Medical Illustrator

What Is Medical Illustration?

Before the invention of cameras and computers, every illustration in a medical journal or medical textbook was drawn by talented artists. Today, although many of the images found in these publications are photographs, there are still a handful of medical illustrations.

Basically, medical illustration is a cross between medicine and art. This type of illustration involves drawing detailed images of certain aspects of medicine or biology. The drawings produced by medical illustrators are meant to create a visual representation of certain aspects of medicine or biology, particularly hard to photograph aspects. For example, these illustrations can be used to depict individual blood cells in a vein, or they can be used to create an image that distinguished the individual muscles in a muscle group.

Medical illustrations are commonly used as teaching aids in medical textbooks, or as visual aids in medical journals. These illustrations might also accompany text in pamphlets or on posters, which can help a layperson better understand a complicated medical situation. Lawyers and forensics experts will also sometimes choose to use medical illustrations to help a judge or jury better grasp a certain situation, such as a gunshot wound.

In some cases, medical illustrations may also be used to make 3-D models of organs, body parts, or other biological objects.

Work Environment

The majority of medical illustrators work very closely with doctors, surgeons, and professionals. The types of images that a medical illustrator creates will often depend on the illustrator’s specialty, as well as his client’s needs. For example, a medical illustrator that specializes in forensics will often team up with law enforcement officials or attorneys in order to create a visual representation of wound ballistics.

A medical illustrator will usually begin drawing by hand with traditional art implements, such as pencils, pens, and markers. With the advancement of modern technology, however, using computer graphics software to create or enhance medical illustrations is more and more common. Some medical illustrators may even enhance and edit high resolution photographs as well, which can include adding text or zooming in on certain aspects of the photograph.

Besides creating 2-D – and sometimes 3-D – illustrations, some medical illustrators may also help create 3-D models and sculptures based on their images as well. These items can either be molded or sculpted from several different materials. In many cases, anatomical models are meant to be used as educational aids in schools, universities, doctor’s offices, and hospitals.

Education Requirements

Since medical illustration is a cross between medicine and art, an aspiring medical illustrator should consider studying art as well as medicine. Ideally, a medical illustration career will start with a bachelor degree in either art or pre-medicine. Aspiring medical illustrators may also need to earn a Master of Arts or Science in medical illustration. Only a handful of educational institutions in the United States offer these degree programs, however, and acceptance into these programs is very competitive.

While earning their degrees, aspiring medical illustrators will often take courses such as anatomy, biology, physiology, embryology, drawing, and graphic design.

Medical illustrators should also consider becoming certified medical illustrators. This is usually accomplished by passing rigorous tests given by the Board of Certification of Medical Illustrators.

Salary and Job Outlook


The Bureau of Labor Statistics lumps medical illustrators in with other fine artists. These professionals made an average salary of $53,080 in 2010, according to the BLS. Because they have more specialized skills, however, medical illustrators will often be able to earn much more than typical fine artists. For example, the Association of Medical illustrators states that the median salary for medical illustrators was $61,000. Depending on his skills, a medical illustrator may even be able to earn around $200,000 a year or more.

Job Outlook

In order to have a successful medical illustration career, these professionals should ensure that they have impressive portfolios. A medical illustrator’s portfolio will usually contain several examples of the artist’s work. As is the case with most other artists, the more impressive a medical illustrator’s portfolio, the more jobs he will be able to get. The majority of medical illustrators work as freelancers. They may be commissioned by medical professionals, publishing houses, or pharmaceutical companies to create illustrations for various projects. Attorneys and law enforcement officials may also work with medical illustrators from time to time.

Helpful Resources

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    Illustrator & Storyboard Specialist

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  • Interview with Steph Calvert, Illustrator

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    Get to know accomplished Graphic Designer, Steph Calvert. Learn more about how he applies his training from Savannah College of Art and Design throughout his career, how Steph has navigated the demands of the business, and ultimately became an accomplished illustrator.

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    Doing what you love and making a living from your art is a goal that is within reach. Here, we offer a few tips to help you get your dreams off the ground. Try these seven strategies to make money as an artist.

  • Five Ways to Jumpstart Your Art Career

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    An art career cannot happen overnight. Becoming an artist takes dedication, hard work, and a plan. Learning early lessons about how to develop your skills, attract clients, and market yourself can help you generate early results.

  • 10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started My Art Career

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    The life of an artist is often glamorized, while the real challenges of being an artist tend to be glossed over. Here we provide a few tips on how to deal with early challenges, like facing criticism, dealing with frustration, and meeting the right people.

Medical Illustrator Jobs