Jennifer Brumbaugh is a formally trained medical illustrator at Thomas Jefferson University. She specializes in medical illustrations of the pancreas. We recently had a chance to sit down and talk with her about her career.
Where are you from?
I was born on Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana but most of my childhood was spent in Pennsylvania. I consider myself a Bucks County native.
Where did you go to college and what was your academic major?
I graduated from Penn State with a BFA in Fine Arts and a minor in Art History. But I also went to Syracuse and the University of Colorado before ending up in Happy Valley.
What was your career path from college to your current position?
After Penn State, I worked as a waitress full-time for a few years while I went to night school. I knew that I wanted to apply to graduate programs in medical illustration but needed to build up my portfolio and finish the science requirements.
I took art classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to build up my traditional skills and portfolio and finished my science courses at Thomas Jefferson University.
I started at Johns Hopkins in 1997 and graduated in 1999. For my thesis project, I chose to develop an educational website for patients with pancreatic cancer.
While working on the project, I met the (current Chair of Surgery at Jefferson.) I wanted to build up some web development skills before I graduated and started job hunting.
That job hunt never started. I ended up being hired by my preceptor, Dr. Ralph Hruban, in the Department of Pathology at Johns Hopkins. I expanded upon my thesis project and ended up working there for 7 years in the Informatics Division. It really was a very long extension of my educational experience at Hopkins. I had the luxury of learning a lot on the job.
Fast forward to October 2005, I was married, 7 months pregnant, living in Philadelphia and driving to Hopkins a couple times a week. The phone rang one day and the (Jefferson Surgery Chair) called to ask me if Iâ€™d be interested in working with him at Jefferson. It was a no-brainer.
Iâ€™ve been at Thomas Jefferson for almost two years now as a Webmaster and Medical Illustrator.
How old were you when you realized you had artistic talent?
Iâ€™ve been drawing as long as I can remember. I guess I started to realize that I had some talent during high school. I attended weekend classes at Moore College of Art. That was a defining experience.
Why medical illustration and not some other area of art?
I appreciate art for artâ€™s sake but the idea of working by myself in a studio and trying to exhibit and sell pieces doesnâ€™t appeal to me. I enjoy â€œcommercialâ€ work â€“ photography, graphic design and illustration. Some of my classmates would say that I â€œsold outâ€.
But, I love being able to use my knowledge and skills to make a living. I had seriously considered applying for medical school before I heard about medical illustration as a career.
My fine art work was mostly figure drawing and I have always been fascinated by anatomy, so medical illustration was the perfect fit.
Can you describe the courses you took in your medical illustration training? Did you have to take a gross anatomy course in your medical illustration training?
I went to the Art as Applied to Medicine Program at Johns Hopkins, one of only four programs left in the country. Itâ€™s a two-year masterâ€™s degree program.
The first year we took Gross Anatomy, Histology, Comparative Pathology and Cell Biology with the first year medical students along with several illustration courses covering traditional and digital techniques.
The first part of the second year was mostly comprised of observing and sketching in the operating rooms and autopsy room. Then the rest of the program was spent working on our thesis project.
Who is the top medical illustrator of all time?
Being a Johns Hopkins graduate, I would have to say Max Brodel. He was born in Leipzig, Germany and arrived in Baltimore in the very late 1800â€™s. He worked at Johns Hopkins with some legendary surgeons including Howard Kelly and Thomas Cullen.
He was the founding director of the program I attended. The archive of all his work is housed next to the student studio space at Hopkins and available to study. His pen and ink and carbon dust illustrations are absolutely mind blowing.
Do you draw either for fun or profit that is not medical illustration?
Unfortunately, itâ€™s been a very long time since Iâ€™ve done any artwork just for the fun of it. I do miss it but spending time with my 2-year old daughter trumps everything else right now.
Did you ever have any squeamishness looking at surgical procedures or cadavers?
I am usually so fascinated that I donâ€™t really think about it. The only part of surgery that does bother me sometimes is the incision.
I was fine with the cadavers but autopsy was pretty unnerving at first.
What part of the body is hardest for you to draw?
I donâ€™t necessarily find any part difficult to draw. I find surgical illustration to be a huge challenge.
The drawing is often the easiest part. Itâ€™s the composition of the illustration that is difficult- to make sure that not only the anatomy is correct but that the sequence of events, techniques, and instruments are accurately depicted.
What is your preferred medium in doing medical illustration?
I always go back to simple pencil and paper. Itâ€™s what Iâ€™m most comfortable with.
How has the computer changed medical illustration?
Itâ€™s really just another medium and tool in our bag of tricks. When illustrators first started to use computers to render their images, the artwork looked very stiff and flat and the artistâ€™s touch was lost.
But, as time went on illustrators figured out how to use the computer to the best of their advantage. A very popular technique is to do the original sketch in pencil on paper, scan the drawing in, and add color with the airbrush tool in Adobe Photoshop.
Another technique is to customize brushes in Adobe Illustrator that recreate the variability of tradition pen and ink.
For me, the best part of working on the computer is being able to fix mistakes easily. Thereâ€™s nothing worse than working on an intricate illustration with a traditional airbrush and have it spit paint everywhere. That doesnâ€™t happen with the computer and if it did, you could just undo it.
How do you prevent your work from pirated or illegally copied, particularly on the Internet?
When I first started working, I looked into all different ways of protecting my work with watermarks and digital signatures. But there are ways to get around that.
If Iâ€™m really concerned I will put a watermark over the image but other than that I just keep the files small and at screen resolution so they wonâ€™t print out well.