Illustrating Nature

An upcoming exhibition on Portugal’s fishing and canning industry at the Museum of Portimão in the Algarve will allow visitors to see what tuna, sardines, mackerel, and anchovies look like, outside and in. So illustrating the exhibit required cutting open a lot of fish, a job that fell to Diana Marques, the 27-year-old Portuguese natural science illustrator charged with providing drawings for the exhibition. “There was fish gut all around,” Marques says–but she didn’t mind, even though messes can be a problem for a scientific illustrator. “The research was tremendous,” she says, but as an illustrator “you have to make it look clean.”

For people with a passion for science and visual art–and, for jobs like this one, a tolerance for messy, smelly things–scientific illustration can be a satisfying career, but the profession is changing. Most of today’s illustrators make their living as freelancers, so they have to be able to sell themselves and their work to potential clients and to build and maintain professional networks. Most agree the work is potentially lucrative and offers great opportunity and variety. But like freelancers in other fields, scientific illustrators are likely to experience some financial insecurity, at least until they are well established.

Marques’s way into natural science illustration

Marques was in high school when she enrolled in a 3-year course in drawing at the National Fine Arts Society in Lisbon in 1995. But she says it wasn’t long before “the scientific side of me was craving … attention,” so when her drawing course was over, she entered a 5-year degree ( licenciatura) programme in applied biology and animal resources at the University of Lisbon. Marques’s two passions–science and art–remained separate until she saw an ad for a scientific illustration workshop at her university. It just “clicked,” she says, and a new career was born. When she graduated in 2002, she entered a 1-year certificate programme in scientific illustration at the Autonomous University of Lisbon.

After completing the certificate programme, Marques applied to enter a 1-year graduate Science Illustration programme at the University of California Extension in Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz programme accepts only 15 students a year–“We commonly receive 3 to 4 times the number of applications from well-qualified applicants than we can accommodate,” says the programme’s director Ann Caudle–but Marques made the cut. “Diana entered the programme with a strong science background and an illustration portfolio … that was promising from the start–elegant drawings with beautiful attention to detail.” To pay her way, Marques found patrons in the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD). The two organisations covered her fees for a return plane ticket to Lisbon and part of her living expenses.

During her time in Santa Cruz, Marques gained professional experience thanks to two 3-month internships, one at the Entomology and Crustacean Sections of the Queensland Museum in Brisbane, Australia, and the second at the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. She has been freelancing since she graduated in 2004, mainly for the Systematic Entomology Laboratory at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C.

But some of her work is for the public. Marques helps prepare illustrations for the NMNH’s Web site and public exhibitions. These jobs offer a new challenge for Marques. In addition to the accuracy and clarity required when she’s working directly with scientists, she says “a big concern is about being appealing and engaging.”

Because she needs access to specimens and microscopes, Marques usually works in an office at the Smithsonian. But she travels back to Portugal whenever she can to work on projects like the one at the Museum of Portimão or on illustrations for Portuguese science textbooks. But such opportunities are comparatively rare because, she says, in Portugal “the market is not that developed and there is not so much funding.”

Natural science illustration as a career

According to Caudle, the director of the Santa Cruz programme, would-be natural science illustrators need to develop a range of artistic, scientific, and “soft” skills, of which the ability to illustrate is only the most obvious. In addition to “strong skills in a variety of both traditional media and digital media,” she says illustrators need “excellent observational skills, accuracy, attention to detail and nuance, and an understanding of light and shadow on form.”

Before the drawing starts, illustrators need to research the biology of their subject thoroughly to identify what their clients want or need to see. Unlike photography, which captures exactly what is in front of the camera, scientific illustration involves taking “a bunch of things that are really obscure in science and complex and … going through the process of looking at the information and making it clear, like in an editing process,” Marques says.

Today’s science illustrators also need the skills to run a small business. “Science illustrators once expected to become staff,” Caudle says. “Now, as in many creative fields, science illustrators are often independent freelancers who enjoy working on a variety of projects for a number of different clients.” Like other freelancers, scientific illustrators need good marketing and networking skills. “Especially at first, [science illustrators] need to take the initiative to introduce themselves around,” Caudle says. The ability to negotiate and to be aware of copyright issues and current fees is also very important, Marques adds.

Financial insecurity and instability are common in scientific illustrating, as they are in any freelance career, but ultimately the career can be lucrative. “Making a living is not something that you wake [up] one day and start to do. … It’s something that you have to work for,” Marques says. Getting the most interesting, and best paying, jobs “depends on your portfolio, how fast you can deliver your work, [and] how professional you are,” says Marques. Whatever the work requires, Marques says, you have to be able to provide it. “The strategy is to develop skills that are not strictly related but will help you [make] a living”–such as Web design, magazine page layout, and exhibition development. Even established scientific illustrators need to remain alert to changes in techniques and client expectations. “In order to have continued success, science illustrators must … stay current, be adaptable and be proactive,” Caudle says.

Marques says she isn’t comfortable yet, adding: “But it has been encouraging because I feel I have made progress, and I am able to work on more challenging and interesting projects.” And, she sees great advantages to her career choice, even in lean times. She travels widely, and above all, she says, “I don’t see myself doing anything else.”

Neither can her teacher. “Diana is an extraordinarily talented, motivated, and hard-working illustrator,” Caudle says. “Each time I speak to her she has a roster of interesting projects waiting in the wings. … She has always applied herself to the challenges that were presented, and demonstrated a real willingness to put herself out there right away.” For example, Marques recently took a scientific diving course as part of the Smithsonian Scientific Diving Programme and has just come back from Belize, where she spent 2 weeks diving and drawing. This time, the fish she drew were still swimming.

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