My Career in Medical Illustration

Written by on May 1, 2014 in Art - No comments

FlewellWEBGrowing up with a Navy Corpsman father, I was exposed to an assortment of medical information, which would probably be deemed somewhat inappropriate reading material for a kid of that age. However, reading my father’s anatomy, battle emergency procedures and physical diagnosis books left quite a mark on the person I was to become and my future profession. Also, having a somewhat precocious drawing ability didn’t hurt either.

I eventually received my Medical Illustration degree at The Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). The RIT program was originally at the University of Rochester Medical School until it was moved in the early 1980’s. A small number other schools also offer the degree program (e.g. Johns Hopkins University, Medical College of Georgia, University of Toronto…etc). It is a rare degree to get, but I feel it was perfectly suited to my abilities.

After obtaining my degree I worked fulltime in various positions including pharmaceutical training, patient education, academics, and research at Duke Medical Center. But, for the past 12 years I have been a fulltime freelance Medical Illustrator with a great variety of work coupled with the challenges of maintaining my own business.

Even though the professional arena of being a Certified Medical illustrator (CMIs) is small, our organization, The Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI), counts approximately 2,000 medical illustrators internationally (although not all are board certified).  The AMI also lists the various avenues one can take after graduating from initial training. For example, a fellow CMI and I were included in a post-production team for an IMAX film (“Wired to Win”), where we were tasked with developing the film’s medical animations including storyboarding, anatomy consultation, and concept development. Other Certified Medical Illustrators delve into specialized fields such as Med-legal and forensics. There are also CMIs that specialize in a particular field of medical study such as Neuro-ophthalmology, biotechnology, Dentistry, and Veterinary medicine. Some of my colleagues even return to school for advanced PhD degrees in major scientific research fields.

flewellART1WEBWhat was once strictly traditional art created by hand has rapidly evolved as we constantly adapt to new technology.  Many Medical Illustrators, including myself, exclusively work in the digital and the 3D realm. I still personally like to incorporate some of the traditional techniques in which I was originally trained but with the seamless work environment of digital media. I have found each CMI I know has developed a unique personal style, thus, adding new life to the profession. One artist’s interpretation of a basic heart illustration may be completely different than another’s. My colleagues and I take pride in not just reproducing the same anatomy over and over again. We always find there is something new to show, especially as new science and procedures evolve. I held the honor of being one of the first artists to illustrate placental cord blood extraction, and brachytherapy seeding for prostate cancer.  It is constantly changing and challenging—and for me, that’s what makes my profession so satisfying. There’s always something new and fascinating to show.

With that said, unfortunately, I have come across many artists that go by the title of Medical Illustrator but with little or no formal training. There is much more to medical illustration than just redrawing the anatomy out of textbooks, copying images from the web or reusing tired stock art. Being a Medical Illustrator means understanding what you are illustrating, being able to create new and unique views and knowing what not to show while still getting the essential information represented.  I am of the professional opinion that training and even certification is essential for a Medical Illustrator on many levels. There is an inherent responsibility to the content being represented and to the education of those relying on your material. My certification, continued professional training with the AMI, and experience solidifies that resolve to my clients.

I feel that education, and specific training should be a minimum requirement when considering hiring a Medical Illustrator, I have found that I have to wear many content hats when I am approached by different medical/scientific disciplines. Clients expect me to know and understand what they are trying to portray in their commission. My in depth studies of anatomy, physiology, and medical technology is an on-going discipline also required of my respected peers. An easy way to identify artists that have met these professional standards is through certification by the AMI.

Being a board-certified Medical Illustrator (CMI) through the Association of Medical Illustrators has had some distinct advantages. Our certification process is based on standards set by the NCCA (National Commission of Certifying Agencies). When a client sees a certification like mine, they know I was vetted among my peers as being highly proficient in many areas. Becoming board-certified requires an extensive exam as well as proof of advanced education (a full gross anatomy course is a absolute necessity), medical/scientific knowledge, craft, visual logic, copyright law and professional ethics. Continuing medical education requirements, called CME’s, keep us fresh and up to speed with new knowledge, procedures and technology. It was not an easy process, and keeping up with my CME’s can be a challenge, but I believe a necessary one.

flewellART2WEBI see myself not only as a professional educator but also a technical craftsman and an artist that interprets difficult visual concepts. I ask myself with every job: What is my client trying to convey? Who is their audience? How can I make this subject original and show it in a compelling and dynamic way? What is the most important aspect to center on? What details do I need to show or leave out? And, most importantly, how can I do all of that and make the client happy and come back again. Keep in mind that many clients I work with are all over the globe working remotely. These are just some of things I consider with every project.

There have been countless occasions where a client has expressed appreciation after working with me because of previous frustration from working with artists who were not properly trained. Some clients were under the belief that my services would be prohibitively expensive, so they try what they presume to be a cheaper route first. Unfortunately, they often find that “cheaper” costs precious time and wasted efforts on endless explanations and edits, that in the end, made the project far more costly and time consuming than necessary. As a professional, I work at making the project go as smoothly, quickly and as cost-efficient as possible. With budgets, grants and funding continually being slashed these days, I take affordability very seriously out of respect for my clients.

I still have some of my father’s old medical books, others I have obtained, and even some that I have illustrated myself. I find that it’s a privilege to be among those that have illustrated those books. And I love the idea that someone, many years down the line, will understand completely the concepts that I have illustrated and build upon them.

By Rob Flewell, CMI
Medical Illustrator
Madison Creative

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