What is medical illustration?
Medical illustration is a specialised field concentrating specifically on scientific and medical themes. Visual representations in the form of still images and 3D animations are used to help explain often complex information such as biological processes, anatomical structures and medical devices. Medical illustrations have been used for centuries and there are fascinating examples of these dating back to ancient Egypt and the medieval period. There have been numerous revolutions through the history of medical illustration including the invention of the printing press allowing illustrations to be widely distributed or the anatomy act allowing illustrators to draw anatomy from life with infinitely more accuracy. More recently there has been a revolution in using digital techniques to produce medical illustrations and animations.
How are medical illustrations used?
Medical illustrations are used in many different ways, disseminated using a variety of platforms. Still illustrations can be used in publications both in print and online to illustrate subjects such as surgical sequences, pathologies and healthcare procedures. Most commonly 3D animation is used to communicate how a drug works at the cellular level, how a new medical device is operated or where movement can be used to enhance the illustrative properties of the artwork. More recently numerous technological advances in computing and handheld devices such as mobile phones and tablets have offered a wealth of new possibilities for visual communication in medicine. Virtual reality and augmented reality allow users to be fully immersed in a simulated environment created by the illustrator. Physical interactions with digital 3D models are now possible with the emergence of haptic feedback, allowing the user to touch and hold virtual anatomical models. Another avenue that some medical artists choose is academia. Their illustrations are used to provide support for academic publications, helping to explain research results, methods and other project content.
Why use a medical illustrator?
The demand for medical illustrations has grown significantly over the last several years. The ability to reach clients through the use of online and digital platforms has provided an unprecedented way of providing high quality medical communication to millions of people. Medical and scientific information is often complex and the best way to support written and spoken content is with visual aids such as illustrations and animations. Using visual explanations eliminates language barriers and allows the viewer to absorb the information in an entertaining and engaging way. Medical illustrators are skilled in developing the best way to visually explain and present the information, often in ways that the client may not have considered. Medical illustrators are generally trained to a Postgraduate or MSc level in a medical, scientific or medical art subject.
How are medical illustrations produced?
Traditional methods such s watercolour painting and pencil drawing are still used by some medical illustrators however illustrations are predominantly produced using digital methods, most commonly Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop. Illustrator is used to produce more diagrammatic illustrations whereas Photoshop is used to essentially digitally paint the illustration in a more freehand way. Some illustrators choose to use 3D Applications such as Maya, Blender or ZBrush to produce particularly complex illustrations. A variety of styles can be achieved using 3D techniques and offers the user the ability to experiment with perspective and unusual viewpoints difficult to produce using traditional methods.
3D is often used as the basis for a 2D still illustration. Once the model has been digitally modelled and sculpted it can be rotated and lit from different angles with infinite ways of rendering an illustration. This can then be imported to Photoshop and enhanced using digital painting techniques.
Another advantage that 3D offers is the ability to use CT and MRI scans as reference when producing anatomical models. Accuracy is incredibly important in medical illustration and the key to this is good reference material. 3D now offers the user the advantage of using CT and MRI scans. The scan can be used to produce a 3D reconstruction of various anatomical structures and used as a ghost to model a highly accurate digital model.
3D medical illustrators are also able to take advantage of the wealth of digital 3D data available online. For example, the protein databank is a free and opensource collection of cellular parts and mechanisms that can be used to reconstruct entire viruses in 3D using accurate atomic models. These can then be used to create illustrations and animations with a high degree of accuracy and realism.