How I became a Scientific Illustrator
I want to share my personal experience with you, but know that there are many ways of becoming a scientific illustrator. I hope reading this will help you in your own unique path. If you have questions, do reach out! I'll do my best to help you.
As a child I discovered that I wanted to be a comic artist. I loved reading and drawing comics, and I admired artists like Hergé, Ibáñez, Uderzo and Toriyama. These are some of my first comics. They had nothing to do with science:
I'm a bit embarrassed to share them, but by doing so I want to show you that our art will improve inevitably if we practice a lot. Compare these with my art now!
🎓 "BEING AN ARTIST IS NOT A REAL JOB!"
On my last year of highschool, I was thinking of studying Fine Arts.
Plot twist: I ended up studying Biotechnology. When I said I wanted to study art, some people told me the typical things you might have heard too: "being an artist is not a real job", "you'll be poor", "you can have a real job and draw in the evenings", "you'd be better off finding a more secure job"...I know this didn't come from a place of disdain towards art, but of concern for my future and stability.
Back then I didn't believe in myself, so I put my dream aside and went on the search for a "real career". I liked Biology and was very curious about Genetics, so I chose to study Biotechnology.
💡Lesson Learned: a "stable career" as we used to define it doesn't exist anymore, except in some cases. To this day I've been both a freelancer and an employee, and none of those paths has proven to be truly "stable" long term.
I created my first scientific comic in high school, many years before I knew scientific illustration existed. It was a summary to help me memorize the innate immune response for an exam. This is the first page:
🧪 "GET A SERIOUS JOB"
The Biotechnology degree was tough, but I loved it. I learned a lot, not only about Biotechnology but also about other skills that later helped me during my career as an illustrator:
- Being organized with work (managing multiple projects, naming files correctly prioritizing tasks, planning the different stages of a long-term project).
- Working in a team of people with different work styles.
- Searching for reliable information sources, questioning assumptions.
- Communicating complex topics with simple language.
- Respecting deadlines.
- Writing project reports and long essays.
- Pulling all-nighters...although this is best avoided wherever possible.
💡Lesson Learned: I wasn't going after my "dream" from the start, but the long, indirect path that I took taught me many things that are valuable to me now. If you're not in your dream job or degree right now, don't despair! You can surely learn something from what you are doing now that will help you in your desired path.
During the degree something kept catching my attention. Sometimes, professors would show us an image during a lecture and say something like "this image summarizes what I just explained, but don't pay attention to this part, because it's incorrect. It must have been a mistake by the artist, since they might not know the topic very well...". I think at this point my subconscious started mulling over the idea of an artist who knows science.
💗 I WANT TO BE A SCIENTIFIC ILLUSTRATOR
On my last year of uni I started doubting my flawless plan of being a serious, respectable scientific researcher. I was shocked and disappointed by what I had seen of the working conditions of a lot of scientists, especially in Spain.
As I was looking for master degrees I started toying with the idea of being an artist again, and by coincidence I found the website of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, a scientific illustration association. Discovering the existence of scientific illustration, a discipline combining art and science, felt like a miracle, and instantly I knew that was just the profession for me.
I enrolled in the Medical Art MSc at the Universty of Dundee, but before that I spent almost a year taking traditional art classes. I had no formal art education and to be admitted into the course I had to submit a portfolio. The art classes were at Estudio Simón Picó in Alicante. Thanks to Simón, my skills improved a lot in a relatively short time.
These are some of the images I painted for my portfolio (gouache, pencils watercolor):
💸 "IF IT DOESN'T MAKE YOU MONEY, IT'S JUST A HOBBY"
Before I finished my master's, I got my first commission in a very unexpected way.
3 years earlier, during my Biotech studies, I was doing an internship in a lab and my tutor saw me sketching in my notebook while I waited for the centrifuge to finish. When another research group needed an artist for a project, my tutor recommended me. I'm very grateful for this coincidence.
💡Lesson Learned: projects can come from the most unexpected places or coincidences. Talk to people about your project or services, it might turn into a project when you least expect it.
As soon as I finished my master's I came back to Spain to do freelance work. I talked to a lot of people, cold emailed potential clients and told anyone who would listen about my work (friends, family, acquaintances, former teachers...). Thanks to this, small projects started trickling in, and little by little it started snowballing thanks to word-of-mouth.
💊A LITTLE DOSE OF REALITY
I'll be honest: it took a few years and a lot of perseverance until I was able to live off scientific illustration full-time. At first, I would combine it with other jobs, like teaching English, babysitting, and later teaching art lat the studio where I had once been a student.
💡Lesson Learned: reaching your goal might take time. Don't be afraid to combine it with another job. This will give you the freedom and flexibility to only accept the projects that align with your goal and decline fee work or abusive conditions. Little by little you'll become known and better opportunities will come your way.
My goal was still to become a full-time illustrator, so I kept working, studying and searching until I found my first full-time job. This was in 2018, when I had the chance to join the E-Learning team at the University Medical Center Groningen. I loved it, because I had the chance to create images and animations for Medicine and Odontology students.
☁️ HOW CAN YOU GET STARTED WITH SCIENTIFIC ILLUSTRATION?
Scientific illustration has become much more mainstream in the last few years, and I've noticed a lot more work and education opportunities. Some people even specialize in a certain field: figures for scientific papers, 3D modeling, animation, comics, patient communication, infographics, E-Learning...
No matter where you are in your journey, I wish you all the best. These are the things that have helped me the most during my own quest:
✍️ Create a portfolio: los clientes suelen querer ver muestras de trabajo antes de trabajar con un ilustrador nuevo. Si no estás recibiendo encargos todavía, ¡no pasa nada! Puedes incluir proyectos personales en tu portafolio para empezar.
🎩 Use your unique talents: do you love public speaking? Drawing comics? Teaching online? Rock climbing? Playing music? Think of ways to combine your scientific illustration skills with your unique hobbies or talents. This might give you fresh ideas and a special edge to your personal brand.
🎤 Talk to people about your project: nunca sabes de dónde te va a llegar un encargo, ¡puede darse una casualidad que no te esperabas! Puedes compartir tu trabajo en la red social que más te guste, y contarle a tu público objetivo cómo tu trabajo puede ayudarles.
🫖 If English is not your main language, learn it. It will broaden your client pool so much!
🌟 Extra tip: if you have time, create a personal project you're excited about. Don't wait until some hypothetical client offers you your dream project. You can start today! It will excite you, boost your confidence, give you visibility, and potentially attract clients who want to commission you for exactly that kind of work.
If you have questions or suggestions for the blog, send me a message! I'll be happy to help. All the best with your journey!