What is a Medical Illustration Degree?

Medical illustration is a form of biomedical communication. Degree programs in the field prepare students to work as medical illustrators and animators. These practitioners use their scientific/medical knowledge and artistic skills to transform complex medical information into visual images.

The images that they create are used by physicians, medical specialists and researchers, and medical educators, as well as by patients and members of the general public who want to better understand the human body and the medical conditions and diseases that can afflict it.

Because of advances in computer graphics and imaging, the field of medical illustration has evolved to include animation. This technology allows medical illustrators to create exceedingly detailed and sophisticated imagery that better clarifies medical information and that is widely available online.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in an Arts Discipline (Multimedia Arts, Graphic Design, Fine Arts) – Four Year Duration
Medical illustrators typically need a master’s degree in the discipline to work in the field. To be accepted into a medical illustration graduate program, students must first earn a bachelor’s degree. A major in art with a minor in the biological sciences is a common pathway. Throughout their bachelor’s level education, it is vital that students compile a portfolio of artwork.

Here is a snapshot of typical undergraduate requirements for aspiring medical illustrators:

Art Coursework and Portfolio

  • General Drawing – form in space, light on form, surface textures, drafting, still life, animal and plant studies
  • Figure Drawing – the human figure drawn from human models
  • Color Media – landscape and still life subject matter in watercolor, acrylic paint, oil paint, and colored pencil
  • Digital Media – 2D animation, 3D animation, web design, imaging applications
  • Graphic Design – image and typography layouts and visual communication projects
  • In addition to the required components listed above, students’ portfolios can also include sculpture, fine arts prints, multimedia presentations, and/or photography

Science Coursework

  • General Chemistry
  • Vertebrate Anatomy
  • Vertebrate Physiology / Organ Systems
  • Molecular Biology
  • Embryology – the study of embryos and their development, also known as developmental biology
  • Histology – the study of the microscopic structure of tissues
  • Immunology – the study of the immune system
  • Cell Biology
  • Human Anatomy and Physiology

Master’s Degree in Medical Illustration – Two Year Duration
It is recommended that students choose a medical illustration master’s program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). These programs typically require that students complete a master’s thesis. The thesis must be based on original research and include explanatory illustrations. Increasingly, digital and physical models, animation, and video are becoming part of the thesis.

Here are some examples of courses that make up the medical illustration master’s program:

Illustration Coursework

  • Biological Illustration
  • Illustrating Anatomy
  • Medical Photography
  • Medical Sculpture
  • Graphic Design
  • Continuous Tone Illustration
  • Digital Imaging – Vector and Raster Illustration (vector graphics are composed of paths or lines, raster graphics are composed of pixels)
  • Digital Imaging – 3D Modeling and Animation
  • Digital Imaging – 2D Animation
  • Pen and Ink Illustration
  • Editorial and Conceptual Illustration
  • Business Practices
  • Instructional Program Design
  • Web Animation and Interactivity
  • Operating Room Sketching
  • Ophthalmological Illustration
  • Scientific Communication
  • Surgical Illustration
  • Endoscopic (Nonsurgical) Illustration
  • Website Development
  • Independent Research, Advanced Projects, and Portfolio

Science Coursework

  • Human Anatomy and Embryology
  • Molecular and Cellular Visualization
  • Neuroanatomy for the Medical Illustrator
  • Pathology – the study of the cause and nature of diseases by examining and testing body tissues
  • Patient Prosthetics
  • Scientific Writing

Note: Medical illustrators working in academic environments sometimes choose to earn a doctoral degree in a science field or in education.

Degrees Similar to Medical Illustration

Commercial Art
Professionals in this field combine art and business by using their creative skills to market and sell products and services. The degree gives students a background in branding, account planning and management, as well as the aesthetic concepts of color theory and composition.

Drafting Technology
This degree field teaches students to use computer programs to create specialized drawings that are used in engineering, construction, and manufacturing.

Fine Arts
In addition to drawing/illustration, the fine arts provide several other similar degree options. Painting, photography, sculpture, and animation are some examples.

Graphic Design
The common goal of illustration and graphic design is to produce visual concepts. Both disciplines employ layout, color, and other creative concepts to inspire and captivate.

Journalism degree programs teach students how to report, write, and edit articles for broadcast or publication. They include classes in broadcast news writing, copyediting and design, reporting, and media law and ethics.

Multimedia Arts
Degree programs in multimedia arts prepare students to work in the fields of animation, game and interactive media design, visual effects, and media and computer technology.

Like illustration, photography is communication via images. Photography degree programs teach the technical, creative, and business skills required to be a professional photographer. Typical coursework includes history of photography, black-and-white photography, color photography, lighting techniques, materials and processes, two-dimensional design, and digital photography.

Visual Communication
Visual communication degree programs combine instruction in diverse media, such as photojournalism, painting, sculpture, and graphic design.

Web Design
Degree programs in this field teach the principles and practices of web design and the communication, collaboration, and project planning and execution skills demanded by employers and clients.

Skills You’ll Learn

While earning their degree, students of medical illustration develop:

  • technical drawing skills
  • creative skills
  • visualization skills
  • IT literacy / ability to use creative software
  • meticulous accuracy and attention to detail
  • an understanding of general, biological, and medical science
  • an appreciation for both art and science
  • research skills
  • the capacity to work alone and in teams

What Can You Do with a Medical Illustration Degree?

Medical illustration is a very specific expertise. For this reason, the vast majority of graduates in the discipline work directly in the field. They work as either employees or freelancers in a number of different settings and collaborate with a number of different professionals:

  • University medical schools and teaching hospitals
  • Hospitals – medical staff support and patient education
  • Pharmaceutical and biotech companies
  • Bio-communications / life science companies and associations
  • Veterinary schools
  • Medical research firms, modeling research data
  • Academic, textbook, and medical journal publishers
  • Software companies that develop medical and healthcare software
  • Health app and instructional platform design companies
  • Medical web design, computer modeling, and animation studios
  • Law firms with medical malpractice, medical product liability, personal injury, and healthcare clients
  • Government prosecutors / US attorneys / district attorneys
  • Government / public health agencies
  • Advertising agencies with healthcare and pharmaceutical clients
  • Television, film, and video production companies – medical documentaries and dramas
  • Museums

Due to the diversity of the medical illustration field, some practitioners choose to specialize, either in a specific subject area or by media or business sector. Possible areas of specialization include surgery, ophthalmology, veterinary medicine, computer animation, 3D modeling, medical publishing, pharmaceutical advertising, or legal.


See which schools are the most and least expensive.

Read about Tuition