Study of hands, by Albrecht Durer (1506) on the left; on the right, my copy made as a university student.

Being a scientific illustrator isn’t an easy career path. Being a fine artist engaging with science is even more difficult, at least financially. So when, every so often, a student will drop me a message and ask if we can talk shop or a teacher asks if I can speak via Hangout to a classroom, I have to think carefully about how to share my own experiences.

From a distance, if you squint a bit, my position and career looks kinda sweet as an artist: blogging for Scientific American! Speaking at conferences! Designing tattoos for scientists and authors! All of those things are hella sweet. HELLA SWEET. They are the places I never imagined my paintings would take me. I am grateful for where I am now.

But there’s been a lot of struggle and hardship to get this far, and I’m still not comfortable yet. How do I convey this without discouraging someone?

Left: Portrait of the Artist's Mother at Age 63 by Albrecht Durer (1514); right: my copy from university, completed freehand in one sitting.

This blog post came about because an OCADU (Ontario College of Art & Design University) student named Luke Dickey asked if we could meet and chat over coffee. (Find him on DeviantArt and on Twitter @LukeDickey.)

In my still-somewhat limited experience talking with students, some patterns have emerged:

  • Some are wary of advice of any kind (usually giving me cut-eye in a classroom setting).
  • Some seem to think it’s a path to an easy living, big paycheque and “getting to draw all day” instead of being in a lab (one student was so turned off by what I make from my art that they said they were sticking with becoming a chemist instead).
  • The last group are in love with making the work: they love experimenting with materials, composition, line, shadow, colour and they love science. They are curious.

Mr. Dickey struck me as being in the last group, the exploring, curious art-maker-to-the-core group. And in some ways, that’s the type of student I worry the most when it comes to sharing my experiences.

No matter how many networking tips I relate (“don’t just follow artists: follow scientists too”), career highs and lows, or mistakes I’ve learned from, I suspect each science artist and illustrator has their own tempest-tossed ocean of experience behind them. And that they now find themselves on strange shores trying to get their bearing.

Left: Skull study by Albrecht Durer (1521); right: my study done in university. I can't remember why I chose purple paper.

I’ve decorated this post with some sketches I did for a university course on traditional techniques and materials. It’s an expected exercise most art students will go through.

Let’s think about it for a moment. Beyond trying to imitate Albrecht Durer’s specific and precise-yet-loose strokes (did he move his elbow? just his wrist?) I am trying to walk in the shoes of an artist who lived 500 years ago, as if that will help me not only as an artist, but in career. (The art creates the career, after all.) It’s touching that Durer can still impart lessons after all these centuries, but it’s impossible for me to follow in his footsteps. I may learn a couple of helpful things.

No matter how much I try I cannot precisely imitate Durer, and I never really wanted to anyway.

Best advice for students who are looking to learn from artists a few years ahead: keep making your art and keep experimenting with your career path, and we will keep learning from each other.