I get a lot of frequently asked questions and I thought that it's about time I log some of them here to share with everyone. If there are any questions that you might have but aren't answered below, drop me a line on my email at:
What was it that drew you To medical illustration?
After I completed my undergraduate I was at a loss as to what my next steps were. At the time I was considering on going into research or medicine—knowing full well that I wasn’t good enough in either. I was always artistic from a young age but never took it seriously and only did a few anatomical sketches here and there for fun. After seeing my work a friend jokingly recommended that I draw human body parts for a living. Little did she know that I took her advice and discovered that there was a profession that allowed you to combine art and medicine.
My situation is so familiar to a lot of young artists with a science background, I only ever took art classes in high school but had always been interested in drawing as a hobby. It was my interest in merging science and art that brought me to discover a career as a medical illustrator. To be able to teach someone something about their bodies through visuals, that aspect of information design, was what I drew me into the career.
Where did you study?
I studied a science degree (neuroscience) as part of my undergraduate and only became interested in medical illustration as a career towards the end of my studies. So when I graduated from my undergrad I set to apply for grad school. Due to my lack of art classes I had to take a part time art course to meet the entry requirements of the grad programs.
I was super lucky to study Biomedical Visualization at the University of Chicago, in Illinois (UIC). It was a great 2 year course where we got to hone a lot of skills that prepared us to become both 2D and 3D medical artists. When we graduate we pretty much enter the field as generalists and either continue on that path or specialize in a specific area.
What made you choose BVIS instead of the other medical illustration grad schools?
It was their focus on technology that drew me in. Later on when I got an interview it was Scott Barrows (the program director at the time) who really made me feel like that was the place I needed to be. He was so supportive and encouraging, I never had a teacher like that before and it really was motivational, which was something I really needed at the time.
To talk more about BVIS: the programmes set you up with a wide range of skills that a medical artist will encounter in their professional career. Skills such as traditional and digital illustration, graphic design, 3D animation, imaging data segmentation, storyboarding, copy writing, surgical illustration, interactive development, and also creating medical illustrations for specific audiences (public audiences are different to professional medical audiences and you need to know what questions to ask and what’s the best way of conveying your message).
Also how did you like Biomedical Visualization (BVIS)?
I loved it and thoroughly enjoyed my time there. There was a massive sense of camaraderie between my classmates and the lecturers are so supportive. That being said it still is a Master's so I really needed to kick it up a notch in terms of more independent studying and research.
I really liked emphasis on technology and software as well as how to code--something that comes in useful time and time again for me. There was also the option for me to take undergrad animation classes in Maya, which was fantastic as it's the program I use to animate now.
The medical school and teaching hospital is so close, which was fantastic as there were so many opportunities for collaborating with healthcare professionals. Through that you really do get a good experience into what it's like to be a professional medical illustrator.
Then the school's affiliation with the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) is super great as they have an internship opportunity for students. The school also have affiliations with people at the Field Museum--opening up opportunities to work on museum projects.
Now I hear they are constantly trying to improve and build their program every year. To do that they hold meetings with alumni and lecturers to brainstorm on new course options and software they should focus on.
Where have you worked?
2D Medical Artist
When we graduated I was lucky that a few other of my classmates and I got job offers at a digital healthcare studio in New York—theVisualMD. Before that I was gearing myself up for a long hard journey searching for freelance work back in the UK.
I entered the studio as a 2D artist working for their 2D department. A lot of my time was spent designing layouts and infographics for their online health portal. Other times I would do simple volume animations and motion graphics for some of the video projects.
I progressed to become an assistant art director and then as one of the art directors. Here I spent more time managing and giving direction to artist, creating in-house style guides and tutorials, creating concepts for and liaising with the company’s creative director and talking with clients. I felt that at this point in my career I really learned a lot—especially with outfacing client interactions and how to manage a team.
Then the company needed more project managers and so I was in that position for a few months before my departure. It wasn’t the most creative role that I had but it was the most important in terms of how much I had learnt in those months. I worked closely with the department managers and vice president and really got a great insight into how to run a company. I would like to start my own company one day and it was a real eye opener being in that position.
Medical Artist and Educational Resource Developer
My current post is as a medical artist and educational resource developer for a medical school. All content I produce is for the teaching curriculum and aimed at the medical students. This content ranges from illustrations, animations, interactive models and iBook/eBooks.
Unofficially I’ve also taught/given advice to some of the medical artists from the Dundee program. I pretty much try to give them as much help as they want to prepare them for work in a studio environment.
I now am at a point where I can take on freelance projects on a part time basis. Sometimes I get to work with friends, which is a definite plus or I work with other healthcare professionals in fun projects.
What do you enjoy most about working in the field?
First off I think scientists, doctors and all other healthcare professionals are rock stars. To me, they do some pretty amazing stuff—they hold a wealth of knowledge in their brains and need to be able to distil that at a moment’s notice. To be able to produce something that makes them go “wow” is the icing on the cake.
What are your favourite medical or science subjects to illustrate?
Cellular anatomy as it's an environment that can have so many possibilities in terms of colour choices and composition.
If you could offer advice for a prospective medical illustrator what would it be?
Understand your subject matter and the science behind it. Use multiple references (books, websites, YouTube videos, journal articles)--don't just rely on one or two resources. Try to reference from data rather than another illustrator's work. This data can include CT scans, MRI, electron microscopy, confocal imaging...the list goes on.
If you're not already thinking of it, consider on doing a Masters in medical illustration at one of the program's recommended by the Associations of Medical Illustrators (US) or the Institute of Medical Illustrators (UK). There you will learn all of the necessary skills and techniques that will get you started as well as prep you on the anatomical knowledge that you need in order to enter the career successfully.
As for the programs I’ve also had many long conversations with friends from nearly all of the programs in both the US and UK. Let me tell you now that each program has its good and bad, something that’s lacking that another school has. Rather than dwell on that, the important thing is to utilize your time effectively at whatever school you choose.
All of the schools give you the very basics of what you need to know in order to continue learning on your own time and I want to stress learning on your own. Some people struggle with that and need more of a hand when it comes to learning some of the new software you will no doubt encounter. These people tend to drop out of the courses.
The grad programs are either a 1 or 2 year course so you’re going to have a tough journey ahead of you. It’s also going to be extremely rewarding.
When you embark on your grad journey I urge you to not only learn from your teachers but from all other fields in animation, design, illustration and interactivity. Keep up to date with current trends in each field and implement that into the stuff you’re going to be taught. Learn about animation pipelines and illustrative styles. Watch how other artists (outside of medical illustration and also in our field) create their work and, in turn, apply the same techniques to the stuff that you’ll be doing at grad school.
On top of the stuff you’ll be doing as part of your course you’re going to spend every waking moment researching, learning new techniques and practicing what you know. THAT is how you’re going to be able to stand out from the crowd in and also hold up against the other graduates/professionals.
When you come to applying for jobs, companies don’t care what school you go to. They want to see that you’re able to create beautiful artwork, have design sense and be able to develop animated narratives that can contribute to their team. Oh an also have a kickass portfolio site that showcases your best work.
What techniques and mediums (digital or traditional) should a prospective medical illustrator look to learn, enhance, or hone?
Even if you start off traditional the majority of the time a medical illustrator will be delivering digital files so I'm just going to stick with digital in my comments.
- Know the correct file outputs and size you need for delivering your illustrations to your clients. There are various final outputs: print, web, video etc, each has a different setting.
- Watch as many tutorials you can in digital illustration. It doesn't have to be medical related. You'll find that you learn so much by doing this.
- If you're doing medical animations understand general animation workflows. Research industry standards and best practices so that you're delivering a top quality product.
What is your preferred medium / technique?
I like Photoshop a lot however I produce assets through different mediums. These include hand drawn sketches, 3D models, working with CT or MRI data, etc. Ultimately it’s whatever the end goal requires, that’s what I have to turn my hand to.
Because of this I’m very lucky that I get to use different software and techniques to create a medical illustration. I still begin with traditional hand drawn illustrations, building up my anatomical layers using tracing paper. I then scan these into the computer and continue to colourise the illustration using Photoshop or Illustrator. This could be the final part of the process but I can take it a step further and create an interactive from the illustrations or even animate them for a video.