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What is Medical Art?

This is one of the most common questions I get asked when I tell people that I am a medical artist. It's usually along the lines of, "Oh, What is that?" or, "Wow, I didn't realize that was a thing!?"

Disclaimer: I'm about to define a few terms, based on my own experience and that of others in the field and related areas, as these terms don't yet have rigid Webster's Dictionary-type definitions.


So, what the heck even is medical art?

Simply put, medical art is a broad multidisciplinary category that encompasses creative media which contributes to the healthcare field. This creative media can include medical illustration, medical animation, medical photography, medical sculpture (which plays an important role in the making of prosthetics), graphic medicine (which is essentially comics about healthcare topics), fine art related to the healthcare field, graphic design related to the healthcare field, and likely more as time goes on! The purpose of medical artwork is to contribute to medicine and healthcare by educating the public (and med students), sharing new research concepts and discoveries among healthcare professionals, or to encourage empathy and community in the patient experience.

 This example is a labelled medical illustration of the internal structures of a healthy human heart.
An example of medical art.
This example includes an anatomical human heart, but takes creative liberties with the botanical elements growing where the vessels would be on a medical illustration.
An example of anatomy art.

Artwork that simply depicts anatomy will not necessarily be considered medical art, as it may not contribute to the healthcare field. It would, however, be considered anatomy art. For example, I create both medical art AND anatomy art. I have here to the left, a typical example of medical art-something educating the viewer on the anatomy of a bodily structure or function. These types of images are used as anatomy references throughout medical textbooks and other scientific publications, and they are what initially prompted my interest in studying anatomy and becoming a medical artist.

To the right, you can see an example of anatomy art. Like medical art, anatomy artworks guessed it-anatomy! However, these two categories differ in their purpose. Anatomy art may be more accurately called anatomy based art, as it is more meant for creative expression, to explore abstract concepts or to just be beautiful, whereas medical artwork is meant to contribute to the healthcare or scientific communities at large, either through education, the dissemination of new information, or to provide a voice for patients.

Now, I am an artist who believes all you need is creativity in order to be an artist. Point blank. Medical art, on the other hand, does require some degree of technical training, expertise, or experience in order for it to be credible and useful within the field. Unlike medical art, however, the accuracy and context of anatomy art is only dependent upon the will of the artist.

There is ANOTHER category of art which dances in the same wheelhouse as these two:

Scientific Illustration!

Science art and scientific illustration, according to Kara Perilli at the Franklin Institute, is "Art in the service of science. These artists draw or render images of scientific subjects in an accurate way to inform and communicate." So, with this definition, medical art can fall within the broader category of scientific illustration. What differentiates them is that scientific illustration encompasses art for all scientific fields, including medicine, zoology, biology, engineering, physics, genetics, astronomy, anthropology, paleontology, chemistry, mathematics, environmental sciences, and psychology, just to name a few.

Who cares? Why is medical art important?

The underlying goal of medical art is to help people. For one, medical art has invaluable applications in patient education as the visual elements of patient information resources, from specific conditions, to public health outreach. What's more, medical art is a huge part of the education of healthcare professionals. Have you ever tried to understand how the heart pumps blood without looking at an image of its internal structures? Medical illustration, animation, and photography are the visual components of medical education. They are also the visual components of communicating research results and new health tools to other healthcare professionals. Medical illustration, in particular, has the advantage of allowing people to see what is normally hidden OR what is too small to see clearly with the naked eye. This is especially handy when looking at histology, aka microscopic anatomy (it's cells and stuff!). I've been told by medical students that illustrations of microbiology are key to helping them understand the microscopic processes that make people tick, and also that make people sick. Often times, the actual slides under the microscope can be extremely difficult to decipher, so having those illustrations more clearly shows what is going on in a given process or disease.

Patient-Centered Medical Art

Okay, so that's the science stuff, but what about the other part, why is it important for patients? How does medical art encourage empathy and community in the patient experience and provide a voice for patients?

I have found two main ways medical art helps patients (beyond patient education), either in coming to terms with an illness, or in feeling validated in their experience.

First, patients can make the art themselves as a form of expression and a coping mechanism. This form of medical art may also be called, "arts in health," or, "arts in medicine". Some may not consider this application of art to be "medical art", but I do. The expertise the patient has in this form of medical art is in their experience as a patient and their experience with their condition, and that is what they contribute to the field, if they wish to share it at all. In this way, they can help shed light on the various patient experiences, and educate others on the many aspects of their condition, from a first-hand perspective.

On that note, may I introduce you to the field of medical art therapy??? Admittedly, this concept is new to me, so, I will quote this paper from the Education Resources Information Center, "The greatest impact of medical art therapy could be in art's ability to synthesize and integrate client issues such as pain, loss, and death. The medical art therapist or clinician helps patients achieve this synthesis through art making and the creative process. The use of art expression in conjunction with a total medical treatment program may be one of the most viable avenues through which patients can find true healing in their lives." Through embracing the creative process, patients can come to terms with an illness or chronic pain condition. I have experienced this cathartic form of expression first hand through my journey with chronic pain. I know, for me, art provides an outlet for my frustration and experience with pain. It's like, getting it out of me and onto the paper takes some of the burden off of myself. Looking back, I see that much of the work I've made in the anatomy art category was as a direct response to and expression of my own chronic back pain. I'll leave it to you to decide if those pieces count as medical art or not, but I have no problem with other patients calling their work related to their condition medical art, or patient-centered medical art, to avoid confusion.

The second way medical art can help with the patient experience beyond education, is by bringing a sense of validation. One form of this validation can come from graphic medicine. This is a category of medical art which uses the medium of comics surrounding medical topics, and often addresses the perspective of the patient with relatable scenarios and usually a bit of comic relief to make intense topics more approachable. Graphic medicine is a fascinating topic all its own and I recommend checking it out for yourself if you're interested. One top-notch medical illustrator who works in graphic medicine is Cilein Kearns. You can see his comics here.

Another form of patient validation that I find especially powerful is through expressive artwork that captures the emotion of the patient experience. I find this particularly valuable with the work of Jac Saorsa, a British visual artist, writer and researcher in art and philosophy. I do not know if she would consider herself a medical artist, per se, but upon meeting her through my medical art masters program at the University of Dundee, her presence and her work really stuck with me, and I consider her vital to this category of patient-centered medical art. I recommend checking out her website to get a better understanding of her and her work, but what stuck out to me is her effort to depict the experience of illness as a witness, from an outside perspective. The resulting images can be unsettling in their authenticity, and that, I think, is what really resonates with patients. They feel seen by her, and that validation can be extremely powerful.

In summation, medical art is, to take inspiration from Kara Perilli at the Franklin Institute, art in the service of medicine and healthcare, with the goal being to accurately depict healthcare concepts or experiences to educate and communicate such topics effectively.

This post is merely scratching the surface of the field of medical art, so let me know if there is anything in particular you'd like me to cover in more detail!

If you liked any of the artwork featured, you can see more of my work on my website, you can purchase prints and originals from my shop, and you can even collaborate with me to make a unique artwork catered to you from my commissions page.

While not anatomically accurate or meant for educational purposes, this piece was made during a huge flare up of back pain for me, and partially expresses that pain, even though I did not realize it at the time.
One of my favorite pieces, called "Rising," toes the line between medical art and anatomy art.

Are you a medical artist? Do you disagree with my definitions? Great! Let's have a respectful conversation about it below!


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