If you have an eye for nature’s details—such as the way some petals of a flower catch sunlight or how its stem is covered in tiny hairs—then you may be a good candidate for a career in scientific illustration. This career requires careful observation to create images of subjects such as animals, plants, insects, and in Lynette R. Cook’s case, outer space. These drawings, paintings, three-dimensional models, and computer graphics help viewers learn more about the subject at hand. Scientific illustration should not only inform people, it should also inspire them and help them appreciate the natural world.
What is your work like?
Before I illustrate a subject, I gather information from my client, tap into my own knowledge bank, and do any research necessary to learn more, such as consult with scientists, science writers, and editors. I then create imagery that is scientifically correct, visually appealing, and appropriate for the intended audience (e.g., students, the general public, or science professionals). The images can be found in books, magazines, scientific papers, posters, the internet, and even PowerPoint presentations. One ongoing project involves working with The California and Carnegie Planet Search team to illustrate planets they have discovered outside our solar system. These extrasolar planets are detected by indirect means—such as observation of a neighboring star’s motion and brightness—and therefore can only be visually portrayed through artwork. A scientist tells me the type of star neighboring an extrasolar planet, the distance between the star and planet, and the planet’s mass. These facts give me information about the color of both celestial bodies and whether the planet might be large and gaseous such as Jupiter or smaller, dry, and rocky such as Mercury. After doing some additional research, I try to create an accurate and aesthetically pleasing illustration of the new planet. Learning about extrasolar planets before they are publicly announced is exciting, as is showing through my artwork what these worlds might look like up close.
What is your background?
I have always loved both art and science. In high school, when I began to think about college and a career, I had trouble choosing one field over another. As an undergraduate, and back then, an overachiever, I majored in both painting and drawing and biology. I also attended a summer workshop held by the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (GNSI). The workshop was my first formal training in scientific illustration, which combined my two areas of interest into one profession. I went on to graduate school for a master’s degree in drawing with a specialization in scientific illustration. During college and graduate school, I didn’t expect to end up in the field of astronomy and therefore focused on biology, botany, and zoology. Once I started working with celestial subjects, I took some astronomy courses at a local community college to expand my knowledge.
Advice for students?
Students can visit GNSI online (www.gnsi.org) to learn more about related careers, workshops, and lectures. The International Association of Astronomical Artists website (www.iaaa.org) is a good resource for information about space art specifically. While a science degree is not required in this field, greater subject knowledge makes an illustrator’s job easier. Students interested in outer space should enroll in astronomy courses; for those who like plants, botany classes are helpful. Because computer programs are used for sketching and final artwork, digital knowledge and skills are needed. However, it is also very important to have conventional drawing and painting abilities. A final product might be digital, traditional, or a combination of the two. To practice essential observation and artistic skills, students should create realistic illustrations of objects. For example, if a student paints a bird, he or she must carefully study and accurately record subtle details: its beak, leg, and wing proportions and range of colors, highlights, and shadows.
—By Megan Sullivan