Careers and Education in Science Illustration

Scientific Illustration

The principle task of the scientific illustrator is to prepare accurate renderings of scientific subjects. These illustrations are designed for reproduction in professional or popular journals in the field of natural sciences, textbooks, as museum exhibits, web sites, and many other applications.

Scientific illustrations in both traditional and digital formats provide a visual explanation and aid the viewer by clarifying complex descriptive information. The function of a scientific illustration, therefore, is essentially a practical one: to inform, to explain, and to instruct — in short, to communicate.

Nature of Work

In a scientific illustration, the primary emphasis is accuracy in the portrayal of the subject matter. Details of the subject must be correctly delineated to show proportions, coloration, anatomical structures, or other diagnostic features. In addition to accurate depiction, the illustrator should have sufficient understanding of the subject so that the illustration will appear natural and life-like rather than mechanical. A scientific illustration is judged for its aesthetic qualities, as well as its accuracy.

The work done by scientific illustrators is diverse. Illustrators may often draw rare or fragile specimens and must exercise care in handling them. They may be required to handle optical instruments and understand precision in measuring microscopic objects. In addition to depicting actual specimens, illustrators may be called upon to prepare pictorial stories of life cycles, or render a series of procedures in sequence. Additional duties may include:

  • Designing graphs of scientific data and maps portraying
    the distribution of species
  • Planning page layouts for illustrations
  • Providing cover designs for scientific publications
  • Developing three-dimensional models and images for
    exhibits and presentations
  • Creating images and photos for web sites and interactive media

Frequently, illustrators must pictorially reconstruct a whole object from one or more incomplete specimens. They may be called upon to make a dimensional drawing or to conceptualize an informed interpretation, such as a cutaway drawing to show internal structure, or geographical features on a map. An illustration can simplify comprehension of a specimen better than a photograph by eliminating extraneous detail and clarifying relationships of structures, or depict statistical data in a more comprehensible, visual manner.

Successful illustrators are versatile in more than one technique or medium. Along with well-honed skills in traditional techniques like drawing, watercolor, acrylics, ink or oils, a thorough working knowledge of computer graphics programs and digital techniques is invaluable and expected in today’s markets. Knowledge of digital animation and interactive techniques can also improve employment opportunities. Illustrations can be created entirely in traditional or digital format, or in a blend of both techniques. A thorough understanding of techniques for both print and digital reproduction is essential.

Education & Training

Many jobs in the field of natural science illustration are very specific in terms of their subject matter, hence one cannot possibly prepare for every specialty. It is necessary, however, to have a basic knowledge of the area in which one hopes to work. As undergraduate degree programs are scarce, the best preparation for the scientific illustrator is both a study of commercial art techniques and a background in the natural sciences. Scientific courses that stress the anatomy/morphology of botanical or zoological specimens are especially helpful. Courses in basic art techniques, graphic design and photography are more relevant than a study of art history or nonrepresentational painting.

Many art techniques are adaptable to scientific illustration. There is, however, one great difference that distinguishes this field from the fine arts: a creative artist is permitted and even expected to take artistic liberties with his subject. The scientific illustrator must strive for absolute representational accuracy. For that reason, art courses that teach accurate drawing skills, specifically techniques for measured accuracy and perspective, are most helpful for training in this field.

There are a few colleges and universities offering undergraduate or graduate courses in scientific illustration. Search online at the Guild website ( for links to the most current information.

Any prospective illustrator can gain familiarity with the drawing materials and methods used in this profession and can benefit from constant practice. College or high school faculty professors may be able to provide biological specimens and suggestions for scientific drawings. Drawing wildlife specimens, plants, still-life models or what may be available in a particular locale is excellent training and can be ongoing throughout one’s career.

The Guild of Natural Science Illustrators offers workshops designed to familiarize students with a variety of the methods and materials used in natural science illustration. Workshop locations and dates vary annually, as do topics and levels of expertise addressed, and are offered both as stand-alone events and as part of the GNSI Annual Conference. Information is posted on the GNSI web site ( and in the GNSI Journal, which is available with a paid membership (also available through the GNSI web site).

Medical illustration, which concentrates primarily on human anatomical or medical disciplines, is closely aligned with the field of natural science illustration. It requires similar artistic methods but with a single subject, the human species. Several universities have established graduate programs specifically for training medical illustrators. A list of medical schools having a teaching curriculum in medical illustration is available from the Association of Medical Illustrators.

For a listing of educational opportunities visit the Education section of our site.

Job Information

It is possible to work without a specific degree, but a degree will increase and enhance your employment opportunities. The basic requirements are a résumé of educational training and previous work experience, and a portfolio of the applicant’s best representational works; both a web/digital and physical portfolio may be requested. Original art should be accompanied by published reproductions, if available. Examples of all the art media and subject matter with which you have experience should be included. Be selective: only show your best work.

Job applications may be submitted to scientific researchers, publishers of scientific manuscripts, research institutions, museums, scientific foundations, commercial book publishers or university presses, individual authors, hospitals and medical training centers, local and state government offices, park services, environmental control offices, special government committees, printers and commercial publishing houses.

Art buyers use the Internet extensively to search for illustrators suitable to their projects. The illustrator’s availability may be advertised on various portfolio web sites, where images can be uploaded along with contact information. The GNSI’s portfolio web site,, is available to members for a modest annual fee. Another avenue for advertising is portfolio-style sourcebooks, which are sent out to a variety of potential illustration purchasers. These sourcebooks usually include an online portfolio option as well. It is also recommended that you develop and maintain your own website, with biographical information, art samples, and contact information.

It should be emphasized that opportunities for employment in this profession are extremely limited. Full-time jobs are infrequently available and many experienced illustrators are self-employed, on short-term contracts, or work in science or communication careers with limited illustration duties. Many illustrators prefer the freedom of their own working arrangements, but this is feasible only when they are well established in this field and capable of locating work when needed. Many freelance illustrators supplement their income with commercial illustration and graphic design projects.

A summer or part-time job while in school is an excellent opportunity to begin in this profession. Notices on bulletin boards in university science departments or in school newspapers may help locate professors or graduate students who need illustrations for their current research. There are many related occupations that one could enter to gain experience in scientific illustration; for example, commercial art, drafting, printing or photography. Work as a biological technician provides valuable understanding if one wishes to illustrate in specialized related fields.

For United States federal government positions, applications should be made to the Office of Personnel Management through their USAjobs web site. Illustrators may also do freelance work for the federal government by obtaining a GSA contracting number. For specific information regarding procedures for these applications, contact the web site, or contact the Federal Job Information Center in your area.

Salaries for government positions may range from a level of GS-5 to GS-12 or above, approximately $30,000 to $95,000 annually (in 2014), depending on the type of work done. Most new hires are made in the GS-7 to GS-9 range.

Salaries at universities or private institutions may range from $24,000 to $77,000 annually with an average of $50,000 for an experienced illustrator, but vary widely with location and type of work needed. Illustrators with digital interactive and animation skills can expect to achieve somewhat higher salaries.

Those who pursue a career in scientific illustration can find it rewarding and stimulating. They gain satisfaction in visually communicating the science and beauty of nature while enjoying the pride of accomplishment as a member of the research or production team. There are several books that provide additional information regarding techniques and specific areas of interest in the field of natural science illustration. The GNSI Handbook offers an extensive description of scientific illustration methods and materials, as well as general information on the profession. You may review a reading list, or order the Handbook on our website,