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The Art of Illustrating Science

My brush with professional art is purely coincidental. Trained in the sciences, I joined the publishing line early in my career as a writer and later, as an editor. Because my job required me to work closely with illustrators, I have always enjoyed many opportunities to witness how illustrations conveyed life into plain text and transformed stories into virtual storyboards. The astounding outputs in the forms of the beautifully illustrated stories never failed to fascinate me.

Eager to be a part of that magical world of arts, I embarked on a 3-year diploma course in the arts in 1997 and also took up a yearlong internship with experienced illustrators I got to know during my work as a writer and editor. As I already knew many people in the trade, it was just a matter of time for me to get my first contract--illustrating a children?s science series--and I have not looked back since. That was in 2000, and I am now into the last few of the 12-part series.

Certainly, illustrating arts complemented my primary profession, which remains writing and editing. However, although it is more fun and self-satisfying than editing, doing illustration is physically much more taxing and time consuming. As an illustrator, my main concern is in making the story real. For that, I need to use a lot of imagination and creativity. Moreover, in depicting science, and in particular, to children, I need to present it in a very simple, comprehensible, yet captivating way. In essence, my work of art must be able to assist them to know the things described in the text, understand concepts, and fathom the mysteries of the abstract world.

Artistic power is crucial for all illustrators. They must have an eye for detail and a sense of balance and proportion. In two-dimensional art forms, illustrators must know how to utilize appropriate techniques, colors, shades, and perspectives to generate realistic forms or abstractions. Often, it takes more than just imagination to illustrate abstract phenomena that can?t be seen with the naked eyes in a way that children can perceive. For figurative subjects such as animals, plants, and insects, you can just draw from real life, but you will need to invent ingenious ways to represent matters such as energy, motion, magnetism, or electricity. Your illustrations must be able to explain and enlighten the young minds.

Science illustrators, in particular, will have an added advantage if they have a sound fundamental knowledge of science besides demonstrated artistic ability. Employers do prefer someone with a good background in science for science-related illustrations. Of course, experienced illustrators without a science background may be favored in view of outstanding talent and experience, and backed by an excellent personal portfolio--a collection of selected samples of the artist's past works. In fact, in the field of arts, evidence of appropriate skills is always the most important factor in any considerations.

On the other hand, although formal training in the arts is not strictly necessary for illustrators, it is very difficult for a science graduate, or anyone else for the matter, to succeed in this field without some sort of training, unless the person is a born artist. Most illustrators are formally trained in art programs. Many overseas colleges and universities offer degree programs in fine arts. Independent schools of art and design usually offer postsecondary training in the fine arts leading to diplomas in various specialties in arts. Besides, limited nonacademic apprenticeship programs also provide excellent opportunities for budding illustrating artists to hone their skills.

Illustrators, whether self-employed or working for publishing houses or advertising agencies, typically spend long hours at the drafting table or at the computer. On a typical working day, I would spend at least 5 to 6 hours in the morning doing illustrations. I usually reserve the afternoon and evening for meeting with clients or reading and editing manuscripts. So far, this arrangement has helped me reduce fatigue and backaches from sitting long hours at a stretch and avoid long exposure to fumes from glue, ink, paint, and other drawing materials that can cause discomfort for some.

Most of my illustrations are carefully hand-drawn and colored. The proofs are then scanned into the computers for easy storage and dissemination. By the way, the Macintosh is still the industry?s norm and most publishers? preferred format and is therefore the most widely used format in this field. Science illustrators, just as other artists today, are increasingly adopting computer-aided drawing using a variety of high-end software such as Corel Draw, Macromedia Freehand, and Adobe Illustrator. However, manual sketching and drawing remains for me the most versatile tool for my work. I only resort to computer-aided drawing for multimedia projects where animation is required.

Most formal educational programs in art today include training in computer techniques. With increasing demand for digital arts, illustrators who have a good mastery of both artistic skills and computer techniques will be in demand. The need for artists to illustrate materials for books, magazines, journals, brochures, company catalogs, and other printed or electronic media will always be there. Continued growth in the advertising and publishing industry is expected to spur demand for illustrators of all types. However, competition for most artistic jobs is and will remain intense as there are really a lot of artistic talents out there. Nevertheless, talents with a good background in science will still have a certain niche in scientific illustration.