Medical illustrators specialize in the visual display and communication of scientific information. Their graduate-level training in science, art, and communications enables them to understand and visualize scientific data and concepts. They create visuals and design communication to teach medical professionals as well as the general public. Medical illustration is a descriptive term for the work of highly trained professional artists who choose medicine as their subject matter. It can be extremely realistic and anatomically precise or thematic, interpretive, or even abstract and wildly conceptual. Media used by medical illustrators can be high tech or traditional. Medical illustration is used effectively in all major markets, including but not restricted to advertising, editorial, institutional, and instructional. It is also at the forefront of newly emerging markets such as legal, home health, and patient education. Medical illustration is a technically demanding and time-honored method of visual communication.
Through the medical graphics they create, medical illustrators are communicators and teachers. Although some medical illustrators specialize in a single art medium or confine their interest to one of the medical specialties, the majority handle an ever-changing variety of assignments. They work with many different media to produce the highly accurate and authentic illustrations used in the publication of medical books, journals, films, videotapes, exhibits, posters, wall charts, and computer programs. A medical illustrator may also work as a member of a research team to provide illustrations or participate directly in the research problem. Some specialize in preparing prosthetics for patients or in preparing models for instructional purposes.
In addition to the production of graphics and three-dimensional works, medical illustrators may serve as producers/directors or designers in the development of instructional programs. They also may organize and serve as administrators of biomedical communication centers or illustration services at major teaching hospitals or health science centers.
Accredited programs prepare students for a career in academic or research health science centers, industry, or consulting. As members of the health career profession with strong communication skills, medical illustrators work closely with clients to interpret their needs and create visual solutions though effective problem solving. Medical illustrators are employed by medical schools, dental schools, and schools of veterinary medicine. Large medical centers involved in teaching and research and animation studios involved in commercial and private multimedia productions also employ medical illustrators. Many medical illustrators work independently on a freelance basis for medical publishers, pharmaceutical houses, or advertising agencies, in commercial settings, or for lawyers. Medical illustrators with appropriate background and professional experience are qualified to direct an illustration service unit or a biomedical communication center.
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.
Length. Accredited programs generally last 2 full years resulting in a master’s degree.
Prerequisites. All current medical illustrator programs are at an advanced level and are based on a master’s model. Generally, 4 years of undergraduate study are necessary to gain the required foundation. All programs culminating in a graduate degree require a baccalaureate degree and a good academic record. A preparatory program for the professional or graduate level of study should include a balance of art, premedical biology, and the humanities. Applicants for the advanced professional-level programs must submit a portfolio of artwork.
Curriculum. Although the area of major emphasis may vary from school to school, programs of study usually include most of the following courses: human gross anatomy with dissection and courses in other biomedical sciences such as embryology, histology, neuroanatomy, cell biology, molecular biology, physiology, pathology, immunology, pharmacology, and genetics. Art and theory courses include anatomical drawing, illustration techniques in line, tone, and color (hand-rendered and computer-generated), surgical illustration, graphic design, computer graphics and multimedia, instructional design, motion medical production, three-dimensional models and exhibits, management and business practices, and professional ethics.