Common Questions about Science Illustration

GNSI member Gail Guth recently replied to a set of questions posed by college student. You may find the answers useful!

How do you create biological illustrations? Tell me about your process. 2. Why do you create them in this way?
Very simply, a scientific illustration project is started like any other illustration: the client contacts the artist, discusses what is needed, they discuss the best way to complete the project, agree on a price, and then the work starts.

DISCUSS THE JOB: Usually I will meet with my client and we talk about what he or she needs: an illustration for a book or research paper? something for the web, or a display in a museum or zoo? It's important to get all the details, so I can determine what is the best method to complete the project (hand-drawn illustration, digital? How will it be used, solely on the internet or in print, or both? If it's a display or graphic in a museum or zoo, how large is it? How far away from visitors does it need to be? Who will construct the final panels or display? If it's a very technical illustration, the artist needs to know what details are critical, and what may need to be left out for clarity, or what precise details the client needs to depict.

SUBMIT AN ESTIMATE: The initial stages are all questions and information gathering. Then, since I am a free-lancer, I submit an estimate, which may need to be negotiated; when the paperwork is agreed on and signed, the job can begin. If you are a staff artist, of course, you skip this step and proceed to actual art creation.

GATHER INFORMATION AND REFERENCES: Information and reference material is gathered, either supplied by the client or the artist, or both.

INITIAL SKETCHES AND/OR LAYOUT: At this stage, rough sketches or very simple digital layouts are started. Depending on what is needed, this may be just pencil sketches, or it may include font and color theme choices, and overall design. These are submitted for approval and discussion. Usually there are several stages of sketches and/or layouts as the design develops.

FINAL RENDERINGS: When the ideas and layouts have been approved, the final renderings are started and submitted. There may still be changes needed, hopefully not too extensive. When the renderings are approved, the final files are assembled, sent to printers or fabricators as needed, and submitted to the client.

This process allows for a step-by-step careful approach for both scientist and artist. Sometimes a client isn't quite sure exactly what they want, and this process allows for that idea to develop. Or a client may be absolutely certain, but the means of producing functional art from that idea isn't clear or easily attainable; the artist may have a better idea. If you don't spend time at the beginning and in the initial sketch stages, you may waste a huge amount of time creating a finished piece that isn't useful or accurate, and you will lose the job or have to start over again.

How are scientific illustrations different than regular illustrations?
They differ in subject matter and accuracy. The object of any illustration is to supplement a piece of text, to graphically portray or reinforce a concept, or visually depict facts or topics. Scientific illustrations deal with scientific subjects; the only difference would be that scientific illustrations must depict the subject accurately in all respects, no matter how rendered, whereas an editorial illustration may be more thought-provoking or designed to elicit an emotion.

What are your illustrations usually used for?
My work has been published, (field guides, book covers; textbooks and magazines); I have also done a number of zoo and nature center graphics. Science illustrators do animations, videos, murals, maps, labels for food and other nature-based products, the list is quite varied.

How do you tailor your illustrations for each person/company who hires you?
See the answer to #1 above. A lot of discussion.

How do your illustrations get distributed? How are they seen by the public?
It depends totally on the end use, of course. Books and magazines, web, nature centers... the client and the project determines how the work is used and seen.

I have my work on two portfolio sites online, to attract potential clients. the GNSI's portfolio site is

How is the genre of scientific illustrations different from when you first started as an artist?
The concept of science illustration has not changed, it still is a method to clarify and define science principles and ideas in a visual way. But the methods and tools have changed dramatically. I have been in business since 1976; when I started most work was done by hand on some sort of paper or substrate, then photographed. The web was a very new and distant concept, personal computers were just becoming readily available. So the biggest leap has been incorporating digital technology into traditional hand work. Most illustrators I know still start with hand work, sketches at least, and then bring those sketches into a digital platform for further work or for distribution. Even those that work entirely digitally do so with a strong traditional art background (there's no substitute!).

When I started, the artist did the basic work and the printer did the rest of the prepress work; now the artist creates images that go right on the presses, if the job is to be printed, or directly to the web. Imaging has evolved tremendously, so photography has in many cases supplanted illustration. But there are still things that illustrations can depict better (processes, for instance; and concepts; extinct species — how do you photograph a dinosaur? — and depicting a specific item or feature that in a photograph would be difficult to see: see this recent blog for more on this:

Gail Guth