Greg Alexander

Illustrating the beauty of the human body

Baltimore Sun, April 2004

In order to become physicians and surgeons, medical school students endure stringent exams, hands-on learning and endless hours of reading and studying volumes upon volumes of thick textbooks. These enormous books are filled with foreign terminology and detailed illustrations and figures detailing the human anatomy and complex surgical procedures that can mean the difference between life and death in the operating room.

In order to learn these procedures and better understand the human body, students study colorful illustrations, which are drawn by a select group of individuals who possess the unusual blend of artistic talent and a deep knowledge of science — medical illustrators, whose educational experience rivals that of medical students.

“The educational experience for a medical illustrator is very similar to that of a first-year medical student,” says Tim Phelps, associate professor in the department of art as applied to medicine at Johns Hopkins University. The two-year graduate program for medical and biological illustration is part of the East Baltimore campus of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, and the program’s calendar, faculty and student affairs are administered by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“Visuals in the science world are always encouraged, so art is a natural partner in the quest for medical knowledge,” says Phelps. “In medical illustration, you must be artistic and have a knowledge of science.” Phelps says an example of the blending of art and science can be found in a human anatomy course. “Medical illustration students are learning human anatomy, and they are also drawing from the cadaver to utilize their artistic skills.”

Phelps says that the program’s inclusion in the School of Medicine allows for medical illustration students to work side by side with medical students. “This is important because many graduates will be drawing medical textbooks, and this first-hand knowledge of what medical school is all about helps. Drawing for textbooks is a big responsibility because you are drawing figures that will be used to teach surgeons.” In the second year of the program, Phelps says, a surgical illustration course teaches students how to draw important surgical techniques. “It focuses on the teacher and storyteller role of a medical illustrator in helping a medical student understand the body better.”

Phelps says that most of the students in the program are either pre-med students with an art minor or an art major with a science minor. He adds that admission into the program is extremely competitive. “We receive about 250 inquiries a year and review about 50 portfolios. After interviews, we accept about four to six students a year.”

Students in Johns Hopkins’ program take an array of both science and art classes in accordance with the program’s goal to “integrate the art and science world,” according to Phelps. First-year students tackle courses such as “cells and tissues” and “principles of pathology,” while also focusing on “airbrush illustration,” “digital imaging” and “graphics for video.” Second-year students continue with such courses as “operating room sketching” and “scientific communication.” Students also learn important concepts like operating room protocol and perform cadaveric dissections.

“The small number of students also allows for a lot of one-on-one attention, as well as use of two digital labs and a large studio with ample natural light for drawing and painting,” Phelps says. He adds that graduates land jobs for several different companies, including book publishers, medical institutions, hospitals and small entrepreneurial firms.

Due to computer and digital art advances, the profession also allows for medical illustrators to start their own businesses. “This career is great because it allows you to work from home and enjoy other things in life like raising children,” says Kellie Holoski, a successful medical illustrator who now freelances full time and can work “anywhere in my house on the laptop.” A 1992 graduate of McDaniel College’s art department, Holoski obtained her master’s degree from the University of Michigan.

“At McDaniel, I was able to customize my own bachelor’s degree program to combine art and biology. Since McDaniel is a small school, I received a lot of personal attention and even had two advisors — one for biology and one for art. I loved the science courses, especially cell biology, and I’ve been drawing since I could pick up a pencil,” she says. Holoski says that her father’s employment as an entomologist at the Museum of Natural History peaked her interest in science. “I would visit his work, and he had a colleague who drew insect parts. I thought it was fascinating. I later decided that I wanted to switch gears and focus on the human anatomy.” She says that her experience at McDaniel expanded her interest in the field of medical illustration.

“Medical illustration is a very specialized field. You must be able to draw like an angel and have a grasp of the medical field, which is unusual for many artists,” says Susan Bloom, chair of the art and art history department at McDaniel College. “The medical illustration track here is very small since it requires that artists be able to complete an intense science track.” The art portion of the track at McDaniel includes such courses as “Watercolor,” “Life Drawing” and “Sculpture,” while science courses include “Human Physiology,” “Vertebrate Embryology” and “Comparative Anatomy of Vertebrates.”

Bloom says that the school has always had students go on to medical school, but occasionally a student with art skills and medical knowledge would come along. “We looked for a way to utilize both of those skill sets and designed a program with these types of students in mind.” Bloom adds that due to McDaniel’s small size, it’s easy for different departments to work together, and of the school’s 1,600 undergraduates, about 100 are art students.

Holoski says that since there are a small number of individuals in medical illustration, there’s plenty of work to go around. “It’s important to market yourself and inform the business community of your skills,” she says. “There are so many different industries that can use medical illustrations.”

One such industry, says Holoski, is the legal profession. “I get work from doctors being sued for medical malpractice. The lawyers will hire me to make illustrations to explain general anatomy to a jury and show what happened in the particular case. With an illustration, you can show more detail than a photograph and can tailor it to a specific audience to make it easier for them to understand.

“I loved the field because it’s an opportunity to express yourself artistically while also making some money,” she laughs.

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