Drawn to Medicine: The Art and Practice of Being a Medical Illustrator

An insight to what it's like to be a medical illustrator


  • Merlin Evans
  • Education

So what exactly is a medical illustrator, and why do we even need one in this age of precision photography, keyhole surgery and MRI scans? How much has the body really changed since ancient anatomists stole the corpses of ‘criminals’, sliced them open in their living rooms and sketched them for kicks?

The truth is, we need medical artists 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 therefore, 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.

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. This fusion of science and art, discovery and explanation, strikes me as hugely appealing.

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). This has served me extremely well. I am currently in my second year of training with the Medical Art Education Trust on their prestigious 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. Successful graduation from the postgraduate leads to coveted membership of the MAA (Medical Artist Association) and a land of blood, guts and doodled glory.

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.

I am currently working as 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. I have also taught several illustration masterclasses to primary pupils at House of Illustration.

Merlin will be running a Masterclass on Medical Illustration on Saturday 3rd March 2018, 1-5pm.