By Brian Shott
After more than twenty years as a researcher, says Gloria Fuentes, her brain was wired for science. But when her life’s circumstances changed, she found a new profession where her knowledge of how the human body works and her passion to create could combine.
When did you start illustrating?
After becoming a mother, I was thinking, “Do I really want to go back to research?” And with two scientists at home—my husband is a researcher—I thought, it’s not possible. We had been moving from job to job and country to country quite often.
At first I thought I might edit scientific text, but it didn’t really click. And so I went to a course about illustrating science, and I thought, ‘This is great!’ Because I can keep reading science, getting inside the topics I like, and then translate this knowledge into illustration and animation.
I hadn’t thought of myself as an artist, but I don’t think in the world of scientific illustration every visual has to be a piece of art. You need to know and communicate the science in order to put all these things into a visual that makes sense for the project. I find it trickier than writing sometimes.
Which course on medical illustration did you do?
It was a workshop called “A Day of Art in Science,” organized by Sci-Illustrate. It didn’t cover much material, but it was a turning point: I realized I could do this work. I think these courses are good for revealing new career paths: you don’t have to leave science if you don’t want to do research anymore.
You’re able to keep up with the latest research?
Yes, I really enjoy it. I never give up. Even when I was on maternity leave, instead of watching Netflix I was reading scientific papers. Today, I’ve been burying myself in papers related to Covid-19 just like any other researcher. If you are drawing viruses and the cells they invade, you need to check the research papers to extract the information.
Which programs do you use to make your illustrations?
Most of the time it’s Photoshop and Illustrator. But I’m learning 3-D modeling and animation, too. I use a program from Autodesk called Maya, which is expensive, but you can have it for free if you use it for educational purposes.
Scientifically, one of the best people doing these educational animated videos is Janet Iwasa, an assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah who also studied animation software in Hollywood. She’s using these techniques that you use, for example, for moving the fingers of an animated character, and she applies them to proteins and cells.
Do firms hire illustrators full-time, or do they mostly hire freelancers?
Mostly freelancers. When it comes to scientific illustration, Singapore lags behind the United States and Europe. There, when you submit a paper or a grant, all these visuals are made professionally by illustrators. Here, it’s considered to be unnecessary, or a job that a postdoc who’s a little more artistic can do. So it’s difficult here to convince people to give you a job, much less hire you full time.
How did you get the cover for Cell magazine?
A friend of a friend told me they were looking for someone to create cover art for a scientific paper. They asked what other covers I had made, and I said, I’m just starting out, I don’t have any covers. They said they would go with an established company. I said, well, I have this idea of mixing the three main ethnic groups in Singapore to create a piece that represents the local diversity. I made one sketch and sent it in anyway and said, listen, this really resonates with the research paper you’re profiling, and it could be artistically engaging. And it’s completely different from your typical covers, which are more technical.
There were other people working on the cover, but at the last moment, the paper was out much faster than they thought, and the only person who could deliver the artwork in time was me.
I worked long hours for a whole weekend. My hands were getting numb. In the end it was worth it. Everyone was very happy with it.
How easy is it to get work in medical illustration?
My husband works very long hours, so I’m the one holding the house, taking care of our child, plus working. So I’m using my ex-colleagues and people that I know. I don’t advertise that much; I go to LinkedIn and Twitter, and I try to post things there. It looks like it’s working. Whenever I have an illustration, my webpage has a big peak in views.
Did the Cell cover give you more exposure and work opportunities?
Apparently it was a really big hit in GIS [Genome Institute of Singapore]. They’re considering organizing a workshop for postdocs and others who might be interested in illustration. But honestly, I keep doing the same things—I’m working with and getting new work through the people I know.
Today, someone comes with a logo, I make a logo. I’ve been developing web pages, which is not what I thought I would do. But I do think some people are thinking, when they have something big, to call me. So I think the seed is there, but it’s not fully grown.
Do you think that moving to the U.S. will help your business?
The two countries are completely different. Here in Singapore, I feel they don’t yet have a strong belief in the value of illustrations—but there is limited competition. In the States, it’s the opposite. Everyone is using illustrators, but there are many people doing it. I will need to think about business in a different way. I am trying to position myself like, ‘Ok, you have these people who excel artistically, but I can be the middle woman, between the scientists and the more sophisticated graphic designers.’ You can’t go again and again to the scientists to have them explain to you what to draw. I can do that myself, the first sketch, and then if they want to elevate my graphics, that’s great.
But I think Covid-19 is going to change everything.
There will be less funds, so people need to prioritize and may drop illustration. But it’s also clear that with Covid we need a lot of information, a lot of scientific content. Like my parents—they want to know about the coronavirus, but they’re not going to read a bunch of scientific papers. My mother, she’s the first one who wants to know what I’m doing: ‘Why,’ she asks, ‘Why is this protein important, why not the other? Why, why, why?’ So I think there is a thirst for scientific content, but it needs to be delivered in an easier and prettier way.
You’re one of the few illustrators with scientific experience.
There are very few of them with a long history in research. We’re the minority. It’s true that in some master’s programs for medical illustration they do have a lot of scientific content—anatomy classes, biochemistry—but it’s typically just two years.
When you were doing science and enjoying it, did you feel like a creative side of you was not being expressed?
In Spain, when I decided to go into science there was no option to study science along with something more artistic. It was one way or the other. I took the scientific path and was very happy. But I was always the one playing with the proteins and making the pretty figures. I used to draw and do pottery, and then I went for the PhD and you forget about these things.
Now, it’s coming back. With this 3-D modeling, it’s not pottery, but it’s OK, and it’s cleaner. So it feels like I’m closing a cycle.
Are you optimistic about the future of medical illustration?
Yes, particularly about animation. Five years ago, you would not think that someone in a house would be able to do it. Now, you invest in a GPS card and you can make it. So I think it’s all coming together to say, ‘This field is here, it’s going to stay, and it’s going to increase.’
You can reach out to Gloria Fuentes via LinkedIn.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and not that of ImagenScience.