Medical Illustration PROCESS: Anatomy of the Inner Ear, Part 1 of a 2 Part series


Ok I am really excited to be finally posting these medical illustrations online. This project is something that I’ve been working on during the dark winter months, which could explain my inclination towards bright colours throughout these pieces. 

You might have seen my work-in-progress sketches and colour comps that I posted up previously. If not they have been included in the PROCESS section at the end of this post.

Some background as to why these were created

Lecturers at the University of Dundee Medical School were hosting a teaching session on identifying referred otalgia (ear pain that originates outside of the ear) within a patient. In order for students to do this, they must first understand the anatomy associate with the ear, head and neck before trying to figure out the source of where the pain is coming from. 

Ok, so you might be thinking “that’s a lot of anatomy to understand in one go”, and you’re right it totally is. That’s why the use of visuals are helpful for them to quickly see it in their minds so that they can make a connection between healthy states and when things go wrong.

The first step, naturally, is to understand the anatomy of the ear and inner ear. The students have lots of anatomy lectures prior to the teaching session, however the lecturers tend to refer to visual aids during the session to drive home their learning objectives. Before I took on this project, the lecturers were using visual assets that: 

a. didn’t have the correct creative commons license for free educational use or

b. didn’t exactly show the anatomy they wanted to focus on

This was when they realised that they needed the help of a medical illustrator to produce illustrations that not only could be used as part of this teaching session but could also be integrated into other lecture materials. 

One massive plus side to this is that all the illustrations produced, as part of this project, are then released on a creative commons license that allows for free educational used. 

You can download them on the TILT Flickr page here:

My Process

Step 1 - Research aaaaand doodles

The following illustrations show the anatomy of the inner ear, with a lot of focus on the facial nerve that runs through it. When I was doing my initial research online I noticed that there weren’t many visual resources that included the facial nerve. This was surprising since it’s course runs in close proximity to the structures of the middle and inner ear. 

Because of that I decided to put a little bit of focus on this nerve and added some illustrative highlights and viewpoints that might help a medical student. 

Now I’m sure some of you can relate to this: the cochlea and semicircular canals are a bastard to illustrate in ¾ view. I was struggling with making it look accurate and reasonable good looking. I mean, look at this, what was I thinking?! 

No, no, no, no, this was not going to do. I needed more accuracy, I needed actual data. 

So I did a general web search to see if there were any creative commons MRI scans of the inner ear. Lo and behold I found this amazing group from McGill University who had segmented structures of the inner ear from an MRI sequence. Since they had a creative commons license I used their models as a basis for the rest of my illustrations. Sharing is oh-so-fun. 

Side note: I also downloaded the volume models, cleaned up the mesh and produced a 3D model that was uploaded to Sketchfab. I’ll talk more about my process for this in the next few weeks. 

Step 2 - Sketches 

I sketched out my ideas and layouts for the lecturers and content expert to review: 

I like to have them review first the illustrative elements before looking closely at the labelling. I found that this method helps in tiering their review process so that it doesn’t seem as overwhelming. In case you’re interested, this is how I package my review material for when they’re sent off: 

Step 3 - Colour Comps

I got some really valuable feedback from my content experts. More importantly they dug the idea the facial nerve focus and felt comfortable suggesting that they be highlighted in a separate image set. 

I quickly moved onto working out my colour comps for the main piece. 


Step 4 - Final Rendering 

I decided I liked the green and pink colour matches, probably because it looked like candy and I was having mad sugar cravings. 

I rendered the final illustration in Photoshop, keeping each structure on a separate layer. Here’s a little gif for you to check out: 



Aaaaand here are the final images with labels added.

You’ll notice that I didn’t talk much about the facial nerve focused images, that’s because they were mostly done in 3D. I’ll talk more about that process in the upcoming weeks. 

Thanks for watching!