Origin Story: Antonia Conti

Photograph of Antonia Conti

I am a medical and scientific illustrator, having graduated in 2000 from the Medical Illustration School of Rizzoli Orthopaedic Institutes, Bologna, Italy, The School is no longer active, as the two Italian national schools (Bologna and Rome) closed in 2005.

Had you taken any other paths before becoming a medical illustrator? How did you find out about medical illustration?

Medical illustration by Remo Scoto
Cisti del perone (Cyst of the fibula), acquerello su carta (watercolor on paper). Illustration by Remo Scoto at Rizzoli Orthopaedic Institutes, whose work provided early inspiration to enter the field of medical illustration.

​I had a somewhat circuitous course. After completing High School of Foreign Languages, I decided to continue my studies but I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to be. I earned a BS in Physical Education in Urbino, where I became well prepared in medical subjects. It was a really nice period, with a stage in Scotland and many other interesting tasks, but at the end I realized that my soul was asking for more. I had always been keen on drawing, and I used to copy anatomic preparations from the big atlases I studied in Urbino. I often wondered who were the professionals who did them, but there was no Internet at that time.

I incidentally discovered the Medical Illustration School in Bologna in a phone book, and I decided to try the admission exam, I will always remember that as a very important day in my life. There, I met Professor Giliola Gamberini for the first time, a great expert in china ink and watercolour drawings who became my mentor. I also met some orthopaedic surgeons who explained to us that they could not teach the attitude to draw, but how to see things to draw, in order to meet their needs.

Medical illustration of pelvic bone in graphite by antonia conti
Pelvic bone, school drawing.Graphite.
Medical illustration of maxillary bone, using china ink, by Antonia Conti
Maxillary bone, school drawing. China ink.

Why did you decide to become a medical illustrator? What did you do to pursue it?

​​I am very passionate about medical subjects and scientific matters, but I wouldn’t like to be a physician, as I haven’t the necessary personal strength and I prefer living in the ideal world of drawings.

​​The period of my course was the one in which the profession was declining in Italy, and when I reached my graduation there were no openings anymore in hospitals for medical illustrators. I started to work as a freelance illustrator here and there, but I dreamed of a position in hospital. I started working at the Institute of Pathology at Bellaria Hospital in Bologna, where I stayed for three years. Then I gained a contract at the Unit of Breast Surgery at Gemelli Hospital in Rome, where I worked five and a half years, and then another contract at the Unit of Pathology of ASMN Hospital in Reggio Emilia. Every time, my position was somehow viewed at the beginning as something unnecessary, but very much appreciated after a while, mostly by researchers and experimental surgeons. Unfortunately, my budgets were always very low and I moved several times in order to improve them.

​​I am actually collaborating with the Unit of Pathology at ASMN Hospital in Reggio Emilia, and I share some work with Gemelli Hospital in Rome.

Figure showing Epithelial-mesenchymal transition by Antonia Conti
Epithelial-mesenchymal transition. Published in Cell Death and Disease, 2016 (7). Adobe Illustrator.
Medicall illustration showing detachment of breast from fascia in mastopexy with J scar.
Detachment of breast from fascia in mastopexy with J scar. Published in Vertical Scar Mammaplasty 2nd Ed., edited by M Hamdi, Springer 2014.Adobe Illustrator.

Where has your medical illustration path taken you? Share some of the interesting parts of your career or opportunities you’ve had.

​​​I am working a lot on molecular biology in 2D representation, which is the main request I have in this period from clinicians and pathologists. Several scientific journals consider graphical abstracts mandatory, and I help researchers in transforming concepts into graphic form. This requires a certain knowledge of some complex subjects, but I am enthusiastically ready to learn what I need to draw.

​​​I have some work from experimental surgeons, mostly on rats; I sometimes have to describe new techniques in plastic surgery, micro- and supramicrosurgery, lymphovenular anastomosis and lymph node transplants in particular.

Another interesting topic I am working on is the illustration of concepts expressed in the guidelines, that means, documents that state rules of behavior in medical subjects and that can not be ambiguous or confusing. In Italy, physicians are working a lot to reach agreements in various medical procedures and I am collaborating with some in illustrating them step by step.

Medical illustration showing muscles of the neck in Wistar rat.
Muscles of the neck in Wistar rat. Watercolour and Photoshop (A), Adobe Illustrator (B,C).

​​​For techniques, I often use Adobe Illustrator because many of the drawings I have to do are schematic and semi-schematic, and the software is really versatile. I still use watercolour, graphite, and china ink, depending on the type of work and due date. I have not proceeded to animations yet. I have just done a couple of them in Flash CS6 and Cinema 4D, just to show myself that I can.

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