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So You Want to Hire a Science Illustrator

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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You’re proud of the science communication you’ve written for your blog. You want to add visual excitement to an announcement about science outreach. You need to illustrate your findings for the paper that has taken years of your life to study and write-up. You know illustrations, photos and cartoons make your writing much more likely to be read on social media.

You want to hire a science illustrator, but are not sure where to start.

Here’s some things you should know.

Where to find science illustrators

You want someone who knows what they're doing.

How to pick one

Most illustrators have areas of expertise. It’s a good idea to look around at some portfolios or ask for recommendations in the community. For example, I tend to do oil and digital paintings about prehistoric life, humans, and microbes. I’m not the best person to ask to do a design-heavy infographic about sanitation hazards on kitchen appliances.

Think about your audience. If you’re describing the evolution of dinosaurs and birds to high school students, you may want something funny to keep their attention, rather than something cute like you would for grade school.

Be open to new styles. A lot of the best science illustration pushes boundaries in favor of artistic value to communicate effectively, rather than act as a stand-in for a photograph.

How to approach a science illustrator

Be excited about your blog post, paper, book draft or study. Be excited to find visuals to match what you poured into it.

Be prepared that their years of study, school, and practice honing their ability is going to cost money and take time – and for it to be worth it.

Don’t ask them to do work “for exposure”. Illustrators laugh about that, bitterly. For example, see David Thorne’s classic post Simon’s Free Pie Charts and the @forexposure_txt Twitter account which quotes real people asking for free work.

If you can’t pay, or can’t pay much, it’s best to ask about something the illustrator has already created. Many illustrators are okay with re-sharing their back catalogue work that may otherwise be gathering dust. Not all feel this way, as the back catalogue may be their bread and butter for licensing. But if you have a specific piece in mind, it may be worth asking if it’s available.

If you work for a charity or non-profit, you still have to pay a plumber to fix the broken taps or a service provider for your phone. So keep that in mind about illustration.

Money and contracts and stuff

This section might well be your main reason for reading this post. Spoiler alert: I am not posting how much illustrators charge.

Most illustrators have their own contracts or Agreements about money and usage. All professional ones will want to use one, even for minor jobs.

Contracts and Agreements are not created out of the aether. Illustrators have guides such as the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines and modify from there. You might want to get a copy if you are hiring often.

That Handbook I mention above has prices for a lot of scenarios, but not all. Want to hire someone to make a Twitter background reflecting your research into theoretical physics? The artist may decide how to charge based on a living wage and estimate of how long it will take to complete. $300 might sound steep, but if it takes them 20 hours to produce, that’s still only $15/hour.

Copyright always lies with the image creator by international law. Paying someone to make the image does not change this.

If you want to pay someone to relinquish all of their copyright, it can cost a lot, up to 500% of the original price. Ask yourself: do you need to? Is this for a website written only in English? A textbook in 3 languages in Asia? Illustrators prefer to retain copyright so they can re-license the image to other markets. At bare minimum, they will want to use it as a portfolio piece, to enter contests in their field and other forms of self-promotion.

If you are hiring an illustrator to create work for you from scratch, many will ask for a deposit, send sketches, and then reach a “kill-point” in the contract where if it is killed or substantially modified, payment will be expected anyway. Most charge for revisions past a certain point.

Don’t ask the authentic pen&ink illustrator you hired for that classic black and white look to “turn the head on that hominid by 30 degrees”. It’s not a 3D computer render.

It’s also useful to describe to the illustrator who the audience is, in terms of numbers and demographics. Potential audience goes a long way in making decisions about pricing.

Remember it’s worth it

You’re reading this using the greatest image and communication tool ever conceived, the internet. Images are the future of communication.

These tips aren’t pitfalls: most illustrators are excited and hungry for new challenges and projects. Don’t be shy.

_________________________________

If you’re new to Symbiartic, I’d invite you to keep coming back for this stuff. We take #scicomm seriously even when it’s funny. We talk about finding artists, self-publishingcopyright and art events a lot.

Are you an illustrator with more tips?  Add them in the comments below, or tweet @FlyingTrilobite and I may update or continue the post.

Are you a science communicator and have more questions? Let me know.

[Thanks to Linda Campbell @LM_Campbell who blogs at Ecogirl & Cosmoboy for the post suggestion. Illustrations by Glendon Mellow, top image has photo references  by Morgan Jackson.]

Glendon Mellow About the Author: Glendon Mellow is a fine artist, illustrator and tattoo designer working in oil and digital media based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets @FlyingTrilobite. You can see Glendon's work-in-progress at The Flying Trilobite blog and portfolio at www.glendonmellow.com. Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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Comments 8 Comments

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  1. 1. Amy Charles 10:40 pm 10/27/2013

    Hey, thanks so much! Exactly what I needed about a week before I needed it.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Symbiartic.km 1:30 pm 10/28/2013

    Another great resource for finding fantastic sci-illustrators:

    http://science-art.com

    Link to this
  3. 3. Glendon Mellow 1:39 pm 10/28/2013

    Thanks Kalliopi! I meant to add that one. Will edit soonish.

    Link to this
  4. 4. andyfarke 1:42 pm 10/28/2013

    Excellent resource! Thanks for posting. One additional thing I would add re: licensing is to communicate to the illustrator at the start if you plan on publishing in an open access journal. If the journal is CC-BY, the image could show up (with credit) in a whole variety of unexpected places (e.g., Wikipedia). This isn’t a bad thing, but artists definitely need to be kept in the loop on plans for publishing (esp. given how this changes their ability to relicense the work later). One artist I worked with on a recent paper was pleasantly surprised when I notified them that we planned to publish open access; not everyone realizes the implications for licensing, etc.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Glendon Mellow 3:20 pm 10/28/2013

    Thank you Andy! Very important points. I wish more artists used the various Creative Commons Licenses than currently do, but it’s understandable to be protective of work.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Emily D 9:47 am 10/29/2013

    Great post, Glendon. Thank you! To your excellent advice on HOW to find and work with an illustrator, I’d like to add my thoughts on WHY to hire a professional illustrator (as opposed to an amateur):
    http://emilydamstra.wordpress.com/2012/03/10/why-hire-a-professional-illustrator/

    Link to this
  7. 7. Glendon Mellow 10:51 am 10/29/2013

    That was a terrific post, Emily! I’d encourage all of our readers to check it out, and then lose yourself in Emily’s galleries.

    Link to this
  8. 8. mica-the-mineral 2:33 pm 11/15/2013

    This is a great article, it really should be required reading for all clients!
    Another resource for finding scientific illustrators is this blog: http://scientificillustration.tumblr.com/ -he posts some old stuff and people’s sketches and sci illu related articles, but he also reblogs a lot of the work of contemporary scientific illustrators.

    Link to this

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