Home » Digital Arts » Medical Illustrator
By TACP Staff on July 16, 2021
Medical illustration/animation is a highly specialized and technical field of art requiring advanced knowledge and expertise regarding the human body, anatomy, biology, and the chemical components that play a role in bodily functions. A medical illustrator must also understand the properties of biotechnologies and pharmaceuticals to be effective in their job. The medical field offers illustrators a variety of career opportunities both in the public and private sector; working in industries such as research, healthcare, education, law, and for any number of business and corporate entities.
Before the invention of cameras and computers, every illustration in a medical journal or textbook was drawn by talented artists. Today, medical artists produce a wide range of visual content for presentations, magazines, advertising, film, television, Web, interactive and mobile media, medical apps, health games, tradeshow and museum exhibits, court room visuals, medical simulation trainers, and augmented and virtual reality apps.
Basically, medical illustration is a cross between science and art. The drawings are meant to teach and communicate complex ideas through visual storytelling, particularly in ways photography cannot. For example, animations can be used to depict how individual tumor cells react to a cancer medicine, or illustrations can be used to teach a patient how a pacemaker device keeps the heart muscles pumping correctly.
Medical animations and illustrations are commonly used in the healthcare industry as teaching aids to train doctors and nurses, or as visual aids to educate patients and the public about health issues so they can make informed medical decisions. Forensics experts and attorneys frequently use medical illustrations to explain a medical situation to a judge or jury to help them better understand a surgical procedure, medical error, or physical ailment.
Medical models may be sculpted by hand or 3D-printed to fabricate anatomical organs, body parts, or other biological objects. These may be used in training simulators or in pre-surgical planning of difficult cases. Some medical illustrators create prosthetics to conceal facial disfigurements caused by injury or surgery (called clinical Anaplastology).
The majority of medical illustrators work very closely with doctors, scientists, and other subject matter experts. The types of images that a medical illustrator creates will often depend on the illustrator’s specialty, as well as his client’s needs. For example, a medical illustrator that specializes in forensics will team up with law enforcement officials in order to create a visual reconstruction of a missing person.
A medical illustrator will usually begin by researching the topic and reviewing the literature. Next, they work out visual solutions, drawing by hand multiple thumbnail ideas with traditional pencils/pens, or with a stylus on a pressure sensitive tablet. These sketches and storyboards may be scanned in or transferred to computer graphics software to be rendered in greyscale or color and then emailed to clients for review and approvals. While artistic license can be exercised, accuracy is paramount. For example, in pharma advertising the cellular interactions and mechanism of action must be based on the biomedical literature and pass legal review for FDA clearance.
Besides creating 2-D illustrations, medical artists also create 3-D models, animations and interactive experiences. These projects are produced in teams with medical animators, web developers, UX designers and other creative professionals. Engaging media can be used in exhibit booths, serious games, touchscreen apps, holograms, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR).
Since medical illustration combines skills and competencies shared by art and science, an aspiring medical illustrator should weigh the benefits of studying art as well as the natural sciences, such as biology, anatomy, and medicine. The ideal approach to a career in medical illustration will begin with a bachelor’s degree in art and design along with elective courses or a minor concentration in the biological (pre-med) sciences. Many colleges and universities offer majors, minors, or certificate courses in biological, scientific, or life science visualization that will help bolster the knowledge of students who are also developing illustration skills. Science visualization courses teach the essential skills used to create images based on observation, research, and realistic depiction methods, which are required to advance in this career path. A Master of Arts or Science is the terminal degree in medical illustration. Only a small number of post-secondary institutions in the United States offer graduate degree programs and competition for entry into these programs is extremely high.
Students pursuing a degree in medical illustration should consider taking courses that will provide them with long term benefits as they build a career. A mastery of core subjects such as physiology, cell biology, human anatomy, chemistry, figure drawing, storyboarding (sequential illustration) drawing from direct observation (still-life), graphic design, and digital media (raster and vector software) will pay substantial dividends when a student transitions from school to the real world. Subject-matter expertise will be tested when students attempt to become certified as a medical illustrator and will be expected by employers in this field.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics groups the profession of medical illustrator with other careers in fine arts. Fine artists made an average salary of $48,360 in 2018, according to the BLS. Because medical illustrators have highly technical and specialized skills it is possible for professionals to earn more than the average fine artist. For example, the Association of Medical Illustrators states that the median salary for medical illustrators is $70,650 and can extend up to $173,000.
Medical illustrators with skills in multiple academic disciplines and experience creating applications in AR/VR will find even more robust employment opportunities due to high demand for their unique skillset. A media salary of $74,880 – $98,000 can be expected in this case. Professional advancement to titles such as Creative Director or Art Director also carry higher salary expectations, with the median annual salary climbing to $89,000-$122,000 according to survey data published by AMI. Earning potential always varies depending on employer, geographic location, and the artistic talent of the person.
To succeed in the field of medical illustration, a medical illustrator must possess the academic and professional credentials to be employable in addition to being a highly skilled practitioner. The industry standard credential for medical illustrator is the Certified Medical Illustrator (CMI) designation. The Board of Certification of Medical Illustrators (BCMI) administers examinations that evaluate professionals in areas such as biomedical science, ethics, business practices, and drawing skill. Any practicing medical illustrator seeking the CMI credential must pass a written examination and a rigorous portfolio review. Portfolios submitted for review will typically contain recent examples of 3D modeling, 2D illustration, and a demo reel of animations.
Like any other artistic trade or profession, the portfolio presented by a medical illustrator will highly influence their ability to attract jobs or to get hired by the employer of their choice. Approximately 30% of all medical illustrators are self-employed business owners or freelance artists. An additional 30% of practicing medical illustrators work in salaried positions in the private or public sector.
A growing sector within the category of medical illustration is in medical research where science labs analyze and model data. Animators and illustrators are utilized in this environment to help scientists explore data, such as molecular interactions, through visualizations. Professionals who are able to apply interdisciplinary knowledge of molecular biology, biochemistry, and the chemical components of bodily functions to meticulous illustrations are of vital importance in these settings.
For more information visit the Association of Medical Illustrators.
Aspiring medical illustrators and animators should consider these additional careers in Digital Arts.
The Art Career Project is a trusted resource for emerging and professional artists.