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Sketching Out a Career in Science Illustration

Studying for his zoology degree more than a decade ago, Dino Pulerà (pictured left) never imagined he would pursue a career visualizing science for print and digital media. A 1996 graduate of the University of Toronto's (U of T) Biomedical Communications Masters program, Pulerà now spends his days rendering medical-legal illustrations and his nights sketching dinosaur skeletons. Pulerà has had a winding career path but has managed to combine his two passions in a single profession. "I always thought that science, not art, would be where I would earn my living," he recalls. "I never figured that I could bring together these two worlds."

Twists and Turns

Pulerà's love for art goes back to his high school days, when he spent a lot of time sketching the world around him, everything from hockey players to backyard wildlife. He took a few elementary drawing classes while an undergraduate at University of Toronto, but only for recreational purposes. A career in zoological science lay ahead of him, or so he thought.

"I remember being pumped and hopeful. I had aspirations of working in a zoo, but when I found out that you needed a degree to clean up animal cages, I said, oh my God, what did I get myself into?" Pulerà explains.

So in 1991, with his zoology degree on the shelf, he began a 2 year exploration of his possible career alternatives. He volunteered at elementary schools, contemplating applying for teachers college, and spent time helping out at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), where he developed a fondness for paleontology. "I was helping with display preparations, restoration, molding, and fossil casting of dinosaurs," he explains.

He soon realized though, that a career in paleontology would mean many years of graduate school, postdoctoral training, and work abroad. "It was time for me to make up my mind to do something different."

A New World

With nothing to lose, as he soon learned, and a whole new world of possibilities to gain, he decided to enroll in a non-credit science illustration course at U of T. Pulerà excelled in the course, and with his instructor's encouragement he applied to the university's Biomedical Communications program in the fall of 1993. "It was either teaching or that, so it was pretty much an easy decision."

During his 3 years in the Masters program Pulerà honed his artist's skills. "The program taught me how to fine tune my skills. Before I entered into this program, I used to draw, but I didn't understand what I drew," explains Pulerà. "I honed these skills and learned how to create form through light and shade using various media."

He also learned how much of a benefit his scientific training was. His science-derived analytical skills were a great advantage, and having a basic understanding of the language of science gave him an edge over some of his peers. "You have to know your subject before you can draw it," he says. "With my zoological background I know where to place certain details and pull out specific information from my subject that is of particular value to scientists."

Pulerà believes that while the best foundation for illustration is a combination of basic skills in drawing and a love of art, a person can pick up many other necessary skills along the way. "My abilities weren't great when I was going in, but it could be learned, you have to learn how to build on it."

Skull and mandible of Albertosaurus libratus, colourized carbon dust

He got his first real chance to mix his passions for science and art when for a third-year project he decided to head back to his old haunt at the Royal Ontario Museum and ask to draw some dinosaurs. He met up with a paleontology graduate student, Thomas Carr, who just happened to be working with Tyrannosaurus Rex fossils, and got to work illustrating them. This meeting was the beginning of a longstanding collaborative relationship with the young scientist.

Making Your Way

By the time he graduated in 1996, Pulerà had landed a job working for a biomedical art house in downtown Toronto doing artwork for high school and university textbooks in biology, physics, and geology. One of the most fun and challenging projects in the first few years was creating CD-ROM based animations for a physiology textbook.

Medical legal illustration of a wrist fracture repair. Credit: Courtesy of Artery Studios

Pulerà soon began to feel as if the work lacked sufficient opportunities for real creative work, so he moved to his current employer, Artery Studios, in 2001. Pulerà now works on health-related legal cases, illustrating myriad different types of injuries sustained mostly from car crashes, brought in by lawyers looking for visualization.

Pulerà learns something new everyday on his job--not the least of which, he says only half jokingly, is to wear your seatbelt while driving. "It's a very challenging job where you're learning constantly, doing research all the time, and developing new artwork." Because his employer has put so much faith in his ability to draw accurately, his job has given him a lot of confidence.

Pulerà thinks that most scientific illustrators earn their bread and butter in the medical and pharmaceutical fields. For those looking outside of this realm-- disciplines like astronomy, geology, and zoology, for instance--networking is the key, because most non-medical work tends to be on a freelance or contract basis. Freelancers, he points out, have to be on the constant look out for the next job, so it's important to get to know the right people. "Get in touch with the people in the field and make them aware that you are interested and that you are available to do the work for them." Based on what he has seen in the last decade, Pulerà thinks an illustrator can carve out a little niche by specializing in a certain field. For Pulerà this seems to have been the case.

Pulerà sketching a dino skull at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science

Labor of Love

Over and above his daytime job, Pulerà works as a freelancer whenever he gets an opportunity. He is fortunate, he feels, to have a collaboration with his paleontology friend, which allows him to travel to museums and dinosaur digs. His illustrations have begun to appear in scientific publications. Networking also led Pulerà to a 5-year collaboration with a former professor that has him not only illustrating but also co-authoring a textbook on vertebrate anatomy. The book is due to be published this autumn.

"It's such an arduous path because I work on it at night and weekends, but at the same time it's a dream that I want to see fulfilled, and that keeps me going. But I really enjoy that I get to work with my friends, and also get to illustrate the subjects that I love."

For more information on Dino Pulerà's work, check out his online portfolio.

Find out more on what medical-legal illustration is all about.

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at

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