If you are thinking about combining art and science into a career, start here:
Hi! My name is _____, and I’m a student at _______. I’m interested in the field of medical and scientific illustration.
If you wrote something like this above, I’m really excited that you want to be a medical/scientific illustrator! It’s a really cool job combining science and art and communication.
Great news is that field of medical/scientific illustration exists, and there are hundreds of professionals working with researchers, doctors, and scientists to make modern medicine/science accessible and relevant to everyone.
As an independent medical and scientific illustrator with my own studio, I work on projects like science textbooks, surgical textbooks, museum exhibits, medical brochures, research presentations and posters. That’s just one area of specialty, and other illustrators work in animation, pharmaceutical marketing, field guides, etc etc. I just really enjoy drawing and painting with my hands and working with experts, researchers, and innovators.
Now comes the bad news.
No one knows how to become a medical/scientific illustrator! Your friends, teachers, professors, and advisors have no clue!
Plus, it sounds like an art career. Come on, everyone knows artists don’t make any money. It’s not a real job.
What do I need to do to combine science and art?
There is more than one correct answer. Most of the answer will depend on you, the student. Do you have scholarships? Are you ready to be in debt? Usually it’s wise to major in science, art, or both. I would say in general that going to college will be a good choice and a great investment in yourself.
If you are really set about scientific and medical illustration, you can major in these areas in your undergrad. Here are some that I know are very good starting points. Do some research on your own, too!
If you are really set on medical illustration, it’s probably best if you get a master’s degree. Medical illustration is a niche within a niche with more specialization. Think of scientists starting out as biologists, then entomologists, then specializing further such as periodical cicadas of Eastern US.
There are only few schools that offer medical illustration programs, so spend an afternoon checking out all programs. Each school has different specialties, so pick one that fits your interest the best. Then follow instructions on applications and talk to the program administrators. They are all quite nice.
I went to Hopkins, and it’s the oldest and very comprehensive program covering everything from carbon dust to 3D animation. We are also known look the most tired.
If you are really set on scientific illustration post bachelors’ degree, you can look into these excellent programs.
If you are into botanical art and just want to be able to paint/draw better, these programs might interest you. They offer certificates in botanical illustration:
I did an artist in residency at Denver Botanic Gardens and audited some courses, and the instructors are all wonderfully skilled, professional illustrators.
Again, this is not a complete list! Spend a little time researching, and you’ll probably find one that is a good fit for you.
Do I need a degree in medical/scientific illustration to be a professional? If I don’t go to graduate school for medical illustration, do I still get a job?
You don’t need a degree in medical/scientific illustration to be successful, but it will help tremendously. There are lots of techniques and conventions used in this field that might seem strange to regular artists. Many of the schools teach you digital software such as Photoshop and Illustrator, which are industry standards. These days it might be tougher to work in this field if you don’t know how to create a publication-ready illustration formatted to specifications. The programs are expensive and have a really steep learning curve. Having a class or two in digital software will help you. Also, be prepared to move for your job.
How do I meet professionals in the field of medical/scientific illustration?
If you wish to meet other professionals, here are some groups that hold annual meetings and local programs:
What do I need to do to become a successful/professional medical/scientific illustrator?
Start creating art! Have a little portfolio, and show your art to friends. A lot of times I get questions from students who want to get into medical & scientific illustration. I ask them where I can see their work, and they say they have no portfolio. That’s like applying to a college and telling them you have no grades from high school.
Start acting like a professional illustrator. Meet scientists, physicians, surgeons, and educators. Meet other artists. Being a professional illustrator does not require a specific degree/training like physicians and lawyers.
Know what you like and what you don’t like. If you don’t like blood, then surgery illustration is probably not for you. You can still be a medical illustrator and specialize in cellular and molecular biology.
Visit museums/hospitals and do some research. If you go to a professional meeting of the professional groups mentioned above, you’ll probably network with some illustrators that know someone. Remember to go up to them and start talking, but don’t just talk about yourself.
For some illustrators, success means having a job. For me personally, it’s seeing that the work I create are actively helping others understand something they didn’t understand with just words. I love working directly with experts and learning new things. Did you know bees sing songs to flowers to release pollen grains?
I also love that I’m able to support myself doing work that I enjoy.
What does success mean to you?
What’s the best part about being a medical/scientific illustrator?
I love that I’m able to combine art and science and communication to help others through my artwork.
I shared this story in my TEDx talk, but one time I showed my heart illustration and talked a little bit about the heart to a class. Afterwards a lady came up to me and told me she had never taken an anatomy class in her life. Her mother died from a heart disease she said.
“My mother knew about her heart. The doctor tried to explain to her, but she just brushed it off. She was too busy enjoying life. We knew about her heart, but we didn’t understand it. Now that I look at your drawing, I understand. I wish I looked at your drawing sooner. I miss her so much.”
At that point I felt so powerless and empowered at the same time. It’s so heartbreaking to hear stories like hers. At the same time, I gained new appreciation of the power of illustration.
What’s the worst part about being a medical/scientific illustrator?
We are not famous. I have to explain what I do all the time even to artists and scientists.
Everyone assumes that illustrations are created by computers. No one puts that much thought into how much work goes into creating educational art.
It’s considered “old art”. Most people are familiar with the acetate layers of human anatomy in the encyclopedia and classic illustrations of flora and fauna of the new world.
If you freelance, how do you get work?
First, you have to do a lot of research and find out what kind of illustrations are needed. Second, you have to find out what sort of illustration you find rewarding and create marketing materials and branding to cater to the needs of the market. Third, you have to get in touch with the decision-makers. Hopefully in step 1 you found out who the decision-makers are by looking up illustration types.
It takes a lot of business skills and marketing, and it’s an important skill to have if you wish to be an independent illustrator. That’s just the beginning. Then you have to negotiate and come to an agreement on scope of project and determine illustration fees. Then comes the scientific research to understand what you are illustrating. Phew! It gets easier with time and practice, I promise.
Did I answer your questions about the field of medical & scientific illustration?
If you want more specific advice, I’d be happy to be in touch. I just ask that you make a small donation of $10 to my favorite illustration group, the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators. We’ll go with an honor system. Hopefully you find this article to be of help.