What is Medical Illustration?



During the Renaissance it was ordinary to be interested in both sciences and the arts. It was thought that one could not be proficient in one without the other. Medical artist wasn’t a separate profession, and artists could often be found in the dissecting room learning about how facial muscles or other anatomical structures worked (Hansen 1999). This unity of the sciences and art has been lost today, particularly with the contemporary drive towards specialization. As we aim to further immerse ourselves in our given fields, the lines that are drawn between concentrations become increasingly concrete. We can see these separations manifest themselves in various ways in a university setting, from the administration of programs to the geographical layout of campuses. This separation limits each discourses and is damaging to societal progression. There is a difference in attitudes of authority between the sciences and arts that needs to be reevaluated. As medical artists, we are in the privileged position of drawing together multiple discourses. We are tasked with communicating ideas and teaching through visual representations—through the creation of pictures, infographics, or animations. Taking scientific concepts and producing a piece of art that is both informative and visually interesting. But we are also in a primary position unite the different values and ideologies of the sciences and arts.

When one thinks about the scientific method there is a certain set of jargon that comes along with it. Objectivity, research, impartiality, and rationality. These words seem to have no place in the world of contemporary art, which values instead multiplicity, plurality, and a destabilization of dominant conceptual frameworks such as gender. C.P. Snow argued in his famous “Two Cultures” essay that it is the separation of these cultures that is the major obstacle to solving the world’s problems. Snow thought this gap would be bridged by a “Third Culture” of scientists and literary intellectuals communicating and working together. We, by a large margin, have failed to accomplish this. Medical Artists can help to act as this bridge.

Art has always been about teaching and learning. Scientific visualizations shouldn’t be thought of as mere add-ons to research, or only a way to communicate to untrained people. Visual representations are essential to the field (Pauwels, L. 2006). As De Vinci said: “How in words can you describe this heart without filling a whole book? Yet the more detail you write concerning it the more you will confuse the mind of the hearer.” The unseen world is what draws people to science. Science offers a rulebook for finding answers and laying down the framework for our understanding of the universe. The profession of Medical Art is an extension of this desire for discovery. By collaborating with scientists and physicians we give conceptual ideas a more grounded visual context and hopefully make that concept more accessible to a wider audience. In this way, medical artists can both focus on patient education and contribute to academic research.

The field of medical illustration has used primary traditional techniques. With any piece of art, it is usually fairly easy to locate a piece of art temporally based off of aesthetics. We are all influenced by technology and as a result the images medical illustrators produce will reflect those advancements. The invention of the printing press allowed for a surplus in the amount of textbooks we were able to produce. As well, in the early 17th century, advanced engraving techniques allowed for greater detail in printed images. In the late 17th century, the dramatic advancement in embalming practices allowed artists to spend more time with bodies, resulting in the production of images with far greater detail and accuracy still (Hansen 1999). Currently, visual representation has evolved drastically from the hand drawn watercolours and engravings of the past, to the incorporation of Photoshop and 3D modeling software in addition to traditional media.

The best art is art that seeks to be inclusive. Science should be the same. As medical artists, we are not only artists or scientists, but we are also always teachers. As a medical artist it is important to look to the arts as well as the sciences to inform us in our work. For example when looking at sex and anatomy, ensuring we take into consideration gender politics and the implications our pieces could have is important. Medicine is laden with a history of the objectification and dehumanization of its patients, who were often treated as test subjects rather than individuals. In our current moment, biases continue to manifest themselves in medical illustration. For example, in basic anatomical texts, the number of images depicting male subjects far outweighs that of female or gender neutral subjects (Giacommini, 1986) It is important that we recognize that Medical Art is not immune to influence by contemporary circumstances, whether that is social, economic, technical, or other aspects of cultural conventions. (Roberts, 1992)

Medical Art should aspire humanize its content. There are traditional aspects of “The Arts” that are invaluable to research. Valuing social commentary means that artists are more likely to integrate widely ranging cultural issues, take up lines of inquiry devalued by others. (Pauwels, L. 2006) The development of new and increasingly prominent forms of communication and dissemination (such as the increasing prominence of telecommunications and our culture’s constant access to stores of online information) could help to bring scientific knowledge to a wider audience. Taking into account the larger social influence that medical illustrators can have, it is exciting to have the opportunity to create educational content that is both scientifically accurate and socially conscious.


Giacommini, M., Rozee-Koker, P. and Pepitone-Arreola-Rockwell, F., (1986) Gender Bias in Human Anatomy Textbook Illustrations. University of California at Davis, Psychology of Women Quarterly. vol. 10 no. 4 413-420

Hansen J. and Porter S., (1999) The Physician’s Art Representations of Art and Medicine . Duke

University Medical Center Library, Durham Pauwels, L. (2006) Visual Cultures of Science: Rethinking representational Practices in Knowledge Building and Science Communication. University Press of New England. Lebanon

Roberts, K. (1992) The Fabric of the Body: European Traditions of Anatomical Illustration.  Oxford: Clarendon Press

Snow, C. (1959) The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge Univ. Press, New York

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