What is Medical Illustration?

The job of a medical illustrator is to communicate scientific and medical information to a group of people. To accomplish this goal, the medical illustrator must understand science and translate information into meaningful visual images. The training begins with rigorous scientific studies of human anatomy and biological processes and with mastering artistic techniques, from traditional drawing to computer animation. However, the true skill of an illustrator lies in the ability to clearly, concisely, and effectively present information. To create an impactful image, the illustrator combines knowledge of subject matter with an understanding of who is viewing the artwork to cultivate custom visual solutions to scientific and health care communication needs.


Since pictures quickly and concisely convey information, medical illustrations have the ability to efficiently deliver information that could otherwise be difficult or time consuming to understand. For example, the text of a surgery manual can take many pages to tediously explain a procedure, such as a kidney transplant. The same procedure may be summarized in one page of illustrated steps that quickly explain essential anatomy, surgical instruments, and techniques. In each image created, the medical artist has the ability to choose which features are represented. It is often asked, why not just take a photo? A camera lens captures everything upon the click of a button. While illustrations take longer to produce than a photograph, they express the salient details by focusing on the necessary elements needing to be communicated. An illustration can discard extraneous elements to ensure the core information is communicated succinctly.


Through graduate school training, medical illustrators learn the science and the art, but they also understand how to communicate to a variety of visual audiences. The aim is to convey the information in a way that is best understood by the viewer. Medical illustrators have a wide range of artistic talents, but not all artistic styles are appropriate for every audience. A cartoon designed for school children may not be taken seriously by neurosurgeons. Likewise, the style of a drawing for neurosurgery manual might be boring to school kids. Understanding who will be viewing the artwork is essential to effective communication.


Any agency that has a need to express their information, product, or research visually can call upon a medical illustrator. Medical artwork is used in a variety of industries including, but not limited to, education, research, marketing, and biotechnology. Illustrators create accurate images for a range of publications such as textbooks, scientific journals, and patient education. For example, courtroom cases may enlist illustrators to display drawings of the damage incurred in a medical malpractice lawsuit. Drawings show the jury what happened to which areas of the body in a manner that is clean and clear, without making the jurors decipher potentially confusing X-rays. Advancements are continually occurring in health care and medical technology. Medical illustrators are there to not only render images of surgical instruments for catalogs, but also to create images that teach how new instruments are used. Once patients return home, they are likely to bring with them materials that explains, through pictures and writing, how to continue their care outside of the doctor's office, whether it be physical therapy exercises or caring for a recent wound. Additionally, new technologies are constantly emerging, resulting in new discoveries and techniques in the sciences. Medical illustrators are there to document the changing world of science.


Regardless of the industry or the audience, medical artwork always strives to express ideas accurately and clearly in a visually pleasing manner. Medical illustrators combine their knowledge and skills with artistic elegance.