How I Got My First Job

I majored in Illustration and Graphic Design in college.  I joined the GNSI in 1980 and took the GNSI summer workshop offered at the Smithsonian back then (6-8 weeks meeting twice a week).  After that course I was approached by one of the instructors who said there was a insect illustration contract coming up that I might bid on.  I did bid on it (too bad business practices were not emphasized in school then. I seriously under bid) I won the contract and did the work (pen & ink beetle head and elitron outlines). From then on I continued getting opportunities to bid on illustration contracts at the museum and do freelance jobs outside when other illustrators would tell me about them. Staff illustrators were my best references.

My first salaried employment at a full-time position was made possible again by word of mouth. An Illustrator at the museum knew a graphics person at NASA who was was looking for a temporary maternity replacement for one of their designers.  Because of my extensive volunteer work on GNSI projects and interest in the reproduction of my work, I was in a good position to fulfill their needs. I joined the NASA Goddard Graphics group in 1992. I did very little illustration for six years.  I stayed on after the maternity leave (I was doing a good job!) and have been working at Goddard ever since, but managed to get myself into a group where I have many varied responsibilities related to public outreach, but definitely more illustration.



I’ve always wanted to be a nature artist, but with no mentors for even being an artist much less a specialized one, I pretty much just did hit-and-miss attempts at landing assignments: I absolutely had no clue where to go or how to connect. My college career was in art education (gotta have a paying job after all), but I took as many classes in “field studies” in the natural science department as I could get into. One was a field ID class, peopled mostly with NatSci majors (forestry and parks people) who were looking for an easy “A”. I was about to move to Battle Creek on graduating; the prof suggested I contact the director of the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary in nearby Augusta. I did a cold-call, out of the blue; I introduced myself, and asked if they needed an artist… and, much to my surprise, they did! The fellow that had been doing illustrations for them had recently moved (this was in the B.I. Dark Ages, Before Internet), and it wasn’t practical for him to continue to work for them.

I brought out my pitiful portfolio and the director took a chance. I ended up working for the Sanctuary for a number of years and learned quite a bit about birds, art and work in general. The Sanctuary is an extension of Michigan State, and there was no job classification for “illustrator”, so I had to become a tour guide to get paid. That was interesting too, and instructive.

I still have the first illustration I turned in (it’s positively horrible — lumpy, cartoony ducks on drawing paper, torn off the ring binding with frayed edges, no mounting, no tissue overlay, nothing professional in the presentation AT ALL) and I am amazed the director didn’t throw me out on the spot. He just quietly said, “It’s a start…” I keep it to stay humble.

But it WAS a start.


I came to illustration indirectly but steadily:  I trained as a neurobiologist, and worked in that field for a number of years, but when I had the chance I took scientific illustration courses, e.g. at the Museum of Comp. Zool. at Harvard, which at that time had several really talented illustrators on staff, giving semester-length courses... a great experience!

When I wrote papers I did my own illustrations (so you could say I gave myself my first job!).  But really, when I moved to Ithaca I began trying to seriously find illustration work, and let my friends in my department at Cornell know that I was interested; I also put up posters in a few other departments on campus, and once I had done a few jobs, I gave a resume to Media Services.  I took the GNSI workshop that was given at Cornell one summer around this time, and thus got to know about GNSI and all its resources, through Bente King, who was a wonderful mentor.

 I just looked up my invoice list and find that my first paying job came from my husband (!), but several other people in the department began using my (very cheap) services, too.  Honestly, all the posters and resumes only brought in one or two jobs; all the rest were by word of mouth, and the real breakthrough came when one of my departmental clients wrote a book and asked the university press he worked with to use me as the illustrator.  So for me "becoming" a scientific illustrator has been a very slow and still continuing process.  In retrospect I am glad I started with scientific training; it has strengthened my rapport / ease of communication with my clients no end.

While I have always drawn, I was a zoology major and an English literature minor in college. And I took a few art classes. I really loved drawing in my science lab classes and while I volunteered to work in people's labs. I think I got my first paid illustration in a scientific paper through those connections. I then got hired by the same department to develop a lab series/lab manual- and I did the illustrations for that too.

Being comfortable in the science field, I posted a sample of my illustrations and contact information alongside the job listings and announcements at the same university. I used this technique at a few different institutions, and have gotten a number of jobs that way. It was important to talk to someone to get permission first. Science journal illustrations don't make lots of money, but it was an easy foot in the door for me, and for each job I got to go to the lab and learn about their research. Just fascinating.

I later went through the illustration program at UC Santa Cruz (now at California State University at Monterey Bay), and got some jobs through the program. From there my work has either been from word of mouth or from directly approaching groups or institutions I'm interesting in doing work for- it's always worth asking! And if the client likes your work and likes working with you, you are bound to get more or references from them in the future.


I would say all of my experiences and subsequent jobs happened because I was already involved with those organizations, businesses or employers, personally.  Throughout high school I illustrated every report, especially every field report in biology and every dissection diagram in anatomy and physiology class.  But I grew up working in an area that was touted as 'more acres under glass' in the greenhouse produce and bedding plant industry.  Everyone in our town at some point worked in the greenhouse.  So, naturally, I began illustrating the plants that we grew and started making information cards for each plant so that customers didn't have to ask us so many repetitive questions....many years before the standard plastic markers in potted plants of today.  So, my boss asked me to illustrate more and more business/conservation reports etc.  Then my Mother, being a Doctor's office nurse, told me the Doctor needed an informational poster to explain to her patients how to identify melanomas, I was the young designer for the job.  Upon  entering college, I was in the Graphic Design program, but under pressure switched to Art Education in the final two years.  So upon graduation I started my own professional business in Marine Graphics because of my established network in the sailing industry and taught Art on the side in Parks, Art Centers and eventually schools. Although my teaching career took over full time, I continued to illustrate for various educational clients, authors, etc and so the pendulum swings both ways and keeps life interesting. So my best advise is hang out and get to know the folks in the field of your interest and before you know it, they will be coming to you to illustrate their needs~

I'm loving these starting out stories.  They're great!

I went to my first local GNSI meeting in NY.  We learned quite a lot about mushrooms.  I decided, no matter the temptation, I will never eat a mushroom found in the wild.  That doesn't mean I won't grow my own, though!

My website is still in production, but getting closer.  Everything is still in production, but getting closer.  

Thanks everyone.  I'd love to meet in person someday.


The calculation is simple. A great personality and a good book as a piece. But I feel your pain. You can not get a job without the book, and you can't start your book without the job. You're stuck in a chicken and egg scenario. What are you going to do?.