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Hey Mesa. You are blowing me away with your one a day drawing project. Hop all this writing is not interfering with that! I hope you are thinking about the eventual poster you are going to have to design to show case it…




From: SciArt-L Discussion List-for Natural Science Illustration- <[log in to unmask]> on behalf of Mesa Schumacher <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To: "[log in to unmask]" <[log in to unmask]>
Date: Wednesday, May 5, 2021 at 3:31 PM
To: "[log in to unmask]" <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: [EXTERNAL] Re: [SCIART] Looking for opinion on Scientific Illustration Certificate and job options


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I have so many thoughts on this, and on the approaches and mindsets digital art opens up.  

I'm actually talking about this at the AMI conference this summer if anyone is attending digitally.


On that question, I think we need a larger sample size.  I think some people do go straight to digital these days and pick up the art fundamentals okay.  I think others don't have those breakthrough moments in which they learn how to correctly mimic form, tone, color, and employ good design principles.  It may be a question of personal aptitude, not media.

I picked up digital pretty early, and definitely was learning to draw digitally as I was still nailing down my drawing fundamentals.  So I was exploring pencil, charcoal, oil,  and acrylic the same time as I was digging deep into photoshop and illustrator, and dipping my toes in 3D.


I think what jumping only into digital can do is paralyze some people, because the possibilities and tools are so endless, that you can become stuck.  If you already have a firm grasp of how to trick the eye using traditional media, and get the image to jump off the page, or read as an object, get the eye to follow the path you want, etc. it can be easier to translate that to digital tools.  


All digital tools are someone either inspired by their manual analogs (be they drawing, painting, sculpting, or photography) and it is a joy to mix approaches digitally. But if you don't know any of the pathways from start to finish in a more limiting media, I think it is easy to get lost in the woods, and for a digital piece to all apart.  


Another quickie error I see all the time is size issues.  With the ability to zoom, it can be hard to keep in mind what size the piece will be viewed at to the beginner, and either everything is too underdeveloped, or too blurry. For instance - I often see people use too much soft brush, and not bring any points of sharpness and decisive strokes to bring the eye to that point.  The same of overly rich and clashing color, etc.  Starting with analog tools can help force students to go a bit slower, and learn how to manipulate their tools.  A bit like handing someone a powerful weapon with no training, and expecting them to hit the target on the first shot?


That said, I've seen many digital art teacher colleges imitate traditional constraints on students.  For instance, sitting and doing a still life or figure drawing from life with a drawing tablet.  Setting time limits, limited palettes, and drawing subjects from life, not plan, I think can really improve a student's digital drawing and painting much in the way traditional art education can.  Many take tablets into drawing studios to digitally paint and do a great job.


Was reading some thoughts by editorial artist Yuko Shimizo recently, and she said most of her students like to draw with ipad, and many won't do traditional.  When asked why, they say "it's easy!"  She argues art isn't supposed to be easy.  Sometimes she'll spend extra hours on a piece, not because the client won't be pleased, but because she isn't satisfied.  I feel very similarly.  To make good art can after a time become easy, but to make great art sometimes requires hours of problems solving and sometimes painstakingly repetitive mark-making.  Sometimes when I take a digital shortcut to accomplish something (sometimes this has to happen, my pay is directly correlated to my hourly and daily output) I feel the work suffers for it.  Not every piece can be a masterpiece, but if you never put in the hard work, NO piece will be.


I haven't picked up a pencil because I have spent years learning to imitate pencil sketching digitally, so I'm using a shortcut!  But, I didn't take that shortcut until I'd walked the long path many many times, and knew my art wouldn't suffer from it.  That is really what becoming a master artist means I think - when you know how to get from start to finish, and the more often you do it, the more tricks and shortcuts you find that enhance your work or make it quicker while still maintaining the quality of the longest road.  Not saying I'm a master, but I think that's the general idea.


I think it is great for students to learn digital and traditional simultaneously, because both individually take years of practice, and will unlock new insights about each other.  I also would encourage young artists to try out all sorts of media.  When I was struggling to get the degree of "3D" and realism I wanted in my drawings, an art instructor told me to take a figure sculpting course, because that is where the concept really "clicked" for her.  I did, and it did for me as well. My drawing improved immensely! Similarly, I also find the practice of photography really improves my work, and my design.  Cross disciplinary visual arts can really enhance your work, and luck us - digital art has space for them all to be used simultaneously!  


So... long answer short.  I'd suggest doing both.  The best digital artists spend a lot of energy trying to get that wabi sabi into their work that makes it feel like it was made by hand, and I think that is hard to do if you've never yourself set out to make something by hand.  The more you know...



Highly suggest reading Britt's thoughts on education as well!  I should say, I sometimes serve as a mentor, and I teach workshops, but I don't work day to day as an art instructor, so there are probably many who could offer more valuable insights into foundational art education of traditional and digital skillsets.  Would love to hear your thoughts art educators!


On Wed, May 5, 2021 at 11:56 AM Griswold, Britt (GSFC-279.0)[LUSA Associates] <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

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Nicely said Mesa. Those interested can find similar musings by me and others by searching the SCIART Forum archive. Hunt for keywords like “portfolio”, “education”, “career”. 


The thing that I am still stuck on: Is it still best to start your learning with pencil and paper, to get the basics of what makes good art drilled into your head. Or do you think someone who is 16 years old can start with digital art programs and really internalize composition, color, perspective, and making the digital tools bend to your style, or does it all come out looking “generic digital” if you have used nothing else? Mesa, do you feel you would be digi-drawing as you do now if you did not start out traditionally?


Or maybe you just end up with a different universe of styles in a digital universe?





So true.  Haven't touched a pencil for work in over a year.  


One thing I think is not often stressed in natural science education is how a job generally works (freelance or in-house).  Some formal education and talking with professionals can help you learn that as a student.  Also some GNSI offerings can be helpful.


A typical job will involve communicating with a scientist, sketching and presenting ideas, modifying them, accepting feedback and edits, and then starting on the art.  Once art is begun, you can expect more and more edits.  


Digital tools are essential for the current price and pace of science illustration.  People usually are not willing to pay for art that takes a long time, nor wait for the oil paint to dry.  I realize there are exceptions, especially for the wildlife painters and fine artists among our ranks, and personal commissions vary greatly and can take a long time.  But for my more commercial and institutional clientele, the ability and willingness to take on many late-stage changes on a quick timeline is essential.  That said, they're pretty useless without a strong art foundation and ability to create good art.  


This is where the question of "correct pathways" comes in I think.


To be a good and successful science artist, you need:

1. Solid technical art skills

2. Digital skills and tools

3. Background in and working knowledge of science and and scientific jargon

4.  Communication skills, and the ability to direct a client through an art process (you're the professional, not them, and it is your job to help them get from idea to finished piece)

5. Network and business tools (differin depending on your specific niche)


The specifics and ranges of these different areas varies greatly from artist to artist, and how you acquire these skills does too!  I suggest anyone considering or just starting a career in scientific illustration speak to people working in the field, especially those whose work and/or job you admire, and see what you can learn about their skillsets, background, and path.  To some extent you can model your skill acquisition and road on theirs, though of course each path will be different.


You will probably find some skills you can teach yourself, some you can learn from online education, some may be better improved in a physical art course or program.  Science can be a bit harder to get without going to a formal educational institution.  Some artists find one mentor and rely heavily upon that person or institution, and others bounce around and learn from many sources.  


I urge artists not to try and take shortcuts, but to enjoy the journey.


It has been my great joy as a science artist to learn from so many talented people, and explore so many tools.   Some of my most fun work was done as a student, intern, and early stage artist.  There are opportunities and things I got to do that being older and more established/tied down with family/expensive makes it hard or impossible to do.  Go in with a goal of learning and becoming the artist you want to be and enjoy the challenge of mastering new skills.  Because the learning never ends, and you can improve until your brain or body goes.


Someone told me that if you admire someone 5 years more experienced than you, remember you're only 5 years behind them on your own road, and in 5 years you'll be in that spot.  And then there will be new challenges and goals.  My early work now makes me cringe, but I needed to go through each and every one of those pieces to learn and grow, and at the time I wasn't ready to tackle the projects I am working on now.   I still have a three page living document of goals and improvements I want to make to my practice and am always adding to it.  I hope in ten years I'll cringe at my current work, as it will mean I continued to grow.


Hope some find this useful, and I wish you all happy art and science journeys.  There are so many places for visual science communicators out there, it can be a competitive field, but there is a lot of room for expansion of the field, and solid training and skills can make it easier for each individual to carve out a niche for themselves in that landscape.


Sorry for posting so much, this is a topic dear to my heart.  :)


Best wishes,



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Mesa Schumacher, MA, CMI



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