How to find and work with an illustrator

academic writingIllustrations are an important part of many textbooks and peer reviewed papers because they can help explain concepts in ways that photographs can’t. According to Joanne Haderer Muller, a board certified medical illustrator and Chair of the Board of the Association of Medical Illustrators: “Illustrations have many advantages over photographs. For example, illustrations can show readers an average, rather than a specific, example of a concept, procedure, animal, or anatomical arrangement. They can show detail that may be lost or hidden in a photograph, can help explain things at a molecular or cellular level, and can show how a process unfolds over time to really explain the author’s message.”

While textbook publishers frequently contract with illustrators for their publishing projects, authors of journal articles or self-published textbooks are often left to seek out illustrators on their own. Haderer Muller and Cynthia Shaw, a member of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators who specializes in Earth and marine science illustration, offer the following advice for successfully selecting and working with an illustrator.

Finding and Hiring an Illustrator

If you are tasked with selecting and hiring an illustrator yourself, Haderer Muller and Shaw suggest:

Do an illustrator search through a professional organization. If you don’t have any referrals to start with, resources such as the Association of Medical Illustrators, the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, or the Association of Illustrators offer a “find an illustrator” search function thant enables you to search by geographical area, specialty, medium, and other criteria.

Both Shaw and Haderer Muller assert that detailed background knowledge in the discipline is a must for illustrators. Haderer Muller noted that medical and science illustrators in particular should have specialized training in those fields—most will have a master’s degree, and it is a plus for medical illustrators to be certified.

Once you have identified a pool of qualified illustrators, review their past work to determine which artist’s style will best meet your needs. This review will also allow you to check previous work for accuracy  to make sure each candidate has the necessary background knowledge in your field.

Start a dialogue. Communication is essential to the illustration process, so contact any qualified illustrators you are considering hiring and make sure they are people with whom you think you can collaborate successfully.

Negotiate the contract. It is very important to iron out the specifics of your agreement so that there are no surprises for either of you. For example, make sure you have a clear understanding of the scope and complexity of the work, how many rounds of revisions the contract includes, at what rate any additional revisions will be charged if needed, and the usage of the illustrations (licensing rights).

If you’re working with a publisher or intend to approach one, Haderer Muller recommends that you ensure that you fully understand your publisher’s desires in terms of licensing rights as early as possible. “The biggest stumbling block is often related to licensing rights,” Haderer Muller said. “Sometimes an author signs a contract with a publisher and finds out that the publisher wants them to sign over the copyright, but the author’s contract with the illustrator didn’t include a transfer of copyright. If this situation arises, don’t despair—most illustrators would be happy to speak with the publishers directly to discuss a resolution but this is much easier to negotiate at the beginning of the process rather than at the end.”

In terms of fee negotiation, as with any negotiation, it is always recommended that you seek estimates from a few different sources before making your selection.

Working with an Illustrator

Whether you chose the illustrator or the illustrator was chosen for you by your publisher, there are certain strategies you can employ to help ensure the illustration process proceeds as smoothly as possible.

Be clear about what you want. Both Haderer Muller and Shaw stress that communication is the key to a successful collaboration with an illustrator. However, if you are working with a publisher, you may not be automatically given the opportunity to communicate with the illustrator. If you find yourself in this situation, Shaw recommends asking the project manager if you can speak with the illustrator directly in order to cut down on frustration for both of you.

To get the illustrations you want from the get-go, communicate your wishes as clearly as possible to avoid miscommunications and lost time. Haderer Muller and Shaw strongly recommend providing as much detailed information as possible to let the illustrator know what you expect for your end product. You might consider providing your illustrator with example sketches of roughly what you are envisioning, illustrations from other textbooks as samples of the style you want, a detailed legend that will accompany the illustration, and your full manuscript. Sharing information about the labeling you intend to include with the illustration can also be very helpful for the illustrator: “The labels and captions help guide the illustrator on what the focus of the figure is,” Shaw said.

Provide careful and detailed feedback on drafts. The artist will provide you with a preliminary sketch before creating a final illustration. Be sure to conduct a detailed review of all aspects of the illustration and provide the illustrator with clear and thorough feedback to guide his or her revisions. Taking a careful look at early sketches saves everybody valuable time.

The same advice goes for more final versions of the illustrations as well. In this way, you can minimize the number of rounds of reviews and possibly eliminate the additional fees associated with extra revisions. Haderer Muller reported that two rounds of reviews are usually enough if the author has conveyed his or her feedback effectively.

Be open to ideas from the illustrator. “If the illustrator has a strong background in the field, listen to his or her suggestions,” Shaw said. “The illustrator might come up with a better way to present the concept that you want to explain.”

Following this advice will help streamline your collaboration with an illustrator and maximize the impact that illustrations have on your readers.

About Dionne Soares Palmer

Freelance writer specializing in college textbook supplements and other educational materials for adult learners.