active on Twitter to maximize its potential.

Emily

 

I joined Twitter after the storm because I couldn't stand the thought of yet another reason to be attached to my devices. However, I think it will be more useful than any other network I use, such as LinkIn and Facebook. I have a professional FB page, but it gets little attention, especially since FB decided who sees what posts when. One has to pay to boost their posts to where it is more useful, which I haven't had time to do yet.

Emily is spot on regarding being part of one's community. In Providence, nearly all my work was word of mouth. When I moved to NYS, I had to start over, essentially from scratch. Because I am active in my community, I was offered what would have been the largest freelance job of my working career….had I agreed to an undisclosed work-for-hire contract. (Rewind, put my career over that of educating big business on the rights of illustrators.) But that offer came about only because of being social. There was no job posting to apply for, just "I heard you did this, and so-and-so is in the market".

Gretchen

As some of you know I am a twitter veteran ;-) I use twitter most of the time for business and news. I've met wonderful people via twitter I wouldn't have met otherwise and it is, if you build your twitter time line carefully, an enormous source of information. In my twitter time line you can recognize specific groups of people. My main groups are:

- researchers in areas I have an interest in. Mostly paleontologists, anatomists, biology, education and such
- science artists
- science writers
- 3d modelers 
- 3d print people and sculptors
- feminists (of all genders)
Remarkably enough those groups often have a great overlap ;-). For me that is.

Everybody's timeline is different. I hear a lot of people complaining about the harsh culture on twitter but part of that is by choosing, willingly or unwillingly. Remarkably the trolls in my timeline are non-existend for example. 
I regularly ask questions about stuff I am working on, I get my news from it and I engage in conversations with people from all over the world. 

One of the biggest advantages of twitter, I think, is that you can start following people without them having to do the same. If I, for example, want to know more about making materials in Blender or ZBrush, I start looking for artists that are specialized in that specific area and I start following them. 

And regarding the workshop of Kapi: you have missed a wonderful event last month: the #SciArt tweetstorm: people from all over the world showed of their #SciArt work and that of others for a whole week. In the US and in Canada #SciArt was trending that week, what means that really a lot of people where talking about it. If you want to know more about that, please read the posts of the Symbiartic blog on the Scientific American website.

Mieke

I personally think devoting time and energy to a FB business page is a waste of your professional time. Katie McKissick, who writes with Kalliopi and I on Symbiartic outlined the problem with Facebook's giant bait-and-switch here:

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/symbiartic/2014/04/10/facebook-frustration/

FB let businesses, large and small, build huge followings and then decided to limit who could see their posts. You have to pay big numbers to appear in anyone's feeds, and the targeting is flawed. A company like Samsung will spend a ton of $ when they have a new phone coming out, and that seems to be the type of client FB wants to attract. 

Twitter on the other hand, is essential social media, in my opinion. As Mieke pointed out, following is asymmetrical. I can follow @BarackObama, and he doesn't have to follow me. Likewise, if someone follows you that you don't have any interest in, there's no pressure to follow them back. You can also organize lists where people only appear on the list and not in your main feed: I keep one for Toronto politics that I check in with a couple of times a day to see if anything major is happening. As Mieke says, you can tailor who you are following so your Twitter stream isn't interrupted by topics you don't care about. 

Importantly, I don't think you should try to keep up with every single thing people you follow say on Twitter. Sip from the firehose. 

You can have valuable conversations on Twitter. Here's a collection of tweets in response to a flawed (sexist) Science Magazine cover:

http://www.glendonmellow.com/blog/2014/7/19/who-holds-the-gaze-a-storify

One of the issues I often see with illustrators in a number of fields, is that they tend to mainly follow other illustrators. For us, we are lucky because there are a ton of scientists and researchers in many fields who are active on Twitter. It's both a potential client base and like-minded community.

Glendon Mellow

I use Twitter for distribution and audience building. For example, I want people to see the art on my blog/website, but unless in promoting it, it's just a static page. About every third time I post on Twitter, it'll get 'retweeted' and new people get to see my art. Of those, I get a few new followers per retweet. The net affect, over time is that I'm building a community of people who like my work. Most of those are not people in my geographic region, or people who would have otherwise seen my illustrations. It's kinda fascinating as a mechanism.

As Glendon and Mieke have pointed out, it's also a knowledge base. For example, one of my new twitter followers is a CDC researcher, and now I'm developing a series of content with her. It looks like it'll be a great story.

~Em