Monday, March 16, 2015

Illuminating the Art of Medical Illustration

I have always been intrigued by the artwork featured in anatomy, physiology, and surgical books. The unique beauty of a feline humerus, a cross section of intestinal epithelium, a depiction of the differentiation of bone marrow cells - who is responsible for these brutally accurate portrayals? How would one begin to draw the equine digestive system, esophagus to colon? I for one can't even manage an image that remotely mimics a hoof or nostril, let alone the intimate details of the greater trochanter of the femur. This set of skills and embodiment of artistic talent lies in a very special group of people: medical illustrators.

Last week I had the great pleasure of talking to one of the few certified medical illustrators in the country who is also a veterinarian, Dr. Lauren Sawchyn. Owner and creative director of Sawchyn Medical Illustration, Lauren shared with me her background, her inspirations, and her artistic process.
"Many Paths, One Profession" by L. Sawchyn

Lauren started drawing from an early age and her mother, a veterinary technician and practice manager, was a strong inspiration. "My mother was always very creative, so I guess I got that gene from her," says Lauren. When Lauren was young, her mother brought home a copy of Hill's Atlas of Veterinary Clinical Anatomy. Lauren was entranced. "It was made so that you could take it into the exam room and write on it with a dry erase marker. It was cool. I kept it all through the years and I loved it. It was fascinating -- all these disease drawings of dogs and cats. Kind of gruesome for a little kind, but I was like: whoa! That connected with me as I grew older and discovered the field of medical illustration."
"AIEC Invades Canine Intestinal Epithelium" by L. Sawchyn

After struggling with the notion that she might have to choose between art and veterinary medicine as a vocation, Lauren earned her Bachelor's degree in studio arts with a minor in zoology at the University of Maine. After that, she gained entrance into one of only five medical illustration master's programs in the country then rounded out her education at Cornell's vet school, where she began to sow the seeds of her business. "I ended up doing a lot of illustrations for my professors while I was at Cornell," she says. "That led to connections I later had when I opened my business."

After graduation from Cornell, Lauren dove into small animal practice and since has slowly started to weave medical illustration into the milieu. She now practices a few times a week and spends the other days in her studio.

From her portfolio, it's easy to see that Lauren has worked on numerous projects but when asked for a favorite, there's delightfully no answer. "The question of which project is my favorite is a really hard question for me because I love all of them," she says. "I wish I did have a favorite so that way I could specialize more, but I just love them all. Most of my work, based on what I've done in the past and where my connections are, is for veterinarians doing research. I've done a little bit of textbook work. Most clients are doing really interesting research projects and they call me to draw and help visualize the research."
"Measuring the equine optic nerve sheath diameter" by L. Sawchyn

Many clients will come to Lauren with a project and commission her for the accompanying artwork. Other times, Lauren works on creating a portfolio of stock images she can use and refer to in the future. With so many facets to medical illustration, even though she needs to be medically accurate, there are still plenty of ways for Lauren to put her own creative spin--her own style--on her work. But because of the nature of copyright laws in the art world, Lauren licenses the use of her work to clients instead of selling the art outright. "If I draw a picture of a dog heart and I give that to someone who has commissioned me and I give that copyright to them, then I can never draw another dog heart that looks like that again in that particular style without infringing on that," she explains.
"Feline Lateral Skeleton" by L. Sawchyn

The amount of personal style Lauren puts in a project depends on the project itself. "If it's an editorial piece, you can be more creative than if it's a surgical drawing for a textbook. With that, you can't get too wild with the color and designs, unfortunately, because you want it to be really clear and really accurate because someone is going to be doing surgery after they look at your picture. But all that presents a challenge and it's fun. It's fun to take it to both extremes. There has to be an element of creativity to all of it."

My memory jumps back to the "old days" where textbooks showed standard colors, standard views. Where will modern science take the medical art world? "Where we are right now in scientific discovery, there are still so many unknowns that it gives the artist a lot of liberty to just go with it. We don't truly exactly know the color of some cells and things like that. It can be challenging and sometimes frustrating but also really fun because you can create and visualize a whole environment. There are some people who are like: THE VEINS MUST BE BLUE AND THE NERVES MUST BE YELLOW. There's very standard stuff, but you can play with that and that's fun."

"Feline Portosystemic Shunt" by L. Sawchyn
When describing her technique and the tools she uses, Lauren discusses the balance of classical art techniques with today's technology. "When I was in art school, we used a lot of the old techniques, like pen and ink, but now, there are a lot of computer software programs. You're not so much relying on the computer; the computer doesn't make it easier. It's just a different tool. Instead of using a pen with ink on a piece of paper, I'm using a tablet that draws a line directly into a software program. It's a different tool but I'm still drawing a line."

"I still create what I call fine art on the easel," she continues. "People commission me to do pet portraits. That technique is still there and it needs to be there. People think of art as: you're just born with it. I think you're born with an aptitude and then you have to do years and years of training to get the technical skills right."

"Toggle Pin Stabilization of Bovine Left Displaced Abomasum" by L. Sawchyn
Obviously, an in-depth knowledge of anatomy and pathology weigh heavily in Lauren's work. She still dissects when she needs to, for reference. "I have enough of a reference library and background built up that for many drawings, I can reference my own photos, my own sketches, and check them with peer-reviewed data and published text books," she says. "But let's say someone contacted me tomorrow and asked me to draw the anatomy of a sugar glider. I would probably have to get more resources and even go to a school or museum and do a dissection in order to review that. It's really important for a medical illustrator to be as accurate as possible."

"I find ruminants especially challenging," she continues. "There's a lot with camelid anatomy compared to sheep and goats that for some reason people want to lump all together and they really do not have the same anatomy. That to me is fun. Camelid anatomy that I've done has been more challenging than others."  
"Clinical Anatomy of the Camelid Stomach" by L. Sawchyn

Although being in private practice as stolen some of Lauren's doodling time away, she still finds ways to be loose with her art. "I come from a fine art background. I did some really funky paintings. And then you go into realism with those highly accurate drawings that are really cool but sometimes you need to let your brain float away from that. Most of my doodles are actually of my own pets. I'll also have various paintings going on in my studio. Sometimes they sit on my easel for a long time while I work on other projects, but I come back to them. Sometimes I go outside; I live by the ocean. A lot of that inspires what I do, what colors I choose. That's a more relaxing form of artwork. I won't say I like one more than the other, it just uses a different part of my brain."

Going back to the pet portraiture Lauren finds herself commissioned to do, she says that part of her business wasn't planned but it's a nice extra. "Just by being in practice, you see pets from birth to death and I have owners approach me and ask if I'd do a portrait of their pet that passed away. That's nice. It means a lot to people and it's a nice thing for me to get involved in. People approach me with the most fantastic ideas."

Speaking of fascinating.... how about body art? "I cannot tell you how many people have approached me to design their tattoos!" Lauren laughs. "Which I would totally do! I've told every single person: tell me what you would like and I'll do it. But, so far, no one has followed through. It cracks me up."

Stay creative and stay tuned for my next blog, Monday, April 6.


  1. Hi my name is Nicole Unden-Dunn.Your illustrations are amazing and will help educate people especially me. I am currently attending Veterinary Technician School at Pima Medical Institute in the afternoon class across from the Chula Vista Animal Care Facility in Chula Vista California. These illustrations are an awesome teaching aid for people everywhere especially ones in the veterinary field.

  2. These illustrations are amazing, thanks for sharing them

  3. Content and anatomical accuracy is paramount in the field of medical illustration. Images are designed to communicate specific content, so detail-oriented individuals who have a genuine interest in both art and science are a great asset.
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