For the latest installment of the How I Got My Job series, Santa Cruz native Tina Somers — a self-described science illustrator, printmaker, muralist and painter — spoke with Lookout about her path to opening her own studio, advice to up-and-coming artists and the challenges of being in the business.
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Tina Somers is an artist and owner of Hawk and Hammer Creative Studio in her hometown of Santa Cruz. Somers headed south for college, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in painting from the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Having found her niche in science and botanical art while in school, she interned in the John and Peggy Maximus Gallery at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Museum, knowing she wanted to be in the science illustration graduate program in UC Santa Cruz.
After graduation in 2007, Somers jumped straight into graduate school. The yearlong intensive program required her to complete an internship. Wanting to experience “something crazy and adventurous,” Somers sought an internship that wasn’t close to home. Aligning with her desire for adventure, her boyfriend at the time asked her to move to Hawaii with him. She did, landing at Honolulu’s Lyon Arboretum in Honolulu, where she focused on field guides and logos.
After the 10-week internship, she moved back to California to begin an educational consulting company and illustrated for science textbooks. After about three years, Somers realized the reason she was into this particular style of art was because she enjoyed getting out into the field. In 2012, Somers began working at Patagonia, doing visual merchandising there for nine years along with commissions on the side. Alongside her day job, Somers created interpretive panels along the pathway UCSC’s Seymour Marine Discovery Center that explained species that lived in that field. With her husband’s encouragement, she left Patagonia in 2021 to open her studio. To commemorate her accomplishment, Somers went cliff-jumping as a metaphorical way of acknowledging her major life transition.
Somers is currently leaning toward more self-directed projects. She has work on display in an exhibition that runs through May 14 at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, and is contemplating a project illustrating deep-sea fish.
Calling her Santa Cruz upbringing a “huge factor” in her career path, Somers doesn’t constrain herself to one specific style — so much so that at times she worries that someone might not be able to identify her art. Somers also aims to keep her art accessible and affordable. When Somers isn’t working, she’s spending time with her family, spending time outdoors and traveling.
- UC Santa Barbara College of Creative Studies: bachelor’s degree in painting
- UC Santa Cruz: master’s degree in science illustration
How I Got My Job: Lookout talks to people in Santa Cruz County about their jobs and offering advice to those looking to get into the field
How I Got My Job: Lookout talks to people in Santa Cruz County about their jobs and offering advice to those looking to get into the field
A regular feature as Lookout talks to people in Santa Cruz County about their jobs and offering advice to those looking...
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Lookout: Can you describe what your job is?
Tina Somers: I’d say most broadly, I am an artist. To put more of a finer point on that, I’d say I’m a science illustrator, printmaker, muralist [and] painter.
Lookout: Can you take me through how you became an artist and opened your own studio?
Somers: My first step was I got my undergrad degree in painting from the College of Creative at UC Santa Barbara. It’s a small college within Santa Barbara, so it’s a separate application but it really gave students the freedom to pursue their own interests. It was a small cohort. I got to have my own studio space and [I] particularly focused on science and botanical art. They would let me audit higher-level plant and botanical classes, even though I wasn’t doing science.
After school, I ended up moving to Hawaii and was working for the Lyon Arboretum out there, doing [things like] field guides, mapping and logos. Then I moved back to California and started an education consulting company, doing illustrations for science textbooks. I did that for three years until I realized the whole reason why I wanted to be a science illustrator and be an artist was so I could be out in the field and being tactile with the art. The reality of doing illustrations for this textbook company was it was all on a computer. I realized that wasn’t how I wanted to be spending my time.
I made a pivot and ended up getting a job at Patagonia. I did visual merchandising for them. I felt like, “I’m still in the visual art realm; this isn’t necessarily illustration but I align with the company.” I started doing more of my art and illustration on the side. I would do private commissions and things like that while I was doing my day job.
[Patagonia] was a really great environment for me, and I did end up [having] two children. It was nice to know that I had maternity leave, I had health insurance and once I got to a stable place with that, I was still trying to do it all because I did love working for the company. There [were] just only so many hours in a day and I started really feeling that crunch. My husband was really instrumental in being encouraging, like, “You’ve always wanted to be an artist, now is a great time for you to try.” I decided on my birthday, I’m going to do it. To celebrate, I went cliff-jumping. I didn’t love it, I’ve never loved it, but I guess it was a physical manifestation of what I was doing overall.
Lookout: What does a typical day look like on the job for you?
Somers: I spend part of my time, ideally I guess, on personal projects, because I also like to do my own art. I don’t want to have it all be commission-based, [so I’ll] do printmaking, I have paintings. Then I usually have at least one or two commision projects going on. I’m painting some models of whale eyes — there’s these 3D models of a whale eye that [a] person wanted a realistic [painting of these models]. I’ve also been doing some murals; I do a couple a year. So it’ll either be working on designs for that, and then when I do install the mural, it’s usually a solid week or two weeks I’m just going to the mural site and only working on that. But usually I have a lot of pots on the stove.
Lookout: How did you get into your style of art?
Somers: I think I’m still trying to answer that myself. I have several different styles and I think that’s how I’ve resolved that. Being trained in science illustration, I learned a couple things. One, I learned and also just naturally gravitate [to] and have an appreciation for really fine detail [and] the importance of that detail. Like it matters how many veins you’re putting on [a] leaf because if you draw the venation [the arrangement of veins in a leaf] the wrong way, that’s not the leaf you’re drawing. That could be the difference between a poisonous plant and a totally benign plant. But [it’s] also learning the importance of detail. When does that matter? Or when is it just a science communication tool? Is it, do we need this detail? Will it be more effective or will it have a different overall purpose in a different style? So learning when do I use that ultrafine detail, either digitally or with watercolor and pencil.
I think in reaction to that, too, I’ve found I like to go the opposite way with big, bold, colorful acrylic painting because I need a break or just enjoy the physicality of paint. That’s also why I like printmaking because carving [the prints] take[s] my control away. Where I might be really motivated to try to go back and work on these tiny little details all the time. If I’ve carved something [it’s] like, “Well, you can’t go back on that. You’ve literally cut it out of your substrate so you’re done.” I like playing with that, I don’t know if it’s fair to say loss of control but it has a different effect. I keep a lot of different styles going [on at] the same time. I think it depends on the purpose of what I’m creating for.
Lookout: What do you love about your job?
Somers: I love learning new things. I don’t feel like I’m the kind of painter that’s painting for myself, necessarily. I love connecting with art, nature, science and other people. That’s why I love learning new things. Then I don’t know if I should use the word teaching, but sharing what I’ve learned or helping other people learn as well.
Lookout: What would you say are your biggest challenges?
Somers: Sometimes I feel challenged that I don’t have one signature style. That someone may not be able to look at a piece and go, “Oh, that’s such a Tina piece.” But I don’t think I can give up any one of my [styles]. I still like printmaking, I still like illustration. I think my biggest challenge is I want to do it all right and finding the time to do that.
Lookout: What kind of skills would someone need to succeed in this career?
Somers: An open mind [and] a love of it. It’s not a straightforward path, so to be [able] to go with the flow and to be comfortable forging your own path. There’s not really a blueprint, it’s driven by what each person is interested in. As a general science illustrator, people might be focused more on plants and they’re going to be working in that world. Or there’s medical illustration, and then you’re going to be in a whole [other] ballgame. So just being confident enough to pursue what interests you and not what you feel is dictated by some typical career path.
Lookout: What advice would you give to young artists who want to pursue their art as a full-time career?
Somers: I would say make art and draw as much as possible. I feel like a lot of people, when they see art in general, they’ll say things like, “I could never do that.” The more you do a thing, practice makes progress, even if you’re not creating anything for a specific person or for money. In a specific practice, the more you do it the more you’re [going to] develop no matter what. Also hand in hand with that, the technical aspects of things. But also, making connections, being open and talking about it [art]. That has been really instrumental in a lot of the jobs I’ve gotten as well. You might end up talking to some whose brother’s cousin’s aunt needs a field guide for something. It’s fun because people will think of you. You could never predict the kind of things that can come out of just the community that you make for yourself.
I’ve been looking for a lot of resources and just committing to educate myself through community. So finding other artists that are kind of doing the same thing as you and comparing notes. That’s how I’ve gotten a lot of tips and stuff like, oh, you use this software or you use this service. I get a lot of books, I take a lot of webinars. I guess just knowing that my education is ongoing. Especially right now in the spring when it’s not holiday art markets and big deadlines, I have been taking some more coursework.
Lookout: What is something that most people misunderstand about your career path?
Somers: I don’t wear a beret all the time. I did buy myself one just [because]! There’s so many aspects of being an artist that are not making art. That has been a challenge because even in my own mind, I want my typical day to be sitting in front of an easel or out drawing some cool species. It’s also bookkeeping, taxes, even self-promotion. Do I need Instagram? Should I be posting and how do I invoice for this thing? So all the other aspects of that are definitely a challenge that doesn’t really get taught. When you learn to be an artist in school, it’s like, “This is the right pencil and you should be using these paints.” But it’s never, “You should be keeping track of the mileage on your car so you can write that off as a tax thing. What’s your studio space square footage?” I guess it’s the entrepreneurial side of being your own artist.
Lookout: Why do creatives and artists struggle with defining themselves as artists?
Somers: It’s such a loaded word. “Oh, you’re an artist,” — what does that mean? It means different things to everybody, it’s not as straightforward as “I’m an engineer.” It’s like, are you an artist if you draw every day when you get home from school? Do you have a beret? Do you have to be making money with your art to be called an artist? I don’t think you do. It’s not quite as straightforward as, “I painted this masterpiece and now someone is going to give me all this money.” Sometimes it gets a little scrappy. And also, in order to make money with art there is a lot of time when you’re not necessarily painting from your heart.
Lookout: Where do you see this industry going?
Somers: This industry is particularly so old, right? In fact, it is so associated with classical oil painters and even cave paintings. So I think there will always be creative people doing weird stuff. It is interesting with new technology, what that unlocks and new forms of creativity. Like the whole AI art stuff blows my mind, but I do think there will always still be a palace for traditional artists as well. As a society and as a culture, I think art is really important because there’s so many different uses for it. My brand, I love the educational aspect of it, I think we’re always still [going to be] learning. Then there’s just stuff that’s pretty to look at [and] is fun to make. I think we’ll also always need that
Lookout: What can a young artist or someone looking to be an artist expect to be paid for their work?
Somers: I feel like most new young artists really undercharge. I think whatever industry, or whatever subset of art anyone is interested in, [look] at industry standards [for pricing] through there. One of the ways I have been feeling good about charging, the more markets, art fairs and pop-ups I go to, I’m looking at what are the other ranges of price and what I’m bringing to the table. With murals, I found a rubric for charging.
So for mural charging I can give a straight number for that. I started out by charging $30 a square foot for murals. So it’s not based on time, it’s not based on complexity. It was a good thing when I go to quote something, I can go back and then I can look at this mural pricing rubric that I used from an industry standard that I found.
But if it’s just straight-up art or hourly for a logo, I started charging about $500. I was doing a blanket [amount], so [for] this amount of money you get this design and we can do two revisions and then you have all the rights for it. I use a book called [“The Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines”].
Lookout: What are your future plans for your business?
Somers: I am thinking about transitioning toward my own projects and taking less graphic design commissions at least. I used to do a lot more wedding invitations and logos, that’s really fun but it’s kind of limiting. I would love to be doing a little bit more of self-directed projects than client projects. I’m really excited about this project — a friend of mine who is a marine biologist, she’s getting her Ph.D., and I have been illustrating sections of what she’s studying. Two of my pieces from her research are actually in the “Art of Nature” exhibition at the Museum of Natural History. We have these plans of having some sort of big project [that’s] all self-driven. I don’t have a funding source for this, but it’s lighting my fire, like, “Oh my gosh, what’s she doing is so cool.” I want to illustrate it and maybe we can have some sort of presentation down the line of this is what a deep-sea fish is and this is how you study them.