What a year! As 2020 comes to a close, don’t we all deserve a participation award, a certificate of completion, and maybe a glass of champagne? (Cheers!) I can’t be the only one who fell victim to hoarding toilet paper, yeast, and flour, right? Whether surreal or serious, this has been a tough and transformative year. A local movie theatre had a sign out front that said “Rent me for $100.” My son owns a restaurant and has had to reinvent his business a half-dozen times between March and December, and will be closed during the winter for the first time ever. For those of us fortunate enough to still have our jobs, our homes, and our loved ones, there is much to be grateful for. Supporting local businesses has been one small way to give back. So before introducing our next Drawn Together series’ extraordinary guest, I want to take a moment to wish you good health and restored sanity during this holiday season and well into 2021.
Want to learn how to communicate visually and make a picture of your ideas? Today’s medical illustrator, Tami Tolpa, has a 5-step course that will teach you! She’s offering her S.P.A.R.K. course to you, my readers, for $79, a 70% discount from its normal price. Read on to learn more about what makes Tami, and her highly coveted course, terrific!
Tami Tolpa earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in medical illustration from the Rochester Institute of Technology. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Studio Art and a BA in Environmental Studies from the State University of New York at Binghamton. Over 20 years ago, she broke free from her native upstate New York roots and moved to San Francisco, where she got her start working on staff at several medical education companies and medical media start-ups. From there she moved to the birthplace of Starbucks, Seattle, Washington where she has been providing national and international clients with high-quality visuals for over 15 years.
Design vs. Illustration
For someone who didn’t really understand the difference between design and illustration, I thought they were basically interchangeable. Not so, says Tami. Illustration is very visible, it depicts a structure, or a process, or tells a story. Design, on the other hand, is more about how things are perceived, how effective they are, the tiny little things that can be invisible, yet further a message along. Tami compared it to voiceover: once the job is done, it’s invisible. For her, when she explains it to the layman, and sometimes her own family, the simplest way is to say illustration is drawing a picture of something and design is more about how something is laid out, consumed, or organized for you to read it or learn from it. Design is almost the bookends of illustrations, which are the guts if you will. Tami believes all good illustrators use elements of design in their work, but not all designers are illustrators. Overall, they are very different skill sets and some people just choose one over the other.
A Guidance Counselor’s Dream
As we’ve heard from some of Tami’s peers featured in earlier interviews, an interest in science and art are common threads, with diverse ways to traverse these less-traveled roads. From an early age, Tami had an interest in drawing, along with a fascination for science, a joy of camping, and always a dog by her side. She also attributes some of her attraction to nature to her eldest brother… he loved to drag her outdoors, look at wild tracks and identify trees. Together with an 8th-grade biology class that left an indelible impression on her, she took these interests to the next level. Tami attended SUNY Binghamton and studied fine arts printmaking and environmental science. As fate would have it, unexpected senior-year surgery made Tami reflect a bit more on her options, and the human aspect of science, as she had mainly focused on ecology, and ecosystems, beavers, and trees. Admittedly, she never really considered other parts of science. Now with this medical problem, she moved back home to Rochester and attended a medical illustration program at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). And like most of us in our flourishing 20s, Tami tried to honor a career that fit all the parts of her: scientific and creative. Jokingly, her friends would tease her about how much of a dream she would be to any guidance counselor because both of her loves were neatly combined in the field of scientific illustration.
Tami took life’s signs very seriously and pivoted her way to medical school. She took a chemistry class and was convinced she was going to be a gynecologist. Coincidentally, while studying for the chemistry exam in the library at SUNY Geneseo, she had parked herself in the fine arts section. And then she took a printmaking course at RIT where she saw some of their medical art in the display cases. It was there where she had her “eureka” moment, “Maybe I don’t want to practice medicine, but maybe I really want to always be learning about it. And figuring out ways to support that field and communicate those kinds of discoveries and findings.”
As a person who always loved both science and art, Tami couldn’t definitively say she’s an artist or a scientist but considers herself a compromise between the two. Reflecting on the work she’s done and the career she’s had, she’s certainly wondered what it would be like to be a scientist. With the joy of age and wisdom, she also knows that if she had pursued her studies to become a doctor, Tami would have had the same thoughts, “I wonder what it would have been like to be an artist.” With all the allure that both fields bring, she is comfortable with the split, tied down the middle.
Not all medical illustrators are being hired to create images of the Coronavirus these days, and Tami‘s work hasn’t led her there yet. In March of 2020, Tami recalled seeing an infographic that came out of her governor’s office that needed a lot of improvements. Since she had been doing a lot of blogging and outreach for her online course (more on that later), she decided to use this infographic as a quick case study, and find easy ways to visually improve it. Then, like the flip of a switch, she recalled the Lite-Brite that she and her 10-year-old son came across on one of their frequent neighborhood walks. With a little sign that said, “Free and it works!” she scooped up the classic screen and colored pegs, went home to clean it off, plugged it in, and indeed, it worked. With the right paper, Tami and her son punched a couple of Lite-Brite messages to display in their window at night. But it wasn’t long before her creativity took over and she made a little Covid art piece of her own.
“Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” – Pablo Picasso
Wonders of the World
Music, visuals, textures, color, and lighting. These are some of the many things that can draw out a completely different read or delivery in the voiceover field, so I was interested to understand where Tami draws her inspiration from. Like her peers, she loves looking at other people’s work to see what they’re doing. Sometimes, it’s to see how she could replicate an element for something else, or just to see how someone used color. Architecture is also a new-found love and source of inspiration. There are ways of seeing and being in a space that can be applied to other creative endeavors. Either how light hits certain surfaces, how an environment makes you feel, or how things sound when you’re in them, it’s all very enchanting. Nature is also fascinating, especially when you look under a microscope.
“The Reward is the Challenge.”
Like a true medical illustrator, Tami loves a good challenge. To take something complex, ask all the “silly” questions to wrap your head around it, and then figure out how to distill the idea into something that can be understood by other people, is at the core of what she does and what she loves. Sometimes dealing with certain personalities or creative differences can be challenging too, but in the end, they get past it, because the ultimate goal is a shared one: create the most effective solution to get the job done well. Tami recalls a fine piece of wisdom that she couldn’t really appreciate until later in her career, design constraints can really create opportunities for creativity. Tami also recognizes that it can be uncomfortable to be uncomfortable, but that is where growth happens.
How the Sausage Gets Made
With so many great illustrators that have come before her, it is rare that Tami is contacted by someone who is starting with an idea from scratch. Most times, clients contact her with imagery and a need for “X”, and it becomes her job to make it really work. Some of Tami’s favorite projects involve scientists who’ve created their own PowerPoints; all the information is laid out but isn’t optimized for aesthetics and communication. Who are we talking to? Who’s your audience? How do you want to use this and where? These are usually her go-to questions for most projects. She enjoys working closely with scientists and authors themselves, and she prefers that over working with marketing departments and agencies (though those are certainly fine people). Often her clients know what they want to say, but don’t have all the skills to communicate their ideas. And in situations where you don’t have to work with the “CBC” (my acronym for the ‘Client Behind the Client’), this makes the process purer.
Accompanying her now 15-year-plus freelancing gig, Tami has found herself back in academia working at the University of Washington. As a freelancer, she felt being ‘in and out’ of jobs was a one-dimensional experience, even with repeat clients. At U-Dub, she has had the pleasure of working on teams, getting to know people better, and has a greater sense of belonging to a community. This camaraderie is something she missed as a freelancer, “BC” (my acronym for ‘Before Covid’), a phenomenon many of us also miss as we all work from home. There is a silver lining, however, in that people have no choice but to be real– when their cat appears on the camera screen or a child drops in on a Zoom meeting. If Covid has taught us anything, it certainly sheds light on how human we all are no matter where on the professional ladder we stand.
Can’t Stop the Feeling
As a visual artist, one would think that there must be a particular “look” that completes the project. For Tami, she often relies on a feeling. She tends to favor work that is more stripped down and schematic, that’s possibly why she’s shifted to more design work as well. She’ll usually have an idea of how she wants her project to feel at the end. When she gets to the point where she’s stripped away everything that she could, and it still says what it needs to say, she puts 10 percent back and only then feels it’s done. Other times, it’s done when the client says it’s done! This work process reminds me of an exercise that’s helpful in my work as well: say something intentionally wrong (too fast, too slow, too garbled, too precise, so you can more easily hear how to get it right. Doing the opposite rejiggers things and frees the mind from constriction.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
What would you like people to know about you?
I don’t think I’ve ever been asked this question! I’ve been reflecting a lot about mentors that I’ve had or role models that I’ve had. I’ve had three really important, artistic mentors that were all women in my life. I’m not sure if we always let people know how much they’ve influenced us or how grateful we are for the part they played in. So I would want to make sure these people especially know how much I appreciate them. Also, my peers right now who are doing this great Covid-related work or doing work on CRISPR; I see them and I appreciate them and their work.
The people who are pushing this industry forward, who are doing great work, inspire me and also teach me. Even my 8th-grade art teacher, Sylvia Hanlon, was wonderful in terms of seeing us kids for who we were. 8th grade is a horrible time, middle school is horrible. But she made it okay to be the weird art girl when it felt like everyone else was a cheerleader. I had a great mentor in my printmaking professor in college and at one of my first jobs as well. So I would want everyone to know that all of that is taken in and appreciated.
Tell me about S.P.A.R.K. and what sparked S.P.A.R.K.?
My colleague Betsy Palay, was one of my mentors when I lived in the Bay area. She had closed her business and was giving talks at Stanford about approachable ways to create science visuals and ways people could improve their skills. In trying to come up with key principles, she was often able to find examples in my portfolio of these principles she was trying to teach, so she would contact me for permission to share them. After she was done giving those talks and presentations she approached me about writing a book. At the time my son was 18-months old, and I felt like, sure, I’m not that busy, let’s do this! Then that morphed into an online course. There is a lot of online professional development and there are many online courses now, so we were a little ahead of our time. It was a way to tap into the skills and best practices we had developed in our careers. Is there a way to make this accessible to people who haven’t had that training? Most visuals about science are made by scientists, but they don’t have this training or years of experience we have. How could we contribute to the evolution of science communication? The course is being used right now at the University of Oregon, Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, and the University of Miami. So post-docs, young scientists, those are the people in our audience that are really interested in science communication and visual communication, but there isn’t enough room in their curricula for these classes. The course really helps people that are working with artists to work better with them, to better understand the process of creating the materials. It also empowers them to harness the power of pictures in science communication and shows them how to make their own.
Name one thing that you collect?
I collect animal skulls: raccoons, deer, goats, etc. I like this one (raccoon) because it’s all intact. My brothers are hunters, so they’ve always brought me deer skulls. The raccoon is my favorite because I found it. It actually had all of the body bones too, not just the skull. It was cool to stumble upon this and put it back together.
If you could pick up a new skill in an instant, what would it be?
A new skill? The first thing I thought of was public speaking. Just to be really great at public speaking without having to do the scary work to get there. I think that would be great. I don’t know, maybe knitting? That would be a nice thing to be good at right away too.
If you use the promo code “DrawnTogether” today through the end of December, Tami is offering the course for $79 (originally $249), which is nearly 70% off. It great deal to start the new year with some new skills. It’s a terrific deal and a great way to start the new year with some new skills! (Full disclosure — I don’t make a penny from this!) Click here for details!
Up next in the Drawn Together series is the singularly amazing medical artist, illustrator, and animator, James Archer of ANATOMYBLUE. Specializing in the creation of didactic and cinematic illustration and animation for the healthcare, pharmaceutical, and publishing communities, James Archer combines medicine and art, science and illustration, and in some cases “the subject of anatomy and the color blue.” He’s a gentle giant in the field of medical illustration and we’re excited to visit with him in our next blog post.
Until then, be safe, be kind, and think about the unseen heroes in your world!