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How to Become a Medical Illustrator – All You Need to Know

Do you love learning about science and medicine? Do you also love drawing from observation? Medical Illustration just might be the thing for you. Here’s everything you need to know about what it takes to become a medical illustrator from education requirements to the type of work you might do in the future.

Why listen to me? I’ve been doing medical illustration and animation for 20 years. I’ve had work shown on Oprah, Dateline, and National Geographic. My work is on permanent display in museums, and I’ve created illustrations and animations for clients ranging from medical marketing firms to medical device companies of all sizes. I’m also a professor at the University of Colorado Denver where I advise students every year about how to get into the field. The info below is the same information and advice I give them.

My YouTube Video about becoming a medical illustrator

So, What is a Medical Illustrator and What Does One Do?

Before learning how to become a medical illustrator, it’s probably good to have a strong understanding of what a medical illustrator is and what kinds of projects they work on.

Medical Illustrators create easily understandable and scientifically accurate images that explain or tell stories about medical information and science. A medical illustrator is a highly skilled and knowledgeable professional artist who combines art and science to create visual stories about science and medicine for a variety of audiences. They know how to draw accurately and they have a strong science education background including a mix of human anatomy, surgery, biology, embryology, molecular biology, and other sciences. This knowledge gives them the ability to comfortably speak with medical professionals and understand the work that needs to be done. Many medical illustrators also have a strong foundation in 3D software to create still images and medical animations.

Some medical illustrators work for medical illustration companies or find positions in health industry companies (like pharmaceutical or medical device companies, for example). In this case, they spend most of their work time illustrating and creating medical artwork. Some of the benefits of working for a company are a steady paycheck, having health and other benefits, having work provided to you (vs searching for it), working in a team, and having a set work schedule. If these things sound appealing to you, then working for a medical illustration company might just be the thing for you.

Other medical illustrators work for themselves as freelance or contract artists. Freelance medical illustrators run their own businesses, so on top of having the knowledge and skills to create medical artwork, they also need to understand how to run a business, find clients and work directly with them, negotiate fees, understand billing and the financial side of running a business, and understand how to market their services. The benefits of working for yourself as a medical illustrator include choosing the kind of work you do and which clients you work for, setting your own work schedule, setting your own rates, and working from wherever you want to. If you are a motivated self-starter kind of person with a desire to run your own show, then this might be the path for you. 

Still others, choose to do both – working full-time for a company while also doing freelance work on the side. This can get tiring quickly and it honestly isn’t sustainable for long if you want to have any kind of life outside of work, but it can be a good way to transition from working for a company to working for yourself. I usually advise people to first get a job at a company so they can learn about the industry and see first-hand what it takes to work with clients before they go off and do their own thing. It’s not required, but it can make things a little easier. 

What are the Different Types of Medical Illustration?

There are lots of different types of medical illustration out there, and they can be categorized in a few different ways. For our purposes, let’s think about it in terms of the type of audience the work is made for. We’ll break it down in terms of surgical, medical-legal, medical-didactic, and medical-editorial. This isn’t everything, but it’s a good overview. I’ll also provide links to some examples from the interwebs.

Surgical Illustration

Surgical illustration is a popular category of medical illustration where the intent is to show the process of a surgical procedure or how to use specific tools for a specific surgical procedure. For this type of illustration, the audience is typically surgeons and medical professionals. Surgical illustration needs to be incredibly accurate and the steps need to be shown in a way that is easy to understand in relation to the patient’s anatomy. For this type of work, an illustrator will often observe the surgery directly in the operating room and take notes, sketches, photographs, and videos of the procedure while it happens. They may also work from pre-recorded videos or photos of the procedure in consultation with a surgeon. I co-curated (with Simon Zalkind) an exhibition of surgical illustration in 2014 featuring amazing work from contemporary medical illustrators. It was an incredible exhibit and was written up in a few media outlets. Check out the catalog for some great examples of surgical illustration. 

One of the first professional medical illustrations I did was for a legal case involving a patient and a caregiver. The patient had a condition called ankylosing spondylitis which can cause the vertebrae in the spine to fuse. This patient was sitting on a shower bench that broke and resulted in a fall which severely injured the patient’s neck. I created an illustration that showed how the vertebrae were damaged in the fall. Imagine all of the legal cases involving patients and caregivers across the country every year. Almost all of them require visual demonstrative evidence based on facts and medical reports. This is where medical-legal illustrators shine. The work can be lucrative and often has fast turnaround times. There are entire businesses built around medical-legal animation and illustration and they tend to have a team of illustrators and animators working for them. If you’ve ever thought about working with a combination of the legal field and medicine – this just might be something you’d love doing. 

Here are a couple of examples of medical-legal illustrations from the 2023 AMI Salon Winners:

Didactic Medical Illustration

Didactic illustration is designed to teach a specific audience about a specific thing in medicine. This might mean illustrating a process for a textbook a journal, a magazine, or a website, for example. It might mean creating educational illustrations for patient education. Didactic illustration typically includes several steps or processes that have to be clearly explained. Understanding how color plays a role in communication is a key component in this type of work. For example, patient education materials need to be created in a way that is approachable and allows the patient and the patient’s loved ones to view the information without being put off by realistic tissue, blood, and so on. This is in stark contrast to surgical illustration, where the tissue color and qualities must be shown accurately. As a few examples, didactic medical illustrations help people understand how drugs work in their bodies, how surgical procedures are performed, how cancer grows in our bodies, how viruses work, and how vaccines work against them. 

Here are a couple of examples of didactic illustrations from the 2023 AMI Salon Winners:

Medical-Editorial Illustration

In my opinion, medical-editorial illustration provides medical artists the most creativity and freedom. These images are created to grab viewer attention and to tell a story in a dynamic and exciting way. Often, these will be cover illustrations for a journal or magazine, or they could be large spot illustrations that open an article within a journal or magazine. The entire point of an editorial illustration is to grab the viewer’s attention, pique their interest, and get them to read the article. It does this by telling part of the story visually in a dynamic, often colorful, and attention-grabbing way.

What is the Typical Workflow for Creating a Medical Illustration?

I’m going to approach this from the point of view of a freelance illustrator – that’s what I have the most experience with and it covers all the bases. This is a (very) simplified overview of a typical project working with a client. 

  1. Initial client meeting – Meet with the client and figure out what the need is, who the audience is, and what type of style they’re aiming for.
  2. Work up a contract – A written agreement between the artist and the client to fees and terms of the work to be done, and usage rights.
  3. Research and materials from the client – often, the client will provide a script, reference materials, etc. This is also the time I do my own research for reference materials. 
  4. Sketches – Good quality drawings that clearly show the illustration components and layout. 
  5. Sketch Revisions – After feedback from the client, revisions to the sketches are made for approval.
  6. First draft – A polished first draft to share with the client – this might be the final draft, but be prepared for minor updates or changes at this point.
  7. Final illustration and delivery to the client – output the finished product to client specifications for they’re needs.

What Kind of Education is Needed to Become a Medical Illustrator?

Medical and Scientific Education

One of the most direct ways to get all of the education you need to become a medical illustrator or animator is to go to a graduate program in medical illustration. These accredited graduate programs cover everything from human gross anatomy at medical schools to surgical observation and anatomical drawing – and most cover the basics of medical animation as well. The Association of Medical Illustrators has a great section about this on their website. There are a few different schools to choose from in North America. I you’re in Europe, the Institute of Medical Illustrators also has a great collection of information. The requirements for admission are pretty heavy, but they are clearly listed on all of the Universities’ websites, so check them out. If you want to go this route, there are a few ways you can prepare. You could go to one of the undergraduate programs in pre-medical illustration such as the one offered by Iowa State University.  There is a more complete list along with some information about other options on the Association of Medical Illustration’s website too. Or you could get a minor in art with a focus on drawing the human figure and then a biology or pre-med degree. You can also go the other way around and get an art degree with a minor in biology. Either way, you’ll probably need to add a few extra classes to get all the requirements completed. 

If these options aren’t available to you, there are other pathways as well. There is no law stating that you have to have a degree to practice medical illustration or animation. You do need the knowledge to be effective in the field, and it is easier to gain support from the professional community with a degree, but you could potentially put this together on your own if you are motivated and do well studying and learning without a classroom and instructor to guide you. This path is harder, but it is absolutely possible. 

Drawing and Art Skills

Observational Drawing – One of the key skills of a medical illustrator is accurate drawing ability. Regardless of the type of illustration you want to do, the ability to draw accurately from observation is critical to success in medical illustration. If you are just getting started, figure drawing classes are the best way to hone your skills. Almost every college out there has a drawing program. Seek out the best instructors in your area so you can really focus on becoming excellent at drawing. A solid understanding of color and color theory is also very useful – so drawing with color media is a good practice

Digital Art Technology and Tools – You don’t need me to tell you this, but we are in a digital age. No matter what area you go into, the final product will likely be digital. Becoming familiar with industry-standard creative tools like Photoshop and Illustrator will be absolutely necessary. Most colleges offer courses in the use of digital tools for art, illustration, and/or graphic design. On top of this, you may want to learn more about contemporary drawing and painting apps like Procreate. Procreate is quickly becoming the standard tool in the field of illustration. 

Business Education – not required but very useful

A minor in business would be helpful, but outside of that, just learning from your local business organization, or taking an online class in business for artists would be a big help. The AMI also offers some great resources for business practices that you can take advantage of. 

How Much Money do Medical Illustrators Make?

The short answer is that it varies, but most do pretty well. Like any business, you need to be good at marketing yourself whether that means marketing yourself to get hired by a company or marketing your services to get clients. Quoting from the Association of Medical Illustrator’s Compensation Survey in 2022: 

“The median salary for a medical illustrator / animator in the U.S. is $83,500 and can range up to $170,000. Those with interdisciplinary skills in UX design who create apps and AR / VR experiences are in demand. Adept professionals who advance their role to art director or creative director earn between $104,000 – $126,000 and up to $300,000 (2022 AMI survey data). About 32% of salaried illustrators supplement their income with freelance work.”

How Do I Connect With Medical Illustrators to Get More Info?

Great question! Luckily, The Association of Medical Illustrators has a great tool to help you find medical illustrators near you. If you want to learn more about the profession, a great way to do that is to reach out to a medical illustrator who lives in your area and ask them for a brief interview to answer your questions. You can go to https://findamedicalillustrator.com/ and find someone to reach out to. 

Are There Any Websites with Examples Of Medical Illustration?

Yes! The AMI has examples on its website, but one of the best ways to see examples is the Medical Illustration Sourcebook. This is an art buyer’s book and medical illustrators take out ads to market their offerings. You can flip through the digital version of the book on their website and get a good feeling for the type of work being done today. 

Wrapping Up

Medical Illustration can be an incredibly rewarding field to work in. I’ve had a 20-year career and it has gotten me where I am today. If you have a love for science and medicine and you like considering how things work and move in the world, I think you’ll love medical illustration. It takes a lot of planning and practice to get into it, but once you’re there you’ll easily be able to create a rewarding and lucrative career for yourself. 

To end, I want to reiterate my #1 piece of advice if you want to become a medical illustrator. Draw, Draw, Draw! I can’t stress enough how important being able to draw well is to this field and spending your time learning to draw accurately from observation is the first step in the journey. 

If you have questions about the field, feel free to get in touch via my contact form. I’d love to hear from you!

Travis V.


Disclaimer: Some links that appear in this article allow me to earn money using affiliate advertising programs. I only recommend products I truly believe in. Any advice or instructions given in this article are purely my own and supplied with the very best intentions.

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