My life as an independent ornithological illustrator

by Bryce W. Robinson

In just over one week, I’m making a major life change as I transition from my life in Boise, Idaho as an independent ornithologist and illustrator, to a life in Ithaca, New York as a PhD student at Cornell University and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Reflection on my decision to return to a research focused life has stirred a desire to share my thoughts on my life as an illustrator, in hope that someone with similar ambitions, or dreams reads this and understands what such a path might be like. Or, for those already started down this path, the hope that they find comfort in discovering someone who has had the same difficulties, fears, or doubts they are working through. It is my hope that this will provide support for some, and perspective for others.

Since graduating with my master’s degree from Boise State University in 2016, I have chosen a life where I balance field stints with freelance illustration to piece together an income. Since I made this choice, my life progressively began to focus on illustration as my central source of income. In effect, I found a way to live a dream I had always had – to be a bird illustrator and an ornithologist. Below is a description of some aspects of the reality of that dream.

Money money money – Admittedly, life as a bird illustrator has been difficult in many ways. Most obvious, I believe, are the financial difficulties that come with such a profession. It has taken years for me to reach a sustainable income level. The entire endeavor has come at a financial cost, which of course has externalities that reverberate to other aspects of my life. It is true that my personality is not one of a businessman, so I have had to learn how to stand up for myself financially and feel confident in how much my time is worth. Such a struggle will be easier for some, but I believe it is a common stress for someone new to the freelance world who is asked – “how much do you charge?”. Keeping that in mind, if you the reader are one who often finds yourself asking this question, please approach young or early career freelance illustrators with a budget you can offer, and allow them to begin to understand what money is available for their line of work. I too often have undersold myself, and am only just now feeling that I am in a place where I am getting paid appropriately for my time.

Don’t produce, don’t get paid – I’m finally reaching a point where the time investment in the illustrations I have created have started to pay out through licensing agreements, etc. But in order to pay the bills in the past I had to work overtime to produce enough work. This is because as an illustrator, how much I produce is how much I get paid. Fluctuations in productivity are directly related to my income, which has conditioned me to be stressed when I’m not working enough, or producing enough, or that my life could be easier financially if I just worked harder. This pressure at times has been overwhelming, and counterproductive. I’ve finally learned to manage such pressure, and have reached a point where I feel comfortable in justifying a slow and careful production pace rather than the need to produce quickly to pay the bills.

Self worth and extreme imposter syndrome – Perhaps even more difficult than money is the psychological difficulties of life as an illustrator. Because of the visible nature of the trade, each project is a visceral example of your talents and skills, as well as your flaws, your faults, and your shortcomings. The latter may not always be visible to everyone (or even anyone), but they are always visible to me. I often like what I create, but I always see what I could have done better, and at times feel almost embarrassed that what I created represents me and my skill. My work as an illustrator is personal, and my self worth is absolutely wrapped into my abilities. Although I also have a lot of self worth wrapped into other aspects of my career, such as field skills, it has never been as extreme as my connection to my illustration skills.

Along with the involvement of my ego, the difficulties of making a living and chasing money has taken its toll on my self esteem. There have been countless mornings where I wake up with one question in my mind – What am I doing with my life? Once I get going for the day and sit down to illustrate, this question goes away and my love for creating images of birds reminds me why I make the sacrifices I do to work on my development as an illustrator. When times are tough financially, stress is high, and the quality of what I am producing is not meeting my own standards, it is hard to remain positive. That is when the encouragement from friends comes to help, and lift me out of self doubt and and bouts of low self esteem.

Imposter syndrome is a common theme in life as an early career scientist, but I have never felt it so strong as when it pertains to my role in illustration. Particularly, when my work is matched alongside the work of some of the best illustrators in the world, I often wonder what business I have in the trade. Their work to my eyes is simply in another league, and I feel that even with more training and years of practice, I will not attain such skill. I often need to remind myself that despite these feelings, I still have a useful voice in my illustration that I need to share. Comparing myself to others is helpful in some regards, but only when it is productive and not self deprecating. I’ve had to learn to walk away from illustrations when I feel negative, and return when I am motivated to improve, and not dwell on my shortcomings relative to the skills of others.

Working alone in my home – Anyone who knows me well, knows how gregarious I am. I care deeply for my close friends, and gain a great deal of energy from being around good people, especially those that I work with. So, my life as an independent illustrator has been lonely at times. I work in a room in my house, where my daily commute is about five seconds and ten steps. Life has felt extremely monotonous at times because of this, and the lack of direct socialization. The silver lining is perhaps that when the COVID 19 pandemic reached Idaho, and shutdowns ensued, I was already prepared for a work-from-home life of isolation. It remains true though that at times, the toughest part of my life as an independent illustrator has been the isolation and lack of adventure in my worklife.

I take what is offered – I have a strong direction for the type of illustrations I want to create, as well as how they should be applied. But, in order to make it as an independent illustrator I have had to take on contracts or opportunities that detract from my main focus and often do not align with my interests. In other words, at times I have had to “sell out”. That’s life. I simply wouldn’t make enough money without these opportunities, and in large part I owe my success to these occasional “distractions”. Even more, I feel that such projects often cause me to flex my skill in one way or another that ultimately causes growth and diversification of my skills. In short, although I may have grumbled through some of these, I think that in the end I truly am better off for taking on the odd job when it came my way.

A measure of growth – As with anything, my life as an illustrator is full of difficulties, some of which I have detailed above. These difficulties can be overwhelming at times, but to be clear they are absolutely outshined by the joy and fulfillment I experience as an independent illustrator. Although growth is apparent in other aspects of my work as an ornithologist, such as writing, nothing is so apparent and satisfying as the growth and development I see in my illustrations. Because each project I work through is most often for public view, there remains a chronology of images that, when reviewed after some time, invoke nostalgia and the experience of that time in my development. Even if that means some level of embarrassment in returning to past work, it causes me to realize the growth in my skill that I have experienced. Such a feeling is so fulfilling.

Another aspect of growth I have found satisfying is my growth as a functioning independent illustrator, who has created or crafted his own career. Sometimes I stop and think, “it’s working!”. The fact that I built my profession and work for myself is extremely fulfilling, despite the difficulties involved. If I were to continue on my independent path, I am sure this feeling would only grow.

My success in ornithological illustration is both what and who I know – I mentioned above that part of my fulfillment in my time as an illustrator is the feeling that I made this happen for myself, and that it is working. But that is only partly true. For my success as an ornithological illustrator, the old adage “its not what you know, it’s who you know” is best revised as “it’s both what you know, and who you know”. I would never have been able to set out on my own without the support and opportunities provided to me by my friends and colleagues. These people and organizations are too numerous to name, but they span the entirety of the ornithological community. My success stems from my involvement in this community and my demonstrated knowledge as it pertains to birdlife, as well as my illustration skills. Once both of these were recognized among my peers, opportunities came forward.

My life as an ornithological illustrator continues – Although I will be starting a PhD program this fall, I am fortunate to be joining Irby Lovette’s lab at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where my illustration is valued, and my skills will be supported and nurtured. My journey in illustration is certainly not over, despite research taking the center focus.

I want to thank everyone who has supported me in my journey thus far, both in my development as an ornithologist as well as in my time as an independent illustrator. As I continue to bring these two paths together, I hope that my work inspires and educates, and gives back to all those who have given to me, and that I can provide an example to those who come later who have similar voices and ambitions as mine.