More than a pretty picture: Perspectives on veterinary illustration

Careers in veterinary illustration combine scientific knowledge and artistic skill

By Coco Lederhouse
Published: 24 January 2023


Open any veterinary textbook, and you’re sure to find an anatomical drawing of a dog or a detailed illustration of a cell. It’s easy to take these as a given, but the skill and talent required to make those images is beyond valuable.

Accurately rendering the endocrine system of a ferret or the abdominal viscera of a turtle is no small feat. It requires an intimate knowledge of the anatomy of these species as well as an understanding of how to effectively communicate through art.

A medical illustrator is a professional artist with advanced education in both the life sciences and visual communication. Medical illustrators turn complex information into visual images, often in collaboration with scientists, physicians, and other experts.

This series shows the steps taken to insert a Z-stitch over the site where a large bore cannula had been inserted into a dog's vein as part of an intervention by a cardiologist. This approach is a more effective way to achieve hemostasis than applying manual compression over the area. (Courtesy of Eli Ensor/University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine)

The work of medical illustrators promotes education, scientific research, patient care, marketing, and more. Medical illustration is a small field with an estimated 2,000 trained professionals in the world.

Some specialize by subject matter, such as veterinary medicine. AVMA News spoke with four experts involved in this unique field.

Illustration as a teaching tool

Most medical illustrators have a master’s degree from an accredited two-year graduate program in medical illustration, according to the Association of Medical Illustrators. There are currently five programs in North America accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs that train medical illustrators—at Augusta University, Johns Hopkins University, Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois-Chicago, and the University of Toronto.

The University of Georgia is home to one of 14 undergraduate majors in scientific illustration recognized by the Association of Medical Illustrators. UGA also offers a postgraduate certificate in comparative medical illustration.

The program is led by Dr. James Moore, a veterinary surgeon who is also director of the Educational Resources Unit for the Department of Large Animal Medicine at UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Moore’s students work with veterinary faculty members to gain experience in illustrating the anatomy and physiology of animals.

Dr. Moore was first introduced to medical illustration in 1981 when he came to the University of Georgia as a new faculty member. It was there that he met a trained medical illustrator. Dr. Moore was amazed by the images the artist could create.

“He had the scientific background, plus being an artist,” Dr. Moore said. “As soon as I asked if I could have some images made, there was no going back.”

He explained that students pursuing medicine spend a great deal of time memorizing facts for examinations and are typically rewarded for their skilled short-term memory. However, many students will read the textbook words but can’t grasp the concept, so an image can help clarify.

Dr. Moore stressed the importance of making teaching interactive for students so they can envision turning concepts or surgical procedures into something more than words.

“When it comes time to explain something or think through a process, if you can’t picture it, you’re stuck,” Dr. Moore said. “You don’t know where the gaps in your knowledge are until you try to teach something.”

A different kind of veterinarian

Dr. Diogo Guerra, a veterinarian and a freelance veterinary medical illustrator, has always loved drawing and animals.

“I remember watching National Geographic documentaries on Saturday mornings, sitting on my parents’ big brown couch, and then spending the afternoons drawing some of the animal species I had just seen,” he said.

He did most of his veterinary studies at the University of Lisbon in Portugal before heading off to do research work for his master’s at the Institute of Parasitology at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

This figure for a scientific publication shows the anatomical features and location of the appendix in healthy rabbits. (© Dr. Diogo Guerra)

Dr. Guerra decided to become a medical illustrator after realizing there was a lack of investment in visual science communication in veterinary sciences.

“I get asked all the time if I miss being a veterinarian, and I always answer that I still consider myself one–just a very different kind of vet,” Dr. Guerra said. “I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today had I not studied veterinary medicine.”

His knowledge of reference textbooks, experience performing necropsies, and understanding of the scientific publication process make it much easier to navigate the world of veterinary illustration.

“Speaking the same language as my clients is fundamental to translate their ideas into didactic visual materials,” Dr. Guerra said.

Developing the necessary skills

Dr. Lauren D. Sawchyn is another veterinarian turned medical illustrator. She is the owner and creative director of Sawchyn Medical Illustration. Most of her clients work in veterinary academia and research.

Dr. Sawchyn also works part time in clinical veterinary medicine, performing small animal relief work. She enjoys practicing preventive medicine and developing relationships with owners and pets.

She went to the University of Maine and majored in preveterinary science with minors in zoology and studio arts. During an undergraduate class in the history of medicine, she was fascinated by the illustrations of anatomy that her professor shared.

This illustration is used by veterinarians to show the normal anatomy of the ferret, as well as the common disease of adrenocortical adenocarcinoma. (© Dr. Lauren D. Sawchyn)

She decided to change the direction of her studies, attending the graduate program in medical illustration at the Medical College of Georgia, now part of Augusta University, before attending Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

“It was a rigorous program that taught me not just about illustration and science but also the business aspects of medical illustration,” Dr. Sawchyn said.

At the Medical College of Georgia, students of medical illustration attended classes with students of human medicine, performed cadaver dissections, and participated in and observed surgeries.

“For an artist, you need to work hard on your anatomy and your science training,” said Dr. Sawchyn. “It is not enough to be proficient in the latest software program because that will change.”

Never a dull moment

Deborah Haines is a certified medical illustrator and design specialist at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.

Her medical illustrations have been published in numerous veterinary clinical journals, research journals, and textbooks. She uses 2D and 3D work as well as traditional media to translate veterinary information into educational tools.

“The more senses you bring to the table, the better people learn,” Haines said.

She also oversees veterinary students as they develop teaching exhibits with key faculty and staff members, fundraise, and educate the public about veterinary medicine during the annual Open House event.

Haines stressed that her job is not only about illustrating but also about teaching students. “My goal isn’t always to give them the answer; we want to think about the diagnostic process,” she said. “That means utilizing didactic illustrations, animations, and helping students understand key pieces of information.”

After Haines earned her bachelor’s in art from Goshen University, she went on to the Medical and Biological Illustration Program at the University of Michigan.

“I don’t think you can be a truly effective scientific and medical illustrator without knowledge, artistic technique, and artistry—constantly working to develop all three,” Haines said.

Haines has worked at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine for nearly 30 years.

She explained that there is never a dull moment at her job. She might be illustrating an abscess in a bovine hoof, developing 3D models to preplan a surgery, or helping create an effective poster session.

“Because of the variety, it’s a lot of fun,” Haines said. “Veterinary medical illustration has been a really good fit for me.”

Challenges as an illustrator

One of Dr. Guerra’s main goals as a medical illustrator is to increase the quantity and quality of visual education materials for veterinarians.

“Ultimately, I’m not trying to create beautiful images per se but to design educational materials that work and effectively communicate information,” he said. “Communication is a fundamental part of every health care professional’s job, regardless of whether they work in research or at a veterinary hospital.”

Similarly, Dr. Sawchyn explained there is a huge need for veterinary illustration, but there is a lack of awareness of the expertise available and of funding for illustration.

“I would love to see a future where every vet publication has high-quality images and every veterinary school and business … has a department of medical illustration and animation with certified illustrators, along with medical photographers, designers, and art directors,” Dr. Sawchyn said. “The value that these teams bring to those institutions is immeasurable.”

This color illustration highlights adherent-invasive Escherichia coli and its interactions with the canine intestinal villous epithelium and Peyer’s patch dome epithelium when linked to dysbiosis. (© Dr. Lauren D. Sawchyn)

Another challenge in veterinary illustration is finding clients that understand the value of the work. Hours of research and effort go into each piece, not to mention illustrators’ training and overhead expenses.

“I am pleased that clients admire our work, but I was discouraged to find that many buyers of illustration shop for the lowest price and the quickest turnaround instead of the highest quality,” Dr. Sawchyn said.

Medical illustration is created and then licensed for a specific purpose, time frame, and use. However, the internet can mislead clients into thinking this content is usually available to use for free.

“Artists are frequently the victims of copyright infringement, their work changed and used without permission or compensation and signatures stripped from images,” Dr. Sawchyn said. “For many of us, our livelihood depends on our copyright.”

Collaboration is key

Veterinary illustration is valuable for client education, publications, teaching, presentations, and many other uses. Artists work collaboratively in all areas, whether illustrating textbooks for cell biology, making prosthetics, or directing art for pharmaceutical companies.

At the University of Tennessee, Haines praised the great faculty members she’s worked with who understand her skill set. She stressed that as a medical illustrator, collaboration is key.

This image depicts the anatomy of the soft tissue of the bovine hoof. The image is part of a series of illustrations used for instructional purposes and has been included in a number of peer-reviewed articles and a book relating to bovine hoof care written by Dr. Sarel Van Amstel at the University of Tennessee. (Deborah Haines © 2001 The University of Tennessee)

This is true in Dr. Guerra’s freelance work as well. “I honestly feel my work is a true partnership with my clients,” Dr. Guerra said. “I collaborate with researchers and clinicians–from veterinary to human medicine, microbiology and pharmaceutical sciences.”

“All illustration clients have a story to tell and a problem to solve,” Dr. Sawchyn said. “Science is a language, and medical illustrators translate this language to broad audiences using a visual language.”

Careers in veterinary illustration

Some veterinary illustrators work in medical schools or veterinary schools. Others work for textbook publishers or make medical illustrations for legal cases. Freelance work is a popular choice for illustrators. According to the Association of Medical Illustrators, approximately one-third of medical illustrators are self-employed.

“There are several ways of becoming a medical illustrator, and each pathway is unique and valid,” Dr. Guerra said. “I have started in the medical side of things and, through courses and practice, found my way into the field.”

Dr. Guerra emphasized that people should build a solid scientific foundation and an excellent understanding of visual communication, art-related legal matters, and good business practices.

“What I feel is key for a successful career in medical art is to find a niche that you like, that needs illustrations, and where your background can be a competitive advantage,” Dr. Guerra said.

Dr. Sawchyn’s background included intensive training in animal anatomy and medicine in addition to the human anatomy training she had, and that background prepared her to work in the niche market of veterinary illustration.

“I understood my veterinarian clients, and I made great connections in the veterinary field,” Dr. Sawchyn said. “My medical illustration mentor and professor, Bill Andrews, always would say, ‘Plan the work, and work the plan.’ I think this goes for anything you do.”

Medical illustrators are always learning, and Haines laughed thinking of her less-refined illustrations from when she first started working. “As media changes, you can’t rest on your laurels,” Haines said. “Hopefully you build on what you learned from the previous project.”

Haines explained that her favorite project is “always the next project. It stretches you, and you learn new concepts and help someone else along the way to learn.”


View an accompanying photo gallery of the veterinary medical illustrations created by Dr. Diogo Guerra, Dr. Lauren D. Sawchyn, and more professionals working in this unique profession.


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