How do you become a medical illustrator?

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I wanted to start off this blog by covering some topics that are important not just to illustration but also science and medicine. In the future you will see posts covering scientific research/education as well as art and technique tidbits for the illustrator and fine artist. Since my passion falls equally between these two fields, I want to cover each equally.

I often get asked the question “how do I become a medical illustrator?” from people of all ages and background. So this post aims to address that question by explaining my journey towards this unique yet extremely rewarding career.


I originally was an exercise science major at Salisbury University, although I had a love for art since childhood. During my junior year I stumbled across the webpage for the Department of Art as Applied to Medicine at Johns Hopkins. All it took was one look at the home page to hook me on this surprising career melding both art and science. Like me, most of my colleagues will tell you they started much the same. Most have a passion for both art and science but don’t realize the potential of making it a career until they stumble across something that opens their eyes to medical illustration. After I took the required prerequisites I humbly submitted my application to the Hopkins program, yet I was denied for lack of artistic training. However, this was the best thing that happened to me regarding my illustration career.

The summer after I graduated college I began study at the Schuler School of Fine Art in Baltimore MD. This is not a public university art school, but rather an Atelier (french for “workshop” or “studio”). Ateliers are traditional art schools focused on giving students classical training in the fine arts through rigorous study of old master techniques. While my drawings weren’t necessarily crude or novice, I realized the true levels of draftsmanship these professional fine artists were capable of and knew I had a long way to go. I hadn’t even picked up a paintbrush until that summer, but by the end of my year at Schuler not only did my art improve but my way of “seeing” drastically changed. That is what I believe to be the most important take away of an atelier; they train you to see the world differently, to see more three dimensionally, like a true artist.

With the year of fine art training under my belt I was finally accepted into Hopkins in fall 2012 and began training in digital and interactive media which fed off of my traditional art skills. To successfully make it through graduate school in medical illustration one needs not only a strong foundation of science to keep up with medical courses, but a firm understanding of light and color on form, and this is where the year of atelier training became vital. Even when knee deep in an animation project, I still call upon my fine art training to recreate believable lighting and surface textures. One of the most difficult yet satisfying parts of grad school was taking the anatomy course with medical students. We were expected to get the highest grades in the class, but with that pressure came the realization that we, medical illustrators, are the ones who will teach future generations of doctors, nurses, scientists and other healthcare professionals. If we do not understand anatomy or physiology to the highest degree, we cannot adequately or responsibly teach our subject matter effectively. I have learned a great deal on my path through undergraduate and graduate school, but there are certain key points that got me where I am today. Someone wishing to pursue a career in medical illustration should remember the following:

  • Take rigorous science courses throughout high school and college. Focusing on human and comparative anatomy, embryology, physiology, pathology, cell biology, and immunology. The earlier the better!
  • Draw and paint from life only. And practice, practice, practice!
  • If you can, take some courses at an atelier, there is a list of accredited ateliers HERE
  • Contact nearby medical illustrators to learn more about their work, also inquire about internships at animation studios, illustration departments and medical-legal firms.
  • Finally, try to attend the annual Association of Medical Illustrators meeting. Students and the general public are always welcome. More information about the association and their meetings can be found HERE.
csmithstudiosHow do you become a medical illustrator?

1 Comment

  1. Jenna   Reply

    Thank you for writing this article, it was very illuminating. I find myself in a similar position to yours. I’m 25 and recently graduated with a bachelors of science. I focused on organismal biology as I have always had a fascination with science. But I am also an artist, always have been and always will be! For some reason I only recently realized that I could be one of those people that creates the figures and images for textbooks and other educational media. But as I’ve been thinking about my options, I’ve run into a problem: there don’t seem to be many schools that offer medical illustration as a program, let one that’s accredited. I’m living on the west coast and I’m reluctant to move too far away. So I was wondering if you had any advice for me on which schools I should apply to? and also, whether you think my artistic ability needs more fine tuning before jumping into a graduate program. I have an online portfolio here:
    I primarily work with digitally, and I have a preference for linework, although I am also comfortable with painting. I have a moderate amount of experience with 2D animation, but next to none with 3D. I do however have plenty of sculpting experience ( do not have any photos of any recent work in my portfolio, unfortunately)

    Thank you for your time and consideration, I hope to hear back from you soon!