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Career blogs

Career Spotlight: scientific illustration

Written by Maryia Khomich

Art is crucial in the development and transmission of science. A scientific illustration must be clear, accurate, to scale, and visually appealing; it depicts subjects, processes, or phenomena that cannot otherwise be seen by the human eye. Artistic techniques mainly used in scientific illustration include traditional – pencil, watercolor, gouache, or ink, digital, or a mix of both. Scientific illustrators are an essential part of the scientific community – they bring a new understanding of the unseen and unknown. As science and technology become more advanced, the need for professional scientific illustrators is constantly growing.

Joana C. Carvalho shares her experience in the field of scientific illustration and gives a few tips on how to become a scientific illustrator.

Job title: freelance scientific illustrator
Highest level of education and study field: MSc in evolutionary and developmental biology and 4 years of experience as a research technician

What is your background?
A scientific illustrator usually has both scientific and artistic training. I am a biologist and learned illustration mostly by myself. Although formal training in the arts is not strictly necessary, it is useful to become proficient in your technique of choice. Throughout my career, I have been taking several specialized courses in artistic fields that I wanted to develop further, including illustration techniques and creative writing.

What does a scientific illustrator do?
It is a very versatile profession. The possibilities are endless. A scientific illustrator informs and talks about science in an engaging way using artistic and visual tools to make accurate representations of subjects and concepts. It is especially necessary for the fields like molecular biology, physiology, medicine, mathematics, or physics where subjects tend to be invisible and multi-layered, or the processes and phenomena are difficult to understand unless we draw them.

Where can a scientific illustrator work?
In academia (designing figures and diagrams for scientific articles, graphical abstracts, and branding), in science communication (infographics, brochures, and press releases), in museums and science exhibitions. One of my favorite areas is editorial illustration, producing illustrations that accompany the text in newspapers and magazines or journal covers. If one is more interested in medicine, in performing accurate and realistic representations of human anatomy, training in medical illustration is required. There are many schools that offer excellent programs in this field.

How did you make a career transition from research into scientific illustration?
Opportunity very often depends on luck, and I was very lucky to have met scientists who believed in me. A good and supportive network makes the transition easier. In academia, you need to be brave enough to trust in your scientific and artistic skills and to convince people that these skills are an asset.
Images are the future, and science will benefit from good illustration. Visual content tends to be more memorable than well-written text. Scientists should not suffer from the pressure to have to find the time and skills to create accurate and engaging visuals for their publications or science outreach. That is a job for professional scientific illustrators and designers, and, perhaps, the future is in embedding them in editorial teams and academic institutions. It is hard enough to publish a manuscript, and it only makes sense that we find better ways to give science the visuals it deserves.

What skills are essential to be a scientific illustrator?
In my experience, scientists are very creative, but they often do not know how to channel their creativity. In other words, the brain and hand do not communicate well, and executing anything artistic can be difficult. If you are a scientist by training interested in becoming an illustrator, artistic skills are essential and should be developed before the transition. Regardless of the technique you choose to develop, it is critical to learn its foundations so that you can build a solid portfolio. Having good knowledge of how to read, understand and write scientific articles is very important. It is also essential to be curious, proactive, persistent, and learn something new every day.
The process of creating an illustration is a fusion of creativity and scientific understanding of the subject, but it can be frustrating. It is like an experiment that fails sometimes. I think that everyone can be creative, and there are ways to trigger that creativity. Try different techniques to find yours because it depends on what you try and what you are exposed to.

What is the best part of your job?
Teaching others and interacting with the audience can be very rewarding. The feeling that my work can impact other people and foster interest in science, is great. It makes me feel happy to have an opportunity to help scientists to create better visuals.

What was the most fascinating or challenging project you have worked on?
Exploring the flexibility of my job is fascinating and challenging at the same time. Every project makes me absorbed. Sometimes I work on a project in a style that I am not most comfortable with. Some organizations have a constrained way to advertise themselves, and I must go along with their style and branding guidelines. These shifts in style are a completely different way of thinking and can be mentally demanding, out of my comfort zone, and I have to push myself.

What does your day look like?
It is variable. I can spend an entire day sketching or painting one angle of view. But what I like to keep constant is answering emails in the morning, when my mind is the sharpest, and reading at least one article – be it a scientific paper, news, a report, or any kind of science writing.

Do you have a favorite scientific illustration?
My first real scientific illustration was a turning point for me – an illustration of the anatomy of a male fruit fly. I put a lot of time and effort into it, and I kept working on it daily. It completely shaped the scientific illustrator I am today.

What advice would you give to life science graduates with a keen interest in illustration?
In a nutshell, nurture your artistic talent. Being a scientific illustrator is half being a scientist and half being an artist. Learn something new every day. Read about art history and go to museums and art galleries. Experiment with different techniques and exercise your brain.
My advice to people who are already familiar with illustration: before going into digital illustration, learn the foundations of your technique. Without learning the traditional methods, you cannot know how a brush feels when you press it against the paper, how a pencil creates texture, or how different layers of paint interact with each other when you superimpose them. If you learn the traditional techniques first, your digital painting will get much better. Meet the works of other professionals, especially those outside of science, and cultivate art as a part of your life.

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