Last month, my co-blogger Glendon Mellow wrote a great summary for scientists who are wondering how to go about hiring science illustrators. It was received with open arms in the research community (cool, they seem receptive) and made me think of the many, many inquiries I get each year from emerging science illustrators who want to know the reverse: how do you get illustration work from scientists? So here’s my take, the unofficial counterpart to Glendon’s “So You Want to Hire A Science Illustrator?“
In my experience, scientists are an approachable bunch. They are passionate, geeky (in a cool way), eager to get their work out there and open to ideas. So why are so many illustrators wondering how to get their foot in the door while so many researchers are scratching their heads about what they’re going to do with that figure they’ve been pushing off? It’s just a matter of both parties coming to a common meeting ground. A place where people with ideas about science can connect with dedicated science communicators without having to fly all over the damn place and contribute to global warming. A little place called… the Internets.
For those of you already on the Internets, half of this may bore you to tears. But read on, there’s some advice for you, too. For the rest of you aspiring science illustrators who often ask me about how to break in to the party, here are five tips to help you get connected with scientists:
1. Get Your Work Online
Can I yell this one? GET YOUR WORK ONLINE.
There are many ways to get your work online, ranging from your own blog (try WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr) to free sites like DeviantArt and Flickr to paid professional portfolio sites like Science-Art.com. Instagram your art to Grandma for all I care, but for the love, get your work online. If you don’t, then you are limiting yourself to the network you can build by knocking on the doors in your ‘hood. Maybe you live in a utility closet of the research halls of a world class museum and that’s enough. But for the rest of us who live in Normal, USA, I suggest you tap into a bigger pool via the Internet.
Now, for those of you who are loathe to put your work in a situation where it might get yoinked (like for a South Park cartoon, for example) I ask you this: would you rather confine yourself to your home, living off pizza deliveries and cable to avoid the risk of getting into a car accident or would you rather go out into the big, bad world in a Hummer? (Ok, that is a terrible analogy. Who wants to drive a Hummer?!) The fact is that putting your work online does present some risk of copyright infringement. Yes, it does. But there are steps you can take to minimize your risk: make images small and low res, sign your work visibly, know your rights backwards and forwards, register your copyright with the US Copyright Office, consider licensing your work under the Creative Commons system, and be willing to “educate” people when they transgress, for starters. It is scary to leave the comfort of your insulated little studio and step into the wild, wild west of the Internet, but it is the only way. Yes, indeedy.
2. Get active on social media
Ok, so you’ve taken the plunge and gotten your work online. Bravo. I’m pleased to tell you your work has just begun. Contrary to what they tell you in the movies (“if you build it, they will come”), the Internets is a vast and lonely space… unless you speak up and make yourself heard. So, make friends. Get on Twitter and follow people. Engage them in conversation. And let them know what you do (professionally, please… and subtly – no one likes an advertisement). Use a Twitter client like TweetDeck that allows you to follow different hashtags so you can tune into topics that interest you most: try #sciart and #scicomm for starters, and add any others you find along the way. Hashtags.org can help you find ones that get a lot of action so you don’t get lost in a world of sleepy and obscure hashtags that get no action, say, like #mygrandmaismybestfriend. And obviously, Twitter is not the only social media site – while you’re at it, sign up for FB, LinkedIn, G+, Pinterest, etc. The goal here is to become active and up-to-date on what’s happening in the communities you care about. So, fledge little Internet-newb. Be free!
3. Cement online relationships in person
Call me old-fashioned, but internet-only relationships freak me out. Something about seeking support and affirmation from a cold metal box just doesn’t feel… well, human. It’s one thing to use your cold metal box to expand your horizons, work remotely, and link up with ideas and people across the globe … but at some point, you have to pony up and actually meet these people you are forging relationships with. And lest you think I mean you have to fly to all crazy corners of the earth to shake hands with your 374 favoritest Twitter followers, let me propose this: find one or two professional conferences that fit one or both of the following criteria:
a) they attract a group of professionals from whom you can learn and expand your skill set (for science illustrators, this could be the Guild of Natural Science Illustrator’s Conference or the Association of Medical Illustrators conference, for example) or
b) they attract people who share your interests in subject matter and the importance of science communication (ScienceOnline and its various spinoffs is a great place to start, but any professional meeting will do, even if you’re the only illustrator there.)
And then sign yourself up and attend.
4. Befriend other illustrators t
This piece of advice is stolen directly from Jessica Hische, a successful typographer and designer with her head squarely on her shoulders. But I can’t stress it enough. For me, it comes down to two things:
a) No one likes a jerk, so don’t be one. If that isn’t convincing, consider that I get proposals for work all the time that are not up my alley – either they’re not in my skill set or preferred topics, or I simply cannot take them on because of time constraints. Rather than a flat, “no thanks,” I take pleasure in referring my friends, and I assume they take pleasure in getting the work. And I sure take pleasure from the referrals they send my way – they’re usually exactly what I want to be working on.
b) There is more than enough work to go around (still, at this point). There is room for your work and my work and your uncle’s dog’s work. In fact, in my humble opinion, there is no limit to the amount of work that can be created if you are creative enough to come up with it. Every day I come across art that references science and it blows my mind. And then I read the science news and think, “hot dang… this would reach so many more people if it had a visual!”
Yes, times are tough, money is tight, funding for science is drying up, but if you can dream up a project that resonates with people, there are a thousand Kickstarter campaigns that give credence to the idea that you can make your own funding appear from out of thin air. So don’t hate on your competition thinking they’re going to steal your opportunities. Make your own.
5. Do your homework and be professional
Homework?! C’mon, ma! I thought I was done with homework! Nope. Not done. But presumably, if you’re in the right field, homework should be fun now. And really, if you think about it, the first steps are mostly networking, which is mostly socializing, which is most definitely not homework-ish, capish?
Now in terms of being professional, I don’t blame art students for not having a clue about business. From what I’ve gathered talking to folks featured here on Symbiartic, they just don’t teach business skills in art school. Likewise, if you’ve come at science illustration from a science background like I did, graduate school is simply not geared towards preparing people to do anything other than get grants and do research for the faint and distant promise of tenure. So my advice to you is this: spend a lot of effort learning about good business practices. The Graphic Artist’s Guild Handbook for Pricing and Ethical Guidelines is an excellent place to start. My girl Jessica Hische also has a great breakdown on the biz of pricing, among other things. These will give you a feel for how to negotiate with a client, what is reasonable to request and what is not, what to include in a contract, what an invoice should look like, and best of all, it’ll give you a clue on pricing, by FAR the most frustrating hurdle to starting up.
Once you’ve read up on what to expect, get ready to play dress-up for a bit. What I’m getting at is, you may feel like a bit of a chump at first, asking clients to review and sign a contract, making a delivery schedule that outlines when they can expect to receive drafts, when they can submit revisions, when they’ll receive the final. You might think, “who am I kidding? I have no clue what I’m doing here!!” But this big “professional suit” you put on will gradually feel more natural and will positively impact your interactions with clients. The researchers you work with will be glad to know that the project is under control (heck, they’re scientists! They understand protocol!) and will have confidence things are moving along swimmingly as you stick to your schedule as indicated in the contract. You’ll be setting yourself up for a fine career as a professional in the visual scicomm world.
So there you have it. Now go get ‘em!
Similar on Symbiartic:
So You Want to Hire A Science Illustrator? :: Glendon Mellow :: October 2013
Want to find more artists, ScienceOnline? :: Glendon Mellow :: January 2013
Advice from a Freelancing Guru | Kalliopi Monoyios :: December 2012
3 Marketing Mistakes Young Illustrators Make | Kalliopi Monoyios :: September 2011