What is medical illustration?


Medical illustration has accompanied a person to one degree or another since the very inception of drawing. In some cases, artists, rather than doctors, were the first to seek out anatomical specimens and study their structure to create art.
The earliest medical works were not illustrated. Later it became clear that knowledge of the human body and its structure is essential, and anatomical illustration has become an integral part of the educational process.

The first educational illustration appeared in Hellenic Alexandria around 4-3 centuries BC. The Hellenes depicted anatomy, surgery, obstetrics, and medicinal plants on the papyri.

The accuracy of such pictures left much to be desired. Illustrators thought primarily about the visual perception of their art, not medical accuracy. The drawings were rough, sketchy, and lacked scientific value in other cases.

Studying anatomy for medical illustration was mainly was forbidden on autopsy after death in those days. No culture has tolerated human dismemberment. Therefore, there was no question of studying and even more artistically depicting the internal structure of a person on the bodies of the dead. The first recorded forensic autopsy took place in Bologna in 1303, and it was not until the early 15th century that public autopsies began to occur. 

Development of medical illustration

In the essay De lactibus, published in 1627, the Italian anatomist Azelli made a breakthrough in science with his discovery of human lymph capillary and tried for the first time to use color to distinguish parts of the body. Since the second half of the 1700s, color has also depicted pathologies and other diseases.

  • First attempt at detailing. It wasn't until the 1700s that Doyenne of the Leiden Medical School Albinus removed Vesalius from the medical illustration pedestal. His more than thirty years of work, Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani laid the foundations for a new method of anatomical illustration. Thanks to detailed work, Albinus managed to achieve the maximum accuracy of the detailed image at that time. So the role of the artist, and not just the anatomist, finally received due recognition, and the names of the artists began to be included on the title pages of textbooks along with the authors-anatomists.
  • Thanks to the mechanization of printing and the development of lithography, texts, and illustrations from the 19th century began to be printed worldwide.
  • Not for the faint of heart. Digging into the history of medical illustration, you can find not only examples of desecration and plundering of graves, plagiarism, and lies, but also much more terrible things. For example, Professor Pernkopf's Topographic Human Anatomy is also called the Devil's Atlas. This long-term work is based on the study of executed prisoners of concentration camps. In 1997, it was established that from 1938 to 1945, 1,377 bodies were delivered to Pernkopf at the university, and at least 800 of them are depicted on the pages of the atlas. The paintings are striking in their realism, and for the design of the illustrations, a special watercolor technique was developed, which makes it possible to depict the internal organs as vividly as possible.
  • Today, anatomy has already fully taken place as a science. Medical illustrator animator is still studying it closely, and some art academies are still doing autopsies to practice anatomical drawing. After all, no textbook can replace practice from nature.

What skills do you need to know for making a medical illustration?

What skills do you need to know for making a medical illustration

If you want to be a medical illustrator, you should:

  • know how to draw;
  • have experience in computer graphics because most of the work is done on computers these days; 
  • know the anatomy, bacteriology, and biology. You won't make your pictures like never before if you don't study them yourself.

And at last, you will probably not get this job if you don't love what you do!
The amount of information this science contains can be daunting, but it is not a problem if you have good teachers. Even if you are already an experienced artist, it is worth testing your skills in this area to learn something new.

  • If you think that referring to anatomy textbooks does not make sense to simply sketch a person in a certain pose from a photograph, this is a delusion. Even if the drawing turns out to be very similar to the photo, the object will not be malleable, as if dry, sluggish.
  • If having an accurate idea of ​​what you are drawing, you will not copy photographs. You can use them as references while creating your composition. Drawings will be more lively and dynamic.
  • You should not be content with approximate knowledge of the structure of people's bodies and animals.

Medical illustration and animation

Medical illustrator animator needs to make an effort to convey color, lighting, shape, or image in a drawing. The most difficult task of an artist is to convey the moment of movement. If you observe an athlete's training, you will notice that the arms, legs, and torso take a different shape when the muscles contract or relax. Students train in the following areas:

  • the study of the structure and mutual arrangement of bones + muscles;
  • the image of dummies, casts of the skull, skeleton, individual parts of the body;
  • drawing the body in various static positions and during movement;
  • the material under study will help the medical illustrator animator recognize a living object from the inside, feel the slightest movement of each of its parts, and display it in a drawing. This science is useful not only for sculptors and animators. An artist depicting people or animals cannot draw them correctly without taking a course in this discipline.
  • how do bones and muscles interact? It is well known that the position of the body members in space determines the skeleton. The joints are designed so that the limbs work in flexion-extension and can perform rotational movements. By studying the structure and position of bones in different positions, the student will avoid common drawing mistakes when body parts are depicted unnaturally - this is an important point in art animations.

Human anatomy and structure for art animations

This part focuses on those aspects of human anatomy that you will need to draw a human. You do not need to know every muscle and all internal organs, but you need to know everything that affects the shape and surface of the body. This knowledge should include the skeletal structure, the major muscle groups that support the body, and the distribution of fatty deposits under the skin.

It should be emphasized that a good drawing of a human figure has little to do with an anatomical scheme.


Central to the human skeletal system is the spine, a flexible column of 33 vertebrae that supports the skull, shoulder girdle, chest, and pelvis. The arms are tied to the shoulder girdle, and the legs are tied to the pelvis.

Shoulder girdle

The shoulder girdle includes the clavicle and shoulder blades. The humerus fits into a small socket in the shoulder blade, allowing for a wide range of motion in the shoulder.

Rib cage

The rib cage forms a barrel-shaped flexible frame that protects the heart, lungs, esophagus, and other structures.

The pelvis

The pelvis is firmly attached to the lower spine, which supports the intestines and other internal organs and transfers the weight of the upper body to the legs. The thigh bones are tied firmly in a bowl-shaped cavity in the pelvic region. Although everyone is different, the bones of the average female skeleton are smaller and lighter than those of the male. The rib cage is narrower, and the hips are relatively wider than men. 


The normal human skeleton consists of 206 bones, providing a mobile support structure for the body and protection for vital organs. Some bones form in tendons and are not directly connected to others. Rigid, flexible ligaments connect the bones. Each articulatory bone is covered with a thin layer of cartilage that bears the brunt of wear and tear in a joint. The entire joint is encased in a connective tissue capsule that secretes synovial fluid to provide lubrication. This knowledge is essential for art animations in the medical drawing.

To become a medical illustrator animator, you need to know that there are no perfectly straight bones. If the arms and legs are drawn with perfectly straight bones, they will appear inflexible and tough. The curvature of the bones is very much related to the rhythm of the figure's action.


Muscles. There are just over six hundred voluntary muscles in the human body, but for the medical illustrator animator, it only needs to be discussed:
large superficial muscle groups that influence body shape and are responsible for limb movements; and much more complex muscles that affect facial movement.
These are all skeletal muscles. Most skeletal muscles attach at both ends to bones (through tendons) and act as a spring tension in that they are able to contract. At the same time, they enable one bone to rotate relative to the other, like a lever. The muscles that give expression on the face connect bone and skin.
A muscle is made up of thousands of fibers, each of which is controlled by a nerve ending. These nerve endings respond to signals from the brain by releasing small amounts of acetylcholine, which causes muscle fibers to contract along their length, making them shorter and thicker.
Muscles are located the same in the male and female body, and differentiated fat deposits on the chest and thighs cause gender differences in body shape, which are also worth paying attention to for medical illustration.

How to do a great medical illustration?

The whole process includes four steps: 

  1. 2Shooting. The shooting of objects in different angles provides you all the necessary elements for creating detailed illustrations.
  2. Drawing. Once you have plenty of photos taken from various angles, start drawing on separate layers using only simple shapes like rectangles and circles at first. 
  3. Coloring. Each part must be separated by appropriate boundaries so after coloring each area according to its lighting properties will look natural once you put them together. 
  4. Texturing. Texturing is an important part of every illustration, so it's important to know what you are doing.

You can find many high-quality photo textures on the internet. Working with these textures makes your illustrations more realistic. Take a look at this tutorial for best practices when working with photo textures in Adobe Illustrator or in Portfoliobox.
Hopefully, all this information has been useful for you. And we could advise you to create your online portfolio website. You can display your works and even find customers with the help of your art portfolio website.


What does a medical illustrator do?

An illustrator who works in medicine must correctly and accurately draw pictures related to medicine. To do this, you need to expand your knowledge in medicine.

How much do medical illustrators make a year?

Since such a profession requires additional knowledge and any artist cannot cope with these tasks, the pay is high. The average US medical artist earns between $ 70,650 and $ 173,000 per year.

Is medical illustration competitive?

Of course, there are not so many artists working in this area. With special education, you get the chance to earn more money.

What is included in the whole process of making a medical illustration?

The whole process includes four steps: 

  1. Shooting 
  2. Drawing  
  3. Coloring
  4. Texturing

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