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The art of illustrating what's inside our bodies

ALBANY, New York — Bill Westwood's work as a medical illustrator sits somewhere between art and science. The Albany, New York, illustrator has spent more than 50 years depicting different parts and processes inside the body for doctors, advertising agencies and pharmaceutical companies.

There's his instructional illustration of a surgeon removing a stomach in a gastrectomy. With editorial flair, Westwood pictures how the foot bones are compressed inside a ballerina's pointe shoe.

This illustration was created as a cover art assignment for the Journal of Musculoskeletal Medicine. This conceptual illustration accompanied an article about ballet injuries. Illustration provided by Bill Westwood

"I've gotten interested in the whole idea [of] being able to create accurate, educational and persuasive images that teach people about some of these injuries, that teach people about some of these surgeries," he said.

Westwood, who currently works out of a studio in Albany, said the work is different each day, including rendering images of injuries in legal cases. Westwood has been drawing medical illustrations since 1967 — and he has a design teacher from long ago to thank.

Decades earlier, Westwood was flabbergasted when he received a "C" in an undergraduate design class, so he decided to confront his teacher about the low grade. Little did Westwood know that the resulting conversation would introduce him to the field of medical illustration.

"That one design teacher changed my life," he said. Westwood took the advice of the professor and enrolled in a Georgia school that specialized in the work.

The school also only accepted four students per year; those students had to excel in both art and science. During his last two years at a liberal arts college in the same state, he "had never worked so hard in my life" to get in — and he was eventually accepted to the school.

This illustration about Alzheimer's disease was created for the American Family Physician medical journal published by the American Academy of Family Physicians. Westwood said the illustrations shows some of the neuro-pathological features of the disease, including the shrinkage of cortical brain tissue. Illustration provided by Bill Westwood

Westwood showed WMHT how research-heavy the job can be. When he's ready to create a medical illustration, he starts by focusing on a sketch of the work. Once that gets laid out, he puts his sketch in a scanner and opens it on his computer. From there, he'll fill in the details, like airbrushing a red blood cell.

Westwood said his job is extremely rewarding and, even after 52 years, he has no plans to retire.

This report originally appeared on WMHT's "AHA! A House for Arts."

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