Interview with Illustrator/Designer, Isabel Aracama

Jul 28, 2020 at 12:00 am by nickcharles


Meet Isabel Aracama, an experienced illustrator and designer with an incredible portfolio of varied and exceptional works, including her wonderful foray into scientific illustration. Isabel is also an impassioned and engaging teacher, as can be witnessed over at her YouTube channel, as well as through her courses on Udemy and Skillshare.

I was so impressed with not only Isabel's own work, but the way she is able to expertly convey software techniques in her tutorials. As such, I recently reached out to Isabel to talk about her work, inspiration, teaching, and her software of choice.

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and education.

I have been drawing since I was a kid, and it was only a natural thing that I decided to study Fine Arts. After a short period of time after university that I spent painting and illustrating in traditional media, I decided I wanted to learn also about digital media. I didn’t see Photoshop’s interface until I was about 23 on a teacher’s computer, and it was “look, but don’t touch!”

I felt very curious about the so called “new media,” and I extended my studies after uni to get to, at least, understand how to start a computer! I remember I started out using CorelDRAW and I loved it so much from the very first day, and realized vector drawing and digital media were something I liked a lot. So, I more or less quit painting with oils and watercolours and never looked back, until recently, when I went back to university to specialize on scientific illustration at the UA, Portugal.

When did you realize your passion for art and design?

Since I was a kid I was always drawing and painting and “reading” books full of drawings. I always would try and draw what I would see in them. It was a very good way to fantasize about other realities, stories, mysteries, etc. I was a big fan of the adventures of Tintin and the travels all over the world, and also I loved illustrated nature books and animal sticker albums. So much so, that I would have them repeated and fully completed several times. 

I know your love of Affinity products, but what other digital tools do you enjoy?

As I said, I started out with CorelDRAW, basically because it was what they were teaching in the school I attended. I found it very easy to learn. We also studied Freehand and Photoshop. I really have always enjoyed Photoshop, but I want to be very clear: Photoshop for digital painting or photo retouching, not for web design or UI design. Until about 2013, the world was designing the web in Photoshop, something that really baffled me back then, and still does. Luckily for us, this has changed so much ever since, with the arrival of the new developers, such as the guys at Bohemian Coding (Sketch), which is the new standard tool for web, UI and app design, and the spread of Serif products to a much wider number of users, like me.

I myself found Affinity Designer captivating when I first saw it. The interface alone is incredibly intuitive. What do you most enjoy about Affinity Designer?

When in 2013 Adobe announced they were discontinuing Fireworks, I thought I needed to find something just as good as what I had always used for my design work. So, I started looking for alternatives to avoid using Adobe products. And please don’t get me wrong when I say “avoiding Adobe products.” I was working as UI designer and Adobe had just discontinued the only real good tool they had in the market for the job.

Photoshop can be great, but not for that particular job. I was often overlooked when I’d say this to other designers. Now, some years after, things have changed so much. So I went straight to using Sketch, which was a breeze of fresh air to discover. Just like Affinity products, it felt so lightweight; so “young” and well thought out. You could feel they were looking to find good solutions to every day designer’s problems. The guys at Bohemian Coding commissioned me an illustration, and I was delighted to show everyone that with just a few tools, things could get really amazing. It is a common misconception thinking that one needs heavy weight software to achieve quality professional work.

However, Sketch seemed to me to be mainly catering to the UI, app, and web design user, and soon I felt I needed something more powerful to create illustrations. I worked for some time in the development of Gravit.io (an amazing browser-based graphics software, now part of Corel Corporation products) while I was also starting to fiddle around with a product I had discovered recently: Affinity Designer. When I first tried it, I bought it right away. It had the same spirit of the kind of software I love and was looking for: A well thought out product, light, with a clear uncluttered interface that was not bloated with useless features, with a short learning curve and affordable. Also it didn’t need to “inoculate” a whole ecosystem into my personal computer so I could run it.

By the way, Affinity Designer also handles UI and app design like a charm!

I tried the Affinity forums and found out about a helpful community of people and a very efficient team behind it, listening to their users and, to the extent possible to them, adding the features we professionals need and ask for.

What else can I say? I simply love the whole Affinity pack.

Your scientific illustrations really amaze me with the incredible details. What made you pursue this area of illustration?

I always thought that if I was not studying fine arts or something related to languages, I'd have chosen biology. I finally chose to go for fine arts, but I have always been very much interested in the other two subjects too. I am in love with the arts, languages and nature. Those are my 3 main interests. 

After more than 15 years working as designer and illustrator, and knowledgeable of several languages already, I felt it was the turn for biology. Researching a bit, I found out about the specialization course on scientific illustration at the Universidade de Aveiro, Portugal. I quit my job after 4+ lovely years in the UK to go to Portugal to study something I really felt I wanted to study. So, the next year I went back to university to pursue this dream.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for anyone wanting to pursue a career in illustration, or even specifically in scientific illustration?

I’d say, for anyone in this profession, beginner or seasoned, the most important thing is to work with rigour and passion; to not worry too much about the budget if you love the project, but to always keep doing new things and learning even when you don’t have a client. And, in the case of scientific illustration, to study the sciences part of it.

In the science communication world you are going to find many scientists, biologists, etc, learning the art techniques. And the same has to be for us coming from the arts and wanting to communicate science. I don’t think it is enough to be a very good illustrator that then is fully going to rely on a scientist to do the sciences work. Of course, a science illustrator has to work with the scientists, but you will have a lot gained from the very beginning if you have some good foundation on the subject you are to illustrate. So, the obvious bottom line: study science, it will do you good as a scientific illustrator.

Do you have any goals for the future, or a dream project you would love to work on?

I would love to work more on science and biology-related projects. One of my secret dreams is to be able to have the chance to illustrate a field guide, or handbook, like those scientific illustrators such as Richard Lewington or Killian Mullarney, or the Spaniard Juan Varela create. There is a double interest for me here. The need to communicate science, which is the main goal, plus the ability of doing so not only accurately, but also aesthetically. That is an exciting challenge I’d love to have the chance to tackle. On top of all that, there’s even more added value for me, cause I learn so much while researching and working on those illustrations. It’s a real treat!

Your passion for teaching really shows, and your tutorials on your YouTube channel, Udemy, and Skillshare are fun and extremely informative. What made you decide to share your knowledge and skills and teach others?

Since I started uploading some of my vector illustrations to social networks and my portfolios, I had a fairly good amount of people interested in understanding and learning the techniques I use. People would reach out to me and ask me if I could tell more about them. In 2015 I thought of creating a crash course on Affinity Designer first off, as I was also interested in people knowing the same tools I was in love with. I wanted them to use them, give them a go and a chance and realize there’s life beyond the the “big players.”

I really never found the time for that crash course back then (although I had already created more than half the lectures!) and it was not until next year in 2016 that I saw a Youtube video that was showing how to do something, but not explaining how to do it. I read the comments and there were lots of people asking for a voice explaining things happening there, so I couldn’t resist to help, because I knew how to make it understandable for them all. So that’s how I started my Youtube channel.

I’ve never thought of it as a channel I want to grow and have thousands of subscribers, which nonetheless would be great of course, but more of a place where I can explain some of the things I do to anyone interested in them and, whenever possible, chat with people and get to know more about our common interest. It feels really great when I see I am helping so many understand certain things. I think I do it fairly ok and that’s what’s most important.

Following up on your teaching...do you have any specific plans for more instruction, whether free tips on YouTube, or paid courses on Udemy?

Yes I do. It is a thing I am currently trying to tackle in a better way, though. I have many course ideas, but not all of them are YouTube or learning platform material (Udemy, Skillshare, etc).

These platforms are great to get to reach a broad audience with the marketplaces and popularity they have, but I really believe some courses, specially those more highly specialized should have a different format. I have already learned that some people do not really pay much attention when a class is rated “Intermediate” or “Advanced.” It is a bit frustrating when they realize they took the wrong class for their level. I even have to make bold and clear messages saying “Refrain from taking this class if you are not at the required level,” so I need to really come up with a better approach for certain classes I am really keen in preparing. Apart from that, these platforms often take broad percentages on the revenue, and that’s also a handicap.

I, however, will continue with the YouTube channel with tutorials, tips & tricks and also am planning to continue publishing more classes on sites like Udemy and Skillshare, of course.

Is there anything that you know now that you wished you knew when you started in Illustration? Any hard lessons learned?

I really think I could have been more confident that, if I want to do something, I just have to try hard and work to eventually get there. But, this goes for any profession I’d say.

There’s this idea that illustration is too competitive, that it is hard to make a living out of it, etc.

I think this is true for many professions, but you maybe don’t hear it so often. Today I am more confident than ever that I can do anything and make a living with it just as much as I can make a living as a UI designer. There might be less demand for it, but still it is worth trying to go for it and not step out of your path just cause it is harder to get there where you want to be. I studied Fine Arts and heard often about “starving as an artist.” That is simply not true and one has to be very selective on what to believe.

What inspires/motivates you? Are there any artists you currently admire?

Nature, architecture, common situations of everyday life, light and shadow, organic vs inorganic, curves and straight lines, hard vs soft, textures, compositions, colors, patterns, materials. I like when I look at something and I feel this need to do something artistic about it.

I love the work of illustrators such as James Gilleard, Mike Boardman, Michal Sawtyruk, and, of course, Richard Lewington when we talk scientific illustration. There’s many more! There’s so many people doing amazing work it is hard to shortlist just a few.

What do you consider highlights of your career thus far? What has been your most satisfying project?

Hmm...this is a hard one. I don’t know what to say. I really enjoyed many of the projects I’ve worked along the years, but I really prefer to think the best is yet to come. I don’t think I’ve done anything as to be called highlights of my career yet, hahaha. I don’t even feel comfortable saying I have a career. I always say I have a job. I am not sure what is it that makes me feel weird about the word “career.” I am sure it’s just a foolish thing I have.

But, if I have to cherry pick some of the projects I worked on, one probably would be the illustration I created for Bohemian Coding’s Sketch app software in 2012. It came out quite well and I could show in practice that one doesn’t need to use many tools to achieve great things. And, I love the fact that just a year later it became a much more popular software than it is today: the new design standard tool.

I also enjoyed a lot the UI design for Audiorealism’s Redominator. I created it in Affinity Designer and it was a real joy to work on. Although I am not working as a UI designer very often anymore, I accepted this project cause it was so cool, I couldn’t say no. And I loved the result so much I still look at the UI today thinking how could I come up with such a nice solution, hahaha!

I sometimes forget where ideas came from after some time and am as amazed as anyone else at the results, even being the artist who created them. I am also quite proud of the entomologic illustrations I am recently creating. They are collecting very good results in the scientific communication sphere, plus I am making some real nice research/educational work with them.

As you undoubtedly keep very busy with work, what do you do to decompress?

I try to be with my friends and have good times and laugh with them. That is very necessary for me, so I always had very funny friends who think I also am funny. Having a good laugh is so healing. I like to hike and bike too, so I usually go out “into the wild” to make kilometres, be it hiking or on my bike. I birdwatch, too, and I also cook a lot.

Are you able to still get time in for personal projects?

I certainly do, and I hope I will have even more in the future. I studied Fine Arts, so I am really keen in creating my own artwork, things I do because I find joy or interest in them with no clients, deadlines or budgets attached. Experiments, research, study. Yes I am able, and I encourage myself to find even more time.

What are you currently working on?

I am working on several projects of quite a different nature at the moment. Some are related to scientific illustration and academic research, some are more focused on teaching and new projects on education, and also I am working on a handbook that I want to put together. I cannot really talk much more about it at the moment. And, as I said, I always try to find the time to study a bit, be up to date with new trends and technologies in my field of work and develop new skills or practice the ones I already have.

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