A day in the life of… a scientific/medical illustrator

The first post in a new series providing insight from bioscience graduates into their different science-related career paths
A day in the life of…  a scientific/medical illustrator

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Merve Evren studied biology as an undergraduate and completed her master's and doctorate education in Ege University Biotechnology Department, Izmir, Turkey. While an undergraduate she took classes from the cartoon-animation department at the Fine Art faculty, and during her graduate education she worked on 3D models and interactive simulations of physiological systems. Merve has been a professional member of the Association of Medical Illustrators since 2013, and has been working on international medical illustration, animations and interactivity projects at Visuluma Scientific Visualization, an R&D company that has been her own venture in Ege University Technopark for the past two years. She has completed nearly 2000 illustrations including images for books, journal covers, academic articles, scientific posters and promotion.

I begin the day by…

I can say that I start the day in a hurry. I have daily routines such as taking my son to school, and catching up with meetings and company business. It makes my job easier to note the next day's work before going to bed every night. I feel calm when I turn on my computer to do my job with a cup of tea. Every day full of creativity and inspiration is like starting a new book for me. So despite all the fuss and sometimes stress, I start the day with a happy excitement every morning.

My workspace is normally…

I have an office in the technopark of the university. The working environment is a very efficient place with the hardware and software I have, but inspiration and creativity sometimes need to happen elsewhere. Actually, I can work well in any place where I can carry my pen, paper and computer – I have been at home for more than 2 months due to the pandemic and the home environment has been an enjoyable work space for me despite the excess of all kinds of stimuli.

My most used tools are…

I use many things from paper and pen to complex software. Sometimes a project starts by scribbling on a blank piece of paper; sometimes I start drawing directly via the computer screen. I have been using the pixel-based software Photoshop for about 15 years, which I think is very effective in drawing organic textures. Although I have been using various versions of Wacom graphic tablets for about 10 years, I recommend people who want to do this job start from very simple tablets. Ten years ago, I drew a 300-illustration surgical atlas using a tablet that cost only about $50.

My master's and doctorate studies were related to 3D physiological systems and I used Autodesk Maya as the main software for modeling and animation in them. In some details, I also used software such as After Effects, Edius and Illustrator. I can’t say that ‘it is more correct to use this one’. Whichever you control more, you do better with it.

The requirements of a project depend on…

The requirements, expression method and format of a project vary according to the target audience. You may be doing something for different goals such as student education, specialist education, patient information and community awareness. These can also be divided into groups within themselves. For example, the material produced for a primary school student and medical school student to understand the heart reflects the same structure but obviously differs at the level of complexity in the expression of the visual.

I develop my skills by…

It is possible to improve myself by drawing constantly and increasing scientific detail, but this works only to a certain level – because the effort to progress by constantly seeing your own work can result in repetition and even repetition of mistakes. Therefore, it is a right approach to follow the works of people who have done this job in the past and today, to think about their superior aspects, and to increase one’s general scientific knowledge as well as to master current issues. There are a lot of resources today for the development of drawing techniques. However, while doing all this, we must keep our original style.

I describe my artistic style as…

I am interested in art in all areas of my life and I do not want to limit my art to a definition. However, if somebody else would define it, he/she would probably divide my works into periods of surreal, contemporary, figurative or even hyperrealistic influence. Apart from these hobby works, I think what I do professionally can be called "scientific art style". An example of my recent work related to the coronavirus pandemic is shown below. 

David's hard breath, by Merve Evren
Insight from the artist: Michelangelo brought David into the world by carving a gigantic marble block over 500 years ago. It became a masterpiece of Renaissance history, with people from all over the world flocking to Italy to see it. I was one of these last October in Florence, after viewing photographs from all angles hundreds of times. This year, with Italy and the world in the grip of COVID-19, and large numbers of people dying, the sculpture became my inspiration when I left myself to the healing power of art to overcome these very difficult days. I hope for the time when crowds can surround the sculpture again and will have not the fear of transmission but the excitement of art.

I was influenced by…

In my traditional art approach, I am very influenced by Italian art, especially by Leonardo da Vinci. It is possible to see a scientific approach in every work produced by Leonardo. The aesthetic perception in Italian art also fascinates me. Osman Hamdi Bey, one of the painters of my own country, is an archaeologist, statesman, museologist and artist, and I am very influenced by his achievements throughout his life and inspired by his art. When it comes to medical illustration, Frank Netter is my idol with thousands of original watercolor medical illustrations.

Understanding anatomy and underlying science is important…

As a scientist, when starting a scientific illustration we can evaluate the subject at the first stage as science, not art. Then, we use art as an intermediary in the transfer of science.

Medical illustration is much more than drawing what you see or know. Whatever you illustrate, you need to learn and even feel the science behind it. When I start a study and that topic is something I am not familiar with, sometimes my hours and even days are spent trying to learn that topic. In an anatomical illustration, you need to take a different angle by using cadaver or anatomical models, and see and reflect something that no one has seen before, not to copy someone else's previous drawings. For surgical illustrations, it can be very useful to be in the operating room with the doctor or at least watch videos of the surgery.

My mantra for work is…

I always keep these words of Leonardo in mind as if I heard it from him: develop a balance between science and art, logic and imagination.

I think the difference between a diagram and art is…

Although scientific visualisation is a field that serves science, it makes sense when you add a piece of your soul to your work as it contains art, as in every artwork. It can’t be said that there is emotion in the graphics and diagrams, because scientific information is clearly presented. However, the colors you use in the illustration, the posture of the figure, even the facial expression in some, your preferred angles and sections are unique approaches to you; these enable your work to be defined as art.

A favourite moment in a project is…

After finishing all scientific reading, when I believe that I have learned the subject and am making the first sketches; the moment of meeting a white screen and meeting my mind and soul with colors and lines.

Beyond art, there are many other tasks in this role…

When preparing a scientific image, if you take over the whole process yourself, your job is relatively easy. But if it is necessary to organize a team within a company, this requires greater responsibility. Especially in projects such as animation and interactivity, everyone in the team has their own duties and you have to carefully combine these personal productions. This is sometimes tiring but very good work is done in a short time in teamwork. The hardest part of the company is bureaucratic issues rather than managing a team.

I end my working day by…

In a routine day, I leave work and take my son from school and come home. Then we spend time with my family and generally, if I am not physically exhausted, I continue to work at night. Night work is usually for me drawing and writing, and silence creates the ideal environment for this. It makes me very comfortable to draw by listening to a movie playing in the background after a long silence. I believe that listening rather than watching movies keeps my imagination very alive.

What I love about my work and find important is…

To ensure that art is the tool for the transfer of science. To soften the sharp lines of science with art and most importantly, talking to people I never knew, by combining colors, shapes and lines, a language that everyone knows...

My tip to scientists interested in pursuing illustration work is…

Don't postpone this anymore. You may not intend to become a professional medical illustrator by getting a graphic tablet; however, for your own publications, you can start using the drawing tools and animation tools in Powerpoint!

Merve Evren

All images in this post: by Merve Evren. For enquiries on use of images, please contact [email protected] For more artwork, see www.merveevren.com  

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Go to the profile of Ferhan Sagin
almost 4 years ago

Great post Merve!
It is interesting, it is informing, it is motivating and it is beautiful!
Bioscience graduates will find a unique approach to a science related career path with this post.
A big e-hug to a creative scientist!

Go to the profile of Taner Ozgurtas
about 3 years ago

Very shining 👍