Case study

Medical illustrator — Joanna Culley

After studying Scientific Illustration at Middlesex University Joanna gained a postgraduate qualification in Medical Illustration and Anatomy. She now works as a self-employed medical artist

How did you get your job?

I gradually developed a freelance career so I became an independent medical illustrator working from home and some years later I formed a limited company supplying medical illustration called Medical Artist Ltd.  We supply medical art and animation to customers internationally, through the company website

What's a typical day like as a Medical illustrator?

I like to be organised so I plan in advance. I know what my day is going to involve before it starts, this is because I schedule art projects into the months ahead.

 At 8am I start by checking emails and responding to clients, even if it is just a holding email. I am a fan of list writing so I write down anything that is urgent to tackle later in the day so I can clear my head ready to start drawing or painting.

Projects involve either pencil sketching or painting and as this always involves researching, I usually have two or three anatomy books open so I can double check the anatomy of my drawings as I go along. I know what I must achieve in that day and I will work late if necessary.

I work at least six days per week because when you run your own business this involves administration tasks such as raising invoices, writing license agreements, writing quotes, managing projects, website updates, marketing and meeting with clients.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I enjoy the creative aspect. Being able to draw and paint every day is heaven for me. When I explain to someone what this is like I tell them that painting is like reading a book, it causes you to live in the moment and it's a wonderful way to help ease anxiety because your brain is focused on drawing.

What are the challenges?

Retaining the nice creative aspect during very busy periods, such as when dealing with stressful deadlines and an accumulation of projects. This depreciates the creative aspect because you must artistically perform even though you are tired and under pressure and the work must always be to a high standard. It's a massive relief sometimes when a six-month art project is signed off as completed.

In what way is your degree relevant?

My degree has been totally relevant because I was taught the skills I use today. Having a degree in the right subject has also given customers confidence that I have been trained to a high level. Furthermore, I needed a degree to apply for postgraduate education.

How has your role developed?

My role has developed from being a sole trader and a freelance medical illustrator to a business owner running an agency employing other medical artists and animators. 

My role is also developing on a day-to-day basis as I recently completed a presentation for a legal firm in London, with the aim that Medical Artist Ltd will the be sole supplier of medical-legal illustration - supplying medical artwork for courtroom use.

My career ambitions are to complete a PhD, which starts in September 2017. I am going to use my medical illustration skills to document rare diseases studying at the University of Surrey. This is exciting because the ambition ultimately will be to continue to work with scientists and use medical illustration to create visual aids to help communicate complex medial matters in the search to fully understand a rare disease and for scientists to find a cure.

How do I get into medical illustration?

  • You first need a relevant degree in either the sciences or art and to be a naturally-skilled artist. Apply to an association like the Medical Artists' Education Trust and complete their course or apply to complete an MSc at the University of Dundee. This is an important step because these qualifications allow you to be accredited on a register for medical illustrators at the Academy of Healthcare Sciences and to apply to become a member of the Medical Artists' Association and the Institute of Medical Illustrators.
  • Medical artists either work for a company or they are self-employed. Either way to succeed you must continue to work on your skills as an artist and continue to study human anatomy. There are workshops that teach anatomy and this forms part of the continued professional development (CPD) required to practise as a professional medical artist.
  • To maintain and progress your career learn good administration and people skills. Medical art has a purpose to communicate medical data to a variety of audiences. To create good visual communications you must excel at working with clients, working to a written brief, working with medical experts and being receptive to creating artwork to suit a client's brief.

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