Q & A - Peter M. Lawrence
Please tell us about your background and how you became a medical illustrator.
As far back as I can remember, I have been obsessed with drawing. I can remember finding an anatomy book for kids in kindergarten and covering my workbooks with drawings of skeletons. However, it was much later in life when I found out about the medical illustration profession.
I was two months away from completing my undergraduate studies at George Mason University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, Drawing Concentration, when a friend of mine sent me a link to the Johns Hopkins “Art as Applied to Medicine” grad program website. I vividly remember scrolling from one piece of medical art to the next, in complete amazement. The illustrations were elegantly rendered and clearly explained scientific concepts. I knew in that moment that this was the perfect career for me. It was the intersection of my two passions: art and science.
Describe your experience working at the Barrow Neurological Institute. What does the average project look like?
I started working at Barrow in May 2016. I primarily service the surgeons and researchers in the Department of Neurosurgery. A huge benefit to working at an institution is being able to communicate directly with these authors.
They are excited to work with medical illustrators and frequently make time to visit our department to discuss their projects with us directly. The authors will bring in reference materials such as interoperative videos or diagnostic images, and I will sketch out concepts as they explain what they need. I then take my concept sketches and begin drawing digitally in Photoshop.
As I mentioned, my background was in fine art, and I was always more comfortable drawing my illustrations out with pencil and scanning them before working on the computer. But digital painting has come a long way in recent years.
There is virtually no input lag when using a stylus on a powerful monitor, so it feels very intuitive and similar to traditional drawing. I now start and finish all my illustrations in Photoshop using a Wacom Cintiq monitor.
Working at a research institute as an illustrator is a real luxury. I get the opportunity to observe surgeries directly. Being able to examine the operations firsthand is valuable for understanding the steps of a procedure and conceptualizing tissue dynamics.
The surgeons are often generous with their time and encourage questions throughout the operation - they want the illustrations to be as accurate as possible. I also occasionally get to observe autopsies with medical students and residents. The pathologists will describe their findings and quiz us on anatomy and pathology.
My projects are related to cerebral, spine, or endovascular surgery, microneurosurgery, brain and spine conditions and pathologies, and patient education. Certain projects require more research, so the time an illustration takes depends on the complexity of the content. On average, I can start and finish a full illustration in two days - about 16 hours of work. We have an archive of medical illustrations that spans close to three decades. To save time, I will sometimes pull relevant illustrations from the archive and modify them for projects.
Are there any misconceptions surrounding medical illustration?
I would say there are several misconceptions about artists in general, especially digital artists: lots of people think it is effortless, or that the computer does all the work, or that it is not a real job.
The reality is that I often struggle; I have been drawing my whole life, and I still feel like it takes time, careful consideration, and several failed attempts before I get it right.
“I personally believe that art is anything that makes you feel something, and a medical illustration can both teach and elicit an emotional reaction...”
Do you consider yourself more a part of the art or science community?
There is a false idea that instructional illustration is a lesser art-form. Some of my colleagues from art school have claimed that if an image is didactic, if it is meant to teach, then it is not really art; if I became a medical illustrator I would be “sacrificing my artistic integrity.” I personally believe that art is anything that makes you feel something, and a medical illustration can both teach and elicit an emotional reaction - the two are not mutually exclusive. Most of my fellow medical illustrators were science majors and art minors or took art classes on the side. I was an art major who took the necessary science prerequisites. For me, the creation of art has always been more important than the scientific content itself; I personally feel more like an artist with scientific knowledge, rather than a scientist with artistic knowledge.
What are some of the challenges and rewards of being a medical illustrator?
It can be difficult to grasp the complexity of neuroanatomy from various orientations or conceptualize the depth of surgical corridors or certain structural relationships. Drawing brain surgery is not easy. There have been instances where I worked on a single textbook cover image for over 80 hours before feeling like it was finally coming together. But after it starts working, and you realize the effectiveness of what you have created, it is the most satisfying feeling in the world.
Do you have any recommendations or advice for other aspiring medical illustrators?
I would say to try and find your niche, something you are genuinely interested in or passionate about. Many medical illustrators go through school and complete their work, but do not think about what field or medium they are drawn to. Work on differentiating yourself, find your passion and find your voice as an artist: the thing that is undeniably you.