Scientific Illustrators Combine Art & Science

by Staff - Original publish date: March 30, 2012

If you open up a biology textbook and look at the pictures, you'll find a number of dull images of DNA, chromosomes, and photosynthesis that have been putting you to sleep since high school. Unless you’re looking at a book with new and enthralling scientific illustrations by Nicolle Fuller. 

As an independent science artist, Fuller conceptualizes and creates the scientific images found in magazines, scientific journals, and textbooks. Her artwork runs the gamut from paintings of ancient dinosaurs to intricate depictions of highly complex cellular systems. What every one of her pieces has in common is a vibrancy and artistic point of view that will catch your eye and lead you to a new understanding of the material at hand.

Fuller has always had a passion for art, but while studying biochemistry at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, she never imagined art could be a viable career. She hand her hands full with biochemistry as a major and was looking ahead to either medical school or further graduate study, with art as a side-passion.

After graduation, Fuller was hired to work in the laboratory of Dr. Buddy Ullman at Oregon Health Sciences. After her grueling introduction to the rigors of the scientific lab, she realized her passion for learning scientific outcomes and results did not necessarily translate into her being fulfilled or happy doing the intricate lab work every day.

Luckily, she then found the UC Santa Cruz Science Illustration Program, a perfect opportunity for her to combine her love of science and art. She said her time at UC Santa Cruz helped her decide that she wanted to turn freelance illustration into a career.

After graduating from the UC Santa Cruz program, Fuller earned a job at the National Science Foundation, producing countless images and honing her craft. She still dreamed of becoming an independent freelance artist, saying, “the down time drove me nuts.” That’s why she began Sayo-Art LLC in order to fill the needs of other clients. 

After building up her client base over a number of years, Fuller felt she was ready to move out on her own. In 2007, she committed herself full-time to Sayo-Art LLC and began the difficult, but rewarding, process of working as an independent artist.

“I like working hard and then being done with it,” Fuller said. I can honestly say I love my work and find it interesting. And I like the clients.”

But there are downsides to working independently, according to Fuller, who said juggling the business side and the artistic elements can be difficult.

“It's hard to make time for the actual business side of it. It's hard to find time to craft your marketing plan,” she said. When addressing the pros and cons of working from home, Fuller said “It's less freedom than you think. You can't turn down work and going on vacation is hard. You don't get paid vacation. You don't get paid maternity leave.”

Despite the drawbacks, Fuller loves her work and said the most enjoyable part is “Taking a scientific subject that is very dense and technical and making it accurate, but interesting to the general public, while at the same time detailed and accurate enough that scientists will find it interesting as well.”

Fuller also described her process she goes through when starting a project. She begins with pencil sketches to give her client an idea of what the final product will look like, even though she does most of her final artwork digitally. Fuller has vast experience in both traditional and digital artwork, so she knows the pros and cons of each. But ultimately, digital wins out for her because “Traditional has a vibrancy and immediacy that can sometimes be lost. But digital can save so many different variations. You can move things around, change colors, etc. It keeps customers happy and saves you time. Of course, it can be a real time hole with learning new software.” 

In 2009, Fuller worked on her biggest project yet: a graphic adaptation of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species with writer Mike Keller. It showed her moving into new territory, translating her scientific illustration to a graphic novel setting.

She continues to work with a number of different clients, recently contributing illustrations to the annual American Association for Cancer Research report, but hopes to continue to move beyond scientific illustration over time.

It may not be the position Fuller thought she would be in when she was studying biochemistry at Lewis and Clark, but she has found a job that combines both of her passions and is endlessly rewarding.

It can be hard to work your way into becoming a freelance artist, but Fuller is an example of how you can achieve it over time. 

“Really work on finding your niche. You have to be self-motivated. You have to make the work for yourself,” Fuller said. “You can't just look in the want ads. You have to really love it. That shows through in your work.” 

To learn more about Nicolle Fuller, visit her website at

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