A Q&A with Medical Illustrator and Tutor Merlin Strangeway

An X-ray gaze on the work of a medical illustrator.

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  • Education, Q&A

What exactly is medical illustration and why do we still need it today? 

In this age of precision photography, keyhole surgery and MRI scans, we still need medical illustration – if anything we need it now more than ever.

Cut open a body and photograph it and it is going to look pretty disgusting. Red. Bits of yellowy-white fat. For most people, it could best be summarised as ‘distinctly unpleasant’.

The medical illustrator’s job is to take that mess and turn it into something clear, communicative and aesthetically appealing.

Scientific advances mean that our understanding of the body is expanding exponentially. Illustration can serve as a fantastic tool to support this understanding, communicate new concepts, and engage a wide range of audiences including healthcare professionals, medical students, scientists, researchers – and not forgetting patients.

What does the job of a medical illustrator involve?

They may be hired to create surgical sequencing images for doctors performing an operation; to illustrate patient information leaflets supporting the management of Type 2 Diabetes; to craft limb replacements, or help medical students visualise complex systems that would be tedious to learn solely through words.

Whichever path medicine explores; the medical illustrator treads alongside.

What attracted you to becoming a medical illustrator?

After working as an illustrator for many years in retail, education and publishing, I felt the desire to hone my focus. I have always loved science (my father is an engineer/academic and regularly got me to sketch concepts in 3D as a child). Medical illustration’s fusion of science and art, discovery and explanation, really appealed to me.

What was your training like?

I trained with the Medical Art Education Trust on their Postgraduate in Medical Art, run in conjunction with the Royal College of Surgeons, having spent a good year prior working on my portfolio and Anatomy Diploma.

Students at the MAET attend dissections, as well as receiving seminars on the fundamentals of drawing. Whilst a large body of medical illustration is created digitally, the course requires all students to demonstrate high levels of skill in traditional mediums such as graphite, watercolour, conte crayon and ink. (I drew a scapula six times in pencil, each time took about four hours, before I got the translucency of the bone just right). Medical illustration is not a job for the squeamish or the impatient.

Successful graduation from the postgraduate led to coveted membership of the MAA (Medical Artist Association) and a land of blood, guts and doodled glory.

What do you do when you’re not teaching at House of Illustration?

I’ve been a Medical Artist in Residence at Harley Street Hospital, and have been lucky enough to work with clients ranging from British Institute of Radiology, Great Ormond Street Hospital, The Royal Free Hospital, Wellcome Trust and Stafford County Hospital.

The latter was an incredible project that involved illustrating an entire 28 bed Elderly Care Ward from scratch; a pioneering attempt to fuse illustration with patient care and well-being.

Read more Q&As with our terrific tutors Claire Alexander and Sion Ap Tomos.

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