How can you grow your career as a woman in science? In line with CABI’s strategic goals to empower women, we’ve interviewed a series of professionals who’ve worked or collaborated with CABI to share how they got to their current position, giving tangible advice to others looking to grow their careers.

In today’s blog, we talk to Sally Pinhey – a science illustrator who’s recently co-authored the book Plants for Soil Regeneration, an illustrated guide on soil structure and how to look after it, published with CABI.

What’s your definition of an illustrator?  

I illustrate mostly books on plants and their uses, some of which I have written myself. I will accept almost any commission but not portraits. I have just done a huge (3ft x 2ft8″) watercolour of National Trust land at Purbeck, have done 22 fish for a fishing book for Dorling Kindersley, and do murals happily. I do no commercial work having stopped advertising myself in that field. 

I lectured for 18 years to various students, usually retired people, at Kingston Maurward Countryside College, and enjoyed being a member of the academic team there. Covid and a new direction for the college finally finished this partnership, but the college will host the launch of my latest book, Plants for Soil Regeneration. I also enjoy teaching short courses on botany for artists, and have a Masters in Green Economy from Bournemouth University

What does an average day look like in your role? 

Early morning hours are precious as that is when my brain works best. I like to be at work by 9am, more often the computer than the drawing board. If time for admin or research gets tight I will rise early to get in a few hours before the world wakes up. I always take a proper lunch hour and walk the dog after lunch, so the afternoon may be short. Dog-walking time is also thinking time and often combines with looking for plant specimens.

The light is best at my painting desk in the afternoon, so I may settle to work there if a specimen is waiting, or do the next most urgent thing on the computer. If the weather is decent I may garden instead. The evening may be another opportunity to catch up on admin. Exhibitions, planning, mounting and sometimes stewarding add pressure from time to time.

What do you most enjoy and find most challenging about your job? 

Probably the teaching is what I enjoy most, but work illustrating plants as well as research for writing is what feeds it. Teaching gives me the buzz of knowing that I have given someone a skill for life that opens their eyes to plant life. My enthusiasm for plants and painting them is infectious and has set many a person on a new and rewarding path. My research is constantly pointing up lesser known facts about plant life and habits, and I love to follow the latest and current researches so vital to rebalancing the environment.  Sometimes my students already know a lot about plants, so it is fun to look at new facts and possibilities with them.

Are there any parts of your job that you didn’t expect to be part of the role when you first started? 

Probably not, as I choose what I do and have to work quite hard at maintaining preferred connections and openings.

How did you get where you are now? Looking back, is there anything you’d do differently? 

‘Slowly’ is the answer to how did I get here! Among all the choices of what to do when, family has always come first, and many opportunities have been lost on this account, but I would do the same again. I was not able to further my education in environmental issues until after my mother died ten years ago. Career-wise it was probably a mistake to serve as a magistrate which took a lot of time and did not feed anything relevant back into my career as an artist. It did, however declare my standpoint on integrity which is fundamental to all art work and dealings with other people.

What advice would you give to someone looking to do this role in the future? 

Depending on the newcomer’s inclinations I have suggested that they join a firm and work in graphics, or study to work in conservation. Those inclined to the latter usually need no advice from me. For those that have self-belief and want to be fine artists I suggest that they may need another income stream or adopt a very modest lifestyle. Students who have developed their plant illustration to a professional level need extra help or motivation to create their own openings.

I also recommend my book to those looking to become Botanical Illustrators, Botanical Illustrator’s Handbook. It tackles and explains many of the difficulties that artists encounter so they can extend and expand their choice of subject matter.

Where do you want to go next? 

I really enjoyed working on Plants for Soil Regeneration and am already developing ideas for another book, plus am beginning to research plants that contribute most to carbon sequestration.

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