Thanks for coming to my talk! Any questions?


As a scientific illustrator, I get all sorts of questions. Scientific illustration is one of those jobs that is not in the immediate consciousness of a society. We are not famous like firefighters, librarians, teachers, and other heroes of the world making the world a better, smarter, and safer place. The world is filled with professions all contributing the world in their own way. In my years as a medical and scientific illustrator, I’ve met many professionals whose titles I was really perplexed by such as a medical aroma therapist, medical anthropologist, and professional snail wrangler.

Since we’re not that famous, I like to give talks to high schoolers, college students, and professionals about what we do and how our work help them. Here are some questions I get when I give my talk.

1. You draw dead things, right?

Northern Flicker study scientific illustration by Ikumi Kayama

Northern Flicker study scientific illustration by Ikumi Kayama


Kind of? I do spend hours and hours in dark labs and silent studios drawing and studying dead things. Some dead things I’ve spend quality time include: cats, frogs (one time we had more dead frogs than humans in my dorm), cows, raccoons, foxes, humans, bobcats, turtles, fish, birds, mice liver, and plants. I’ll stop before it gets weirder.

But in fact scientific illustrations celebrate life. We show the “dead” things in such a way that viewers get a richer learning experience than just looking at a series of nice photos (of dead things).

2. You drew that?


Yes, thank you. I take that as a compliment. I know it probably looks like a computer drew it, or I just pushed a button that says “lung” on my computer. To me it’s like asking whether or not if someone wrote and sang a song. There is still a lot of human brain and energy put into creating work. Actually all my drawings start out as hand-drawn illustrations. Since they are hand-drawn, I can work with many researchers and educators and create just what they want to show.

I spend time with my sketches, I do my research, and I paint them in various media to create a realistic looking illustration.

3. How long did that take you?


That really depends. Some media goes faster than others. Most artwork takes about 8-15 hours to create, but you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in the finished drawing. Beneath each drawing is a series of sketches, studies, meetings, and corrections.

I wonder know why this is such a common question. Maybe I look like I have no life because instead of watching TV, I sit around reading and making awesome illustrations?

4. How do you draw realistically?

Hipbone illustration by Ikumi Kayama

The renaissance artists figured out that by understanding how light hits the surface of an object, artists can create an illusion of a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional surface. There is also perspective, where objects in space looks a certain way and follows imaginary lines depending on where it is and where the viewer is. By understanding and using illustration techniques, an artist can create realistic-looking work.

I study the old masters’ paintings and classic medical & scientific illustration as much as I could. Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” To me it means that by understanding what our predecessors did, I can add my learning on top and make something even better.

5. What happens when you mess up? Do you ever mess up?


Nothing happens, and yes. I’m not a machine! That’s why there are things called erasers. I have a small army of different types of erasers for all different uses. I’m actually terrified of messing up since accuracy is so important in the illustrations I create. Fortunately and thankfully, I can use erasers. If needed I redraw the illustration so it’s more correct. I usually work with experts, so if they see a scientific mistake in my sketches, they’ll tell me, and I make sure to follow everything they say to make the illustration the best I could.

6. How do you do that?



It takes a lot of practice and special training. I wish it was something that you could learn over a weekend workshop! Not many schools teach how organs are going to look cut or how to properly position animal skulls so all the important bones can be seen at once. I got specific training on how to create scientific illustrations for textbooks and scientific journals at my undergraduate and graduate programs. After that, I seeked out internship positions at the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History to further train with illustrators I admire.

I’m still practicing. I’m always practicing. I try to ask a lot of questions and look at other artwork that I love and see what it is that I can ‘borrow’ to help me with my work. Sometimes I look back and kick myself for not getting what my professors were trying to tell me in medical illustration school. Luckily for me, they still answer my questions through emails. If I feel courageous enough, I’ll even ask for their advice.

I still take classes on how to better myself and my craft. It’s a longer process than I would like, but creating illustrations that help others learn is such a fulfilling process. I almost enjoy every step of the way, but I’ve definitely cried over artwork for not looking right.

7. Why not take photos?


That’s a great question! Taking photos is a great way to capture a single moment. I think everyone has at least a few good photos they’ve taken on their phones to share with their friends. But, if they were to teach about it, are photos enough? I hear over and over how photos are not the best when trying to show the small differences between different kinds of species. It’s like taking a photo of my face and saying all humans look like this photo. There are variations and there’s no way a photo can show you everything you need to know.

Another quick example is going back to the first question of “you draw dead things right?” When you take a photo of a dead thing, it’s dead. However, illustrators have a power to bring the dead thing back to life.

So there you have it! I hope you learned something new! If you want to invite me come speak for your group about medical & scientific illustration, just let me know and I’ll be happy to talk and talk about scientific illustration.