In conversation with Ipsa Jain

Science careers are no longer restricted to conventional faculty roles. This welcome change is largely being fueled by a group of science professionals who chose to tread the unbeaten path.

Ipsa Jain has been instrumental in contributing to the growing visibility of one such career – science illustration – especially for aspiring science illustrators in India. In this interview, she provides a glimpse into what propelled her to choose this career, her work, and the misconceptions regarding what this field, that unfortunately, still prevail.

1. When did you decide on taking up science illustration as a career?

Towards the end of my Ph.D. lab life, I was sure that I didn’t want to be on the bench any longer. Soon after, I started painting natural history inspired drawings and before long, that exploration became a meaningful career. It all makes sense only in reflection!

2. What does a typical day in the life of a science illustrator look like?

I will rather explain my process. My day is a mix of these depending on how many projects are happening at the same time.  

As a freelancer, the days have to be moulded to client/collaborator based work. It may include in person or online meetings with the client/collaborator to discuss a project. 

It is followed by research for the project, which involves both science research but also visual research. Then, a rough draft is prepared within and shared with the client/collaborator. This process takes along time as this is where most neurons are used. Depending on the size of project or complexity of the idea it can take from 2 days to 2 weeks. The client/collaborator shares feedback and the draft is modified to reflect these changes. This process can take some back and forth. 

A rough draft is then executed and polished to a final. This process can take from a day to a week. Often client/collaborators recommend changes at this stage, so one might have to repeat some drawings. Then you send the invoice and chase them for money. 

My work (in the pre-COVID-19 era) also involved travel for workshops and exhibitions. A day also involves a lot of emails/calls and social media presence. If I get time, I make personal work as well, which may or may not be science stories.

3. Given that you have conducted science illustration workshops in multiple institutions across the country, what are the major takeaways from your interactions with the participants?

There are several misconceptions I see. Listing a couple here: 

One is that the expectation of science illustrations is limited to models and schematics we see in peer reviewed publications. The other is that learning software comes across as the answer to the problem.

Both these highlight a limited understanding of scientific images and their roles. I have been fortunate that most people who participate in these sessions come with open minds and take away (hopefully) a broader understanding of what images in science are, can be and need to be. Understanding what one wants to do, needs to do and for whom,is more important than learning skills. Skills can be acquired on the fly. 

The other major misconception I see is this expectation of ‘ideal’ accuracy and information overload. This misconception has been the most interesting to challenge during activities. During activities, the participants struggle with striking a balance between clarity and details. This hopefully impresses the careful and deliberate choices that go into building a piece of science illustration.

4. Any words of advice for aspiring science illustrators out there?

I find myself handing out this advice a lot. 

Build a portfolio of at least 20 drawings that show a breadth of subject interests and medium of work. Take your time with research on stories and drawings and try a lot and select carefully. With time try to find your style. 

Look at work online and replicate it to build your practice, if that helps. (You shouldn’t copyright and/or sell such replications. Share online with proper dues to the original work)

It is not essential for you to know digital tools. Hand-drawing is valuable too, at least in the beginning. You learn how to conceptualise an image.

Share your work online to get feedback and to be visible for potential clients.

[Ipsa Jain was interviewed by Anusheela Chatterjee.]

Read this article in Hindi, Telugu, Bengali and Malayalam.