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What is the strangest assignment you’ve ever received as a medical illustrator? Early in my career, I was tapped to create illustrations for the first transesophageal ultrasound transducer. This technology introduces an imaging camera down the throat and into the esophagus, to the level where it rests behind the heart. It allows doctors to visualize the heart via ultrasound imaging without the ribs or lungs getting in the way. At the time, the resulting images were new, and the viewing angles of the heart valves and chambers were unfamiliar to heart doctors.

As I was being taught the nature of the procedure, the inventor told me to imagine I was in a completely dark room with a small beam flashlight. I had to walk through different rooms and find my way out. I could see only what the beam revealed, and though it was anatomy I already knew, I had never seen it from these unique angles. I had to figure out where I was in the heart. It was extremely challenging, but it was also fun once I started to get the hang of it. After I roamed around and got lost a few times, I learned my way. Plus, I had a navigator with me to guide me out of my many wrong turns!

How do you ensure your work is accurate? Medical illustrators formally train in specially accredited graduate programs associated with medical schools. There are just a few in the United States and one in Canada. Students seeking to enroll in these programs must have the equivalent of a premed education along with training in life drawing, painting and design. To stay current, every five years, we renew our board certification by completing the requisite credits of continuing medical education and staying abreast of evolving visualization software.

We have the background in science to understand and research what we are drawing. If we are visualizing new, unpublished medical research, the researchers and innovators directly bring us up to speed on the science. During concept development, from initial sketches to final art, we often complete several rounds of review with medical experts for accuracy and authenticity.

How did you develop your colorful illustration style? I have always loved the interplay of different colors, and I strive for harmony in my palettes. As a medical illustration student, I learned how to direct the eye through reflected light, atmospheric perspective, depth of field and carefully designed compositions. The emphasis on these classical techniques mostly sprang from the need to clarify complex anatomy in the surgical field. A great deal of medical research now focuses on the ultrastructure of the human body. My artistic foundation is also well suited to depicting the mystery of the inner worlds of cells and molecules.

Medical illustration is often referred to as visual science.”

What is the relationship between art and science, and why is it important to you? Medicine requires a three-dimensional understanding of the human body and its inner worlds. Surgeons, doctors and researchers must be visual in their thinking. So, medical illustration is often referred to as visual science. Medical illustrators are often called on to visually describe complex science in a concise and understandable way. We have to be good storytellers. Sometimes, we have to incorporate a timeline of unfolding events in one visual or create a series. Like any good design, if it’s successfully executed, it’s effortless for the viewer to grasp the message. Sometimes the image will be unforgettable because it creates a visual understanding.

You and Edmond Alexander cofounded Alexander & Turner Inc. How has your partnership enhanced your work and career? We were one of the first married couples in the field of medical illustration. There are several of us now. There are also several parents and their adult children, and even one third-generation artist that I know of! For some of us—perhaps many of us—medical art is a calling. The field requires the constant study of medical advancements and a mastery of evolving illustration, animation and imaging technology. It is also deadline driven, which, as every creator knows, can be challenging for social and family life. It helps when your life partner and family members understand or share your professional commitments. My partner and I have always been each other’s best inspiration and encouragement.

What did you find most rewarding about your time as an artist in residence for Varian Surgical Sciences? Over a period of eight years, I created 24 large-scale works for Varian that were used as trade show exhibits and distributed as limited edition prints for doctors. I worked with two physicists and an in-house creative director who were excited about portraying their diagnostic and surgical technology through creative, colorful paintings. They had to be teachers to both their clients—surgeons and oncologists—and to me, as no one knew or understood their advanced technology better than they did. At first, it was overwhelming to learn about their world, but they became skilled at funneling the right research and details to me, and they began anticipating where they thought I might go with it. There was a wonderful synergy as we learned how to collaborate very effectively. Plus, we received instant enthusiastic feedback to each new illustration—affirmation that we were on the right track for elevating the profile of their technology. Doctors are known for appreciating medical art, and they liked having works they could frame and hang.

Where do you think the field of medical illustration is going? The field has opened so widely that I would hesitate to place any boundaries upon it. The need for the visualization of science is expanding. There is constant crossover between fields of study. Biomedical engineering is a wonderful example. Data visualization is another. Ways of creating biomedical visualizations are also leaping beyond the conventional expressions of illustration and animation, into experiential augmented reality and virtual reality. As long as you have the foundational artistic, analytical and storytelling skills, and a desire to perpetually stretch your artistic skills, you can excel in any of these expanding fields of medical artistry.

Cynthia Turner is a certified medical illustrator and a fellow of the Association of Medical Illustrators. She received a BFA from Colorado State University and an MA in biomedical illustration from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. Her work focuses on the visual needs of pharmaceutical and biotech researchers for their investor and advertising markets. As the artist in residence for Varian Surgical Sciences, she produced several limited edition prints for Varian’s Take a Closer Look campaign, which highlights its role in advancing radiation medicine for the treatment of previously inoperable early-stage cancers. Turner’s work can be seen at LeBook, and she is represented by Gail Thurm, senior VP of pharmaceutical services, Shannon Associates, in New York.

Photo credit: Joseph Victor Stefanchik

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