What is a medical illustrator?

A medical illustrator is a professional artist with advanced education in both the life sciences and visual communication. Collaborating with scientists, physicians, and other specialists, medical illustrators transform complex information into visual images that have the potential to communicate to broad audiences.

A medical illustrator is a visual problem solver. Background research, including reading scientific papers, meeting with scientific experts, perhaps observing surgery or a laboratory procedure, is often an integral part of the creative process.

The work of medical illustrators promotes education, research, patient care, public relations, and marketing efforts.
What do medical illustrators do?

The field is changing rapidly due to discoveries in both science and technology. From the human genome to the latest robotic surgical technique, the need for accurate effective communication continues to expand.

In the past, the majority of medical illustrators were employed at large medical centers where they worked closely with physicians to produce illustrations for publications such as medical textbooks and scientific journals, as well as instructional videos, films, presentations, and exhibits.

Now, advances in computer graphics and imaging are generating vast new opportunities in which visualization is the key to understanding. Sub-cellular processes too small to be seen even by the most advanced microscopes can come alive through computer animations. A growing need for patients to better understand their state of health and their medical options is expanding the production of medical information aimed at the lay public. The Internet and wireless technology enables information to be widely and readily available on displays that rely on simplified but sophisticated graphics. Attorneys use medical illustration to clarify complex medical information for judges and juries in personal injury and medical malpractice cases.

So, while many medical illustrators still produce illustrations for books and journals, others now act as art directors and producers of a broad range of work from animations and patient education programs to advanced computerized training simulations.

Do medical illustrators specialize?

Medical illustration is a small field with fewer than an estimated 2,000 trained practitioners in the world. Yet, medical illustration is also a diverse field with most professionals developing specialties. Some specialize by subject matter, such as surgery, veterinary medicine, or ophthalmology. Others specialize by media, such as computer animation or the making of three-dimensional models. Others specialize by targeting specific markets such as medical publishing, pharmaceutical advertising, or medical-legal work. Medical illustrators develop considerable knowledge and expertise within their specialty and become an integral part of the production team. Some medical illustrators are authors and co-authors of textbooks or articles in which they've made major contributions to the content.

Where do medical illustrators work?

Approximately half of medical illustrators are self-employed. They may work primarily alone or they may form creative teams, perhaps with allied professionals such as writers, graphic designers, photographers, or filmmakers. Other medical illustrators work at medical schools, hospitals and clinics, research institutions, medical publishers, law firms, advertising agencies, web/animation firms, and other creative services businesses.

Some medical illustrators evolve throughout their careers into leadership positions as art directors, managers, administrators, faculty members, and business owners.

How are medical illustrators trained?

The majority of medical illustrators in the profession have a master's degree from an accredited two-year graduate program in medical illustration. There are currently four programs in the United States and one in Canada that are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). Each program accepts 16 or fewer students each year, so entrance into the schools is very competitive.

Course work varies somewhat from program to program, but all include a combination of basic science courses in anatomy, pathology, microanatomy, physiology, embryology, and neuroanatomy, along with specialized applied art courses such as surgical illustration. Other classes include color theory, instructional design, photography, interactive media development, 3-D modeling and web design, along with traditional drawing and computer applications.

Most programs require master's thesis projects and may have optional courses available in specialty fields such as advanced computer and video graphics, endoscopic illustration, or patient prosthetics.

An increasing number of medical illustrators are choosing to obtain PhD degrees in related fields of science or education, particularly those working in academic settings.

Are there continuing education opportunities for medical illustrators?

The nature of medical illustration demands that practitioners continue to keep up with new developments in both science and communications media. Formal continuing education is available through the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI). Continuing education credits are offered for workshops presented at the AMI's annual meeting, for AMI-sponsored regional meetings throughout the United States, and for pre-approved courses offered through other educational organizations.

Is there a certification program for medical illustrators?

Yes, the Board of Certification of Medical Illustrators administers a certification program as a recognizable means to signify a practitioner's current competency in the profession. A Certified Medical Illustrator (CMI) has passed examinations dealing with business practices, ethics, biomedical science, and drawing skills, and has undergone a rigorous portfolio review. Competencies are maintained by meeting continuing education requirements and must be renewed every five years. The certification program is based on standards established by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA).

What is the earning potential of a medical illustrator?

Earnings vary according to the experience and ability of the artist, the type of work, and the area of the country where one works. The title "Medical Illustrator" is a broad term. Depending on the type of employer and services provided, job skills may include animation, multimedia, interactive development, illustration, web and graphic design. In general, medical illustrators with diverse skills and more responsibility for concept development command higher salaries. The median salary for a medical illustrator is $61,000 and can range up to $150,000. Those in supervisory and director positions earn a median of $75,000 and $93,000 per year respectively (2009 AMI survey data). About 46% of salaried illustrators supplement their income with freelance work.

Earning potential for self-employed medical illustrators varies widely depending on the type of work (e.g., pharmaceutical, medical-legal, advertising) and an individual’s skill. Success as a self-employed medical illustrator does not result solely from the ability to create beautiful art. Business savvy and ability in marketing and self-promotion, pricing and negotiation, and business management are fundamental. The median income for a self-employed medical illustrator is $79,000 and can range up to $250,000 per year (2009 AMI survey data). Earnings for business owners who employ other creative staff are even greater with a median of $83,000 and up to $420,000 per year. Due to the vagaries of the marketplace and competitive forces, the earnings of self-employed illustrators may be less predictable than those who are salaried, but the highest earnings are generally made by those artists whose entrepreneurial expertise, art, and professionalism keep them in constant demand.

In addition to earnings from a salary or freelance projects, some medical illustrators receive royalties from secondary licensing of existing artwork. These reuse arrangements with stock art agencies, publishers, and clients can provide a supplemental, and sometimes significant, source of income.

How can I find a qualified medical illustrator?

To find a qualified medical illustrator, you can access the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI).

The Medical Illustration Source Book can be viewed at www.medillsb.com. Many self-employed medical illustrators have their own websites where examples of their work can be seen.

Potential employers and clients can post job announcements by contacting our headquarters This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 1-866-393-4AMI. The job descriptions are emailed to our membership and posted in our member community.

Members can post and find job listings by logging into the Member Community.

How can I become a medical illustrator?

High school students contemplating medical illustration as a career should take a college preparatory program with as much emphasis on art and science as possible.

In college, students should concentrate on art and biology. Art courses should include drawing, life drawing, painting, color theory, graphic design, illustration, and computer graphics. In the sciences, students should include general biology or zoology, vertebrate anatomy, developmental biology, physiology, chemistry, and cell biology. The science courses must be of the caliber required for science majors.

Admission requirements for the accredited graduate programs in medical illustration vary from program to program. In general, a bachelor's degree with a major in art and a minor in the biological sciences, or a major in science with a minor in art, is preferred. In addition, a portfolio of artwork and a personal interview are generally required. A list of the currently accredited graduate programs can be viewed here.

A brief history of medical illustration

For over 2000 years artists have illustrated the intricate structure of the body, creating images to elucidate medical procedures and record the pathologies of the body. These illustrations have often endured long after the text of a tome.

Medical illustration created for instruction first appeared in Hellenic Alexandria during the 4th century BC or early 3rd century BC. Created on individual sheets of papyrus, Hellenic illustration covered anatomy, surgery, obstetrics and plants of medical value.

Early anatomic illustration centered on the five-figure series, with each figure representing an organ system diagrammed within a body in a squatting pose, limbs splayed. In contrast, surgical illustrations were more naturalistic covering a wide range of medical procedures.

The Renaissance

Progress accelerated during the Renaissance with many innovations. Artists inspired by Greek and Roman statues created naturalistic representations of the human figure aided by the discovery of the laws of perspective and their own dissections of cadavers. The five-figure series gave way to more accurate representations of anatomy. Graceful anatomical figures were often posed dramatically in landscapes amid bits of classical architecture in startling contrast to the bare backgrounds of earlier and later illustrations.

The Renaissance gave us Leonardo da Vinci, the first medical illustrator in the contemporary sense. Stunningly inventive, he melded a scientific understanding of anatomy with great artistic skill. Leonardo pursued his own anatomy book, and pioneered the use of cross sections and exploded views. Lacking the temperament and resources to publish his work, Leonardo's 800 anatomical drawings remained unpublished until the 1800's.

Major Atlases of Anatomy

As Leonardo neared the end of his career, Andreas Vesalius began his medical career by authoring and publishing De Corpus Fabrica Humani, the most well known book of anatomy ever. Completed in just four years, it influenced medical illustration for centuries. While much is known about Vesalius and the printing of the Fabrica, little is known about the artists who illustrated it leading to speculation revolving around Titian's circle.

In 1725 Berhard Siegfried Albinius of Leyden in the Netherlands asked the Dutch artist and engraver Jan Wandelaar to assist him with a new painstakingly accurate anatomy text. Twenty-eight years were spent producing two books devoted to muscular and skeletal anatomy. The full length plates' graceful poses and lush backgrounds owed much to the Fabrica, but the work was original, unprecedented in accuracy and beautifully engraved.

In the 19th century new printing techniques allowed illustrators to work in a variety of media. Color printing was refined and became practical, helping usher in color atlases of pathology and colorful anatomy books for the public.

Medical Illustration in America

At the end of the 19th century a charming, dapper young artist was persuaded to leave his native Germany and pursue medical illustration at Johns Hopkins. Max Brödel would have an incomparable impact on medical illustration. Almost singlehandedly he would create and define the profession of medical illustration. While his magnificent illustration work in pen and ink, and carbon dust, a technique he devised, are an immense legacy, Brödel's most significant legacy is the first school of medical illustration. In 1911 he became the director of the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine. As the new department's sole instructor he proved himself to be an outstanding natural teacher. Other medical illustration programs sprang up across the United States and Canada. Graduates of Brödel's tutelage and the other schools would transform medical illustration into a profession, leading to the formation of the Association of Medical Illustrators in 1945.

by Alan E. Branigan
Condensed from The History of the Association of Medical Illustrators 1945-1995
edited by Robert Demarest © AMI 1995