How does a scientist start a career in illustration and design?
December 27, 2007 11:01 AM   Subscribe

How do I get into a career in illustration and design with no qualifications or knowledge of the business?

This year being my third year studying biological science it has become concrete to me that I do not wish to pursue a career in pure science. Since childhood I have been drawing, designing, doodling, taking photographs, making movies and so forth and have slowly realised that I would like nothing more than to be an illustrator (scientific and children's illustrations mainly), as well as develop my (entirely self taught) skills in digital art and design for character design and so on (t-shirts, posters etc).

However, I haven't studied art since I was 16, and now 5 years on I don't have any freinds involved in art or design, nor any clue as to how to even begin building a portfolio, let alone how and who to contact about showing it off. Furthermore I've no qualifications.

The majority of my artwork is on paper, with very little currently online since I've only recently been able to afford a scanner. Also, a lot of my best work has been made as gifts to freinds so I no longer have them.

I'm not that great at writing either, so I'm no good at ending essays, so I'll just end with this:

posted by D J Robertstein to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if I'm missing something (and this is not meant to be snarky), but is there some reason that going to design school to specialize in illustration isn't the obvious answer?
posted by scody at 11:07 AM on December 27, 2007

Im considering going to college next year when I'm finished with university. However, I've already reacked up 3 years worth of student debt and college may not be an option for a while.

I would also like to get the ball rolling as soon as I can, since I have a free summer ahead and want to make the most of it.
posted by D J Robertstein at 11:15 AM on December 27, 2007

The way to get work is to have a portfolio. The way to build a portfolio is to do work.

I once worked with a creative director who sagely refused to give a shit about anything that an applicant had done for themselves, for their friends' band, for an art show, etc, on the grounds that he wasn't particularly interested in seeing what you could do when you had total artistic freedom. What mattered was what you can do when the client imposes a load of constraints on the project. This is smart from an agency perspective, but obviously makes it difficult if you haven't had any clients yet.

So, with that in mind, the best you can hope for is to try to ensure that the portfolio-building illustrations you do are as practical as possible. Set yourself a tightly-defined task, as if you were the client requesting the job, and then illustrate to it. Better still if you can get a knowledgeable friend to set the task for you, so that you're being assigned things outside of your comfort zone. If it works well, it's portfolio material. If it doesn't, then it's practice and you needed it anyway. Have you spoken to any of your professors about this? They may have papers of their own that need illustration, which could provide you the opportunity to get published work in a journal. My girlfriend did exactly that in college (she was illustrating pot sherds and flint knives instead of sectioned spleens, but same difference, you draw what you know).

But all of that is likely putting the cart before the horse. Can you not take a class now? I agree that it'd be good to finish that degree in bio so that it's not wasted, but could you possibly minor in art at this stage? Or is there such a thing as a minor at your institution? You phrase this as if you're in a British-style degree program, the intricacies of which are unfamiliar to me.
posted by mumkin at 11:39 AM on December 27, 2007

You should get formal training in art. Scientific illustration is very precise and formalized. If you want to take the cheap way it is going to require lots of practice but even then it will be a gamble. Taking some classes at the local tech college may help to provide you with useful critique of your work, business knowledge, and the knowledge of how to put together a valuable portfolio. Spending $500-$1000 on one or two classes will be worth its weight in gold.

Without that knowledge you will be stumbling around in the dark. About the best you can hope for is to pick up a copy of the Artist's Market and try the waters but it is a tough business without contacts or street smarts.
posted by JJ86 at 11:45 AM on December 27, 2007

As you guessed, I am in the UK- Liverpool specifically.

I'm going to try to finish my current degree as best I can, but I've realised I'm not a science person- just an artist interested in science.

Like I said, I would like to do a short course in art and illustration. I need to get involved more and find other people though, as I know very few design companies and galleries and my professors, like many scientists, use very few illustrations in their peer-reviewed papers and opt for graphs and charts instead.
posted by D J Robertstein at 11:53 AM on December 27, 2007

Look for people whose work you admire and contact them for a bit of advice. Try this guy, who is entirely self-taught, as well (look past the ugly site design for brilliant illustration).
posted by Catrissa at 11:56 AM on December 27, 2007

Create a portfolio. Go to design school. Learn to live with the debt. Seriously, would you rather have debt payments every month, at a standard rate, and do what you love? Or do what you hate and be debt free?

Portfolio Center in Atlanta is a design school that has a reputation for producing excellent designers. Isn't hard to get in. But once you're there, it is tough shit. And expensive.

I promise, promise, promise, promise, it is better to get your debt from education than a million other things, especially when it prepares you for the life you want.

Since you have one more year of undergraduate education (I assume): take as many studio and design classes as you can before you graduate. Demonstrate that this is what you want to do. Work hard at these classes. Excel.

Also: In five years would you rather have a bachelor's degree in biology and a professional degree in design under your belt, with a couple years experience? Or would you rather be working a job you hate to pay off debt, waiting for that elusive day when you go back to school. Run! Go! Chase your dream!
posted by whimsicalnymph at 12:01 PM on December 27, 2007

In the long run, no matter what path you take it's going to take a decent bit of time to get established...

One thing that might help shorten the amount of time though is to combine your science training and love of art to your advantage.

my professors, like many scientists, use very few illustrations in their peer-reviewed papers and opt for graphs and charts instead.

While this is true, in publishing, there's alot of illustration of biology (bird books for example), where it would be especially handy to have your background. Maybe you could start doing dramatic illustrations of topics in your field, with bonus points for doing them with explanations that anyone could understand.

To borrow a page from the "Web is the future" camp, how about starting a blog to showcase the examples you would create in the paragraph above. The nice thing is that I think the average web user likes pretty pictures and science, so you have the perfect honeypot to build an audience.
posted by drezdn at 12:07 PM on December 27, 2007

I work for a children's book publisher who uses science illustrators for nonfiction titles, and I think it's important to have an agent, in both the US and UK if you can. The agent can get things moving for you because most companies steer away from cold solicitations.

Not that you shouldn't submit your work to publishers. Make sure your cover letter is polite, concise, and grammatically correct. Don't send original artwork and don't expect many yesses. Be sure to research the company and their submission policies.

To build a portfolio, take digital photos on a properly-lit, flat surface. If the illustrations are small, you could even go to the library and scan them there.

Build a website, even something simple like a blog, showcasing your artwork. It makes it easier for publishers to check things out and you're not wasting time and money sending cover letters and artwork in the mail.

Also, check out museums and institutions in your area. Maybe they need to commission something, and you're local and will work for cheap. Plus, you'll build up your resume and portfolio simultaneously.

Finally, is there some sort of "Society of Professional Science Illustrators and Designers" out there? If so, become a member.
posted by LiveToEat at 2:06 PM on December 27, 2007

Art school graduate here. You are in luck, my friend...degrees don't really mean squat when it comes to illustration jobs. I think you would really benefit from picking up a copy of the Illustrator's Guide, one of the books put out by Writer's Digest. Writer's Digest does annual books of sources and tips for illustrators, children's book writers, photographers, artists, musicians, etc. They list all kinds of possible markets for your work, but more importantly for someone at your stage of the game will be the real life stories from successful artists and illustrators that are also in those books and their tips about how to break in.

Most illustrators work in a style, and that style is usually geared for a specific type of publication. It doesn't mean you won't get published elsewhere, but it does mean you will probably find some markets easier to penetrate than others depending on your style. You will need a couple of portfolios, and portfolio is just a fancy way of saying examples of your work. First, do a broad portfolio that shows your range. Next, do a more specialized portfolio that shows a category, like botanical illustration or cartoons, or maybe a medium like just collage or just pen and ink, etc. As you get more acclimated to the market and the way you submit your work you will probably have many mini bodies of work to submit to editors. Illustration is not typically shown in galleries. Illustration bridges the worlds of "commercial" and "fine" art, leaning toward commercial. As such, galleries won't really be interested in your illustrative work but that doesn't mean you can't do other work that would be more appealing to a gallery audience.

You can do this if you want to, it doesn't require a degree. It just requires a strong stomach to deal with the rejection and keep in mind the pay isn't great in the beginning but as your work gets known you can command more. Good luck!
posted by 45moore45 at 2:15 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Hmmm, can't give you the title of the book, but someone I know, an illustrator, in the UK, advertises in it, which means she pays for half a page to show off her work, and she gets commissions from this thing.
posted by londongeezer at 3:29 PM on December 27, 2007

You sound exactly like my sister. She went up to a Ph.D in biochemistry in Imperial College and did some research work, then found that research wasn't her thing. She has always LOVED art - like you, she has doodles and drawings and who knows what. She took a year off, then after that year she started a Arts Foundation course and loved it. She is now in Bristol doing a degree in illustration, and is the happiest person in the world

She loves the university structure so getting a degree works for her. I swear, she'd probably be in uni forever if she could afford it. You can check out her blog, and let me know if you want her contact details.
posted by divabat at 4:17 PM on December 27, 2007

Creative Director here. I'm in full agreement with the above comment about not showing work that isn't devoted to a specific assignment, because that's utterly irrelevant to what the job of design is. Pure illustration, of course, is a somewhat different tack, but if you're serious about seeking commissions, I'd set your own narrowly defined agenda and fulfill it via a depiction. Then do another, and another, and so forth.

And, like any form of marketing, have a niche, a specialty. Perhaps exploit your science knowledge to create informed illustrations that aren't the cliché -- but are close to what people are looking for. Check out stock sites like Getty and Corbis to research what sells to a mass market, and if you see something similar to your own forays, then you've got some validation that yes, money can be exchanged for what you do.

Be accessible by several different means (email, website, phone, and yes, even fax) and come willing to take direction as well as initiative. Practice being a good listener and a great observer. I'm personally in awe of illustrators & designers that can use their talent to convey a particular message, and once aware of them, I'll support them however I can.
posted by Haruspex at 4:17 PM on December 27, 2007

I takes some classes at Watts Atelier of the Arts in Encinitas (near San Diego), California. No degrees, but it churns out fantastic artists, as with other illustration schools like California Art Institute.

Many of Watts's teachers and students are working professional illustrators (Sony, Dreamworks, kids' books, everything), and without exception, they worked their asses off in representational, traditional art & anatomy to get as good as they are. You'll find a great illustration community at the ConceptArt forums, to which they all belong. Fortunately, commercial artists seem to be particularly supportive of one another, which isn't so with fine art as I understand.

whimsicalnymph: I just dropped my best friend off at Portfolio center! And you're right -- easy to get in, but murderous once you're there.

posted by changeling at 6:07 PM on December 27, 2007

While stuff for a friend's band often isn't as good on the portfolio as stuff for a real design company working for a real client, there is a lot of grey inbetween. Your mom's friend's brother who recently started doing some part-time web-design as a one-person company is, in a sense, a design company working for a client (as far as your resume is concerned), who may also be looking for some part-part-time help now and then. It's a small start, but it's a start. Then you use that to get something else, likely also a one-off or part-time, and so on, but getting more serious as you go, thus you build up your work experience, your portfolio, and your career, as time goes on.
Let people know you're looking for illustration work, take opportunities that come your way (but generally you shouldn't work for free unless it's for charity or a proper internship. If you don't respect the value of your time, you've lost half the battle in convincing others to).
posted by -harlequin- at 10:25 PM on December 27, 2007

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