This illustration shows red blood cells flowing through a very small artery.

Copyright Frank Corl

Drawing the Body

Frank Corl talks about being a medical illustrator

Scholastic Art: What is your job?

Frank Corl: I am a medical illustrator at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. I illustrate, draw, or animate complex medical concepts in a simplified way appropriate to a specific audience. For example, I create illustrations for patient education materials, such as a pamphlet on a medical condition. I also make step-by-step illustrations showing new medical procedures for medical journals.


SA: What is the process for creating a medical illustration?

FC: First, I meet with the doctor requesting the illustration. We talk about what the illustration should accomplish. Then I research and sketch. I send the sketches to the doctor to review. I update the sketches based on his or her feedback, and we might have some more back-and-forth. After the sketch is finalized, I create the version that will be published. I either paint it in color or, if just a black-and-white line drawing is needed, I draw it in pen and ink. Though, most of what I do is in color.


SA: What materials do you use?

FC: Everything we do here is on the computer. I sketch by drawing right on a monitor to create “pencil” sketches. And I digitally render the final versions as well. I mostly work in Adobe Photoshop.


SA: How do you do research?

FC: If I’m illustrating the steps for a surgery, I begin by reading the surgeon’s clinical notes. Sometimes I look online for videos of the surgery. Occasionally, I might actually watch a surgeon perform the surgery. If I’m illustrating something more straightforward, such as the human brain or a blood vessel, I often rely on my own knowledge of anatomy. I may also look at CT scans or MRI scans of the body part that I am illustrating. I usually don’t look at photographs. They can be very messy—which is why we do what we do. We clean up and simplify the image.


Copyright Frank Corl

SA: What might people find surprising about your job?

FC: Often, people are surprised to find out that I dissected a human body in graduate school. The first year of any graduate program for medical illustration is basically the same as the first year of medical school. We take gross anatomy, neurology, pathology, and cell biology, all with the medical students. Then, in the second year, we split off and focus on illustration.


SA: What do you love about your job?

FC: So many things! Sometimes, I work with a surgeon who is the first person in the world to do a certain medical procedure, and I get to document that with my illustrations. It’s also very meaningful to me that my patient education illustrations help people understand their diagnoses and the treatments they need. And of course, I get to draw and be creative all day!


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