When I started writing this post the world was “only” upside down from the Coronavirus. Now it is upside down and inside out. Since the global protests in support of #BLM, I’ve questioned the value of talking about anything other than race, justice, and survival. The topic of human rights is so important, I’ll share those thoughts in another post.
You Know Their Work…
Now It’s Time to Get to Know Them!
This is a unique moment, thanks to COVID-19 when art and science are front and center, and the creators of coronavirus images reign supreme.
I want to celebrate the people who are presenting us with the story of an enemy we can’t see but all fear. An enemy that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives across the globe (as of this writing over 432,000). An enemy that has the world in its grips and nations on their knees. They are helping us to face our foe, and for once, the artists of this highly skilled craft are getting their day in the sun.
Medical animators and illustrators are a unique and extremely talented group of people who have advanced education in both the life sciences and visual communication. They are people who wanted to pursue medicine but didn’t want to become doctors; people who loved to draw but didn’t know
how to turn their passion into a viable career.
The study of nature, anatomy, biology, and the communication of what was seen, so others could learn from it, has a long history all the way back to Leonardo Da Vinci and Andreas Vesalius. Vesalius was a 16th-century Flemish anatomist, physician, and author of one of the most influential books on human anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem. He is often referred to as the founder of modern human anatomy.
These professional artists have been quietly serving the greater good for centuries — and currently total perhaps a mere few thousand worldwide, (the Association of Medical Illustrators estimates 2,000 practitioners in North America). Their work helps teach medical professionals about necessary equipment and safety precautions, helps educate patients and the general public, and provides valuable assistance to researchers, in the past for viruses like AIDs, SARS, and Ebola, for example.
Meet Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins
A Chat with Alissa Eckert
Because of my extensive work in medical narration, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know many of these artists and will introduce them to you in a series called Drawn Together, so you too can get to know some extraordinary people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet.
Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins are the CDC illustrators that drew the grey ball with red spikes image of the novel coronavirus so that it could be used on the news and in press briefings, and in so doing created the image of the virus that itself went viral. She talked about the creative process, starting with a theme… to depict the novel coronavirus as attractive but deadly.
A Pinterest mood board was created and various underwater jellyfish and other brightly colored creatures were found. By using nature as their inspiration, they were able to achieve an image both beautiful and believable.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
* Is it safe to say that you and Dan Higgins are the parents of the now-iconic image of the individual virus particle, or virion?
That’s an interesting way to look at it. I guess it did come out of our heads.
* Many people think of artists as working on their own. How did you co-produce this?
We both did the research and posed questions to the scientists, so once we knew what proteins we needed, Dan pulled the proteins from the protein data bank (repository for data), optimized them for use in our 3d program, and then handed them off to me. I pieced the whole virus together and gave it its look and feel.
In art before medical illustration, Dan had a background in graphic design and I was more studio art drawing and painting. So we used those skills to work on this. He did a lot of the different layouts that we made and while I worked on the lighting, textures, and realism. We both worked back and forth choosing the right colors for our communication purposes based on the color palette set by the design group that was working on the branding package at the same time. We then sent it to clearance and review and it was then released.
* I’ve often heard the phrase, “It took me 20 years to become an overnight sensation.” How long have you been perfecting your craft?
Well, I’ve been drawing since I was in middle school, about 13 or 14. I started taking classes in high school and spent 7 years in college learning the craft. I’ve been a professional medical illustrator since 2006.
* How did you know that the Coronavirus image was ‘done’?
We could tell we were getting close when we found the red and gray balance. We just had to find what other colors to complement and not take away from what we had going. We landed on the orange and yellow and once we both saw it, we were like yes, this is it. So we then showed it to our branch chief and quality assurance managers and they were both in agreement as well. Then I knew we had something.
* What question have people not been asking that you think is important
I often try to stress the importance of medical illustrators and their roles. That’s part of why we were able to do this so successfully. We have the knowledge and specialized training in the understanding of viral structures and how to go about creating something like this. A medical illustrator’s purpose is to translate complex biological and medical information into visuals which people can easily understand.
To learn more, contact https://www.cdc.gov/media/b_roll.html
Stay tuned for my next post when I interview Jennifer Fairman, Assitant Professor at John Hopkins School of Medicine, and owner/founder of Fairman Studios, who shows us the inside story on the COVID-19 swab test process. Until then, be safe, be kind, and think about the unseen heroes in your world.