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Behind the Image

“Growing up seeing beautiful watercolor illustrations of animals and plants inspired me to learn how to draw and paint.”  – Kate Zumach


The Defense Mechanism of the Bombardier Beetle
Kate Zumach, MS

Please describe your primary line of work.

Currently, I have achieved my dream job as a medical animator for a patient education company called Swarm Interactive. My job is to work on a team and create medically accurate 3D content for patient education videos. I am very grateful to my graduate program, Biomedical Visualization (BVIS), for preparing me for this opportunity.

Tell us about your educational background. Is it in both science and art?

Growing up I felt divided thinking that I had to make an ultimatum, choose science or art. I didn’t think it was possible to pursue both until I came across the Biological Pre-Medical Illustration (BPMI) program at Iowa State University. Through this program I took both science pre-medical and design classes to prepare myself for the next step, graduate school. I attended the BVIS program at UIC in my hometown of Chicago for two years and earned a Master's of Science. In graduate school I took science courses including human anatomy. I also had intensive design courses in topics including traditional media, 3D modeling, graphic design, and animation.

What first sparked your interest in scientific illustration?

I have loved scientific illustrations since I was young. My mother is an artist and she would always have me look through instructional illustration books. Growing up seeing beautiful watercolor illustrations of animals and plants inspired me to learn how to draw and paint. I started going to GNSI conferences to learn from other amazing scientific illustrators and had a blast getting to enjoy my three favorite things: learning, drawing, and nature.

What advice would you give people who are just starting out in this field?

To anyone just starting out, I would suggest getting a sketchbook and taking it with you on hikes or even just in the backyard to draw objects that fascinate you. I would recommend getting involved in GNSI as a great networking and learning experience.

The illustrations you create are accurate, educational and aesthetically pleasing. Can you describe the process you usually go through when preparing an illustration?

Illustration is all about the prep work. First and foremost you have to do the research. There is a good deal of preparatory research on a topic before a sketch is even made. The method of research done corresponds to the type of illustration you are creating. For example, if you are creating natural illustrations of a certain species of frogs, most of your research may be observation and making sure that key characteristics of the species are represented. In contrast, if you are creating an illustration of a protein and highlighting specific binding properties, then most of your research will be through primary research papers about the proteins. For me, that is usually finding a book or two and lots of research papers.

The next step is focus on the best way to tell the story. Personally, I feel that the easiest way to begin is to create the title first. This helps focus what information is important. After making the title and writing out the accompanying text, I go through several rounds of sketches to determine the best composition. After the composition is set, the next step is creating your main character and the environment the character lives in. This phase is all about making the story come to life. I would say each illustration is about 70 percent research and 20 percent creation.

Can you tell us about the skill sets required to produce this particular illustration?

My background in entomology was very beneficial for this illustration. My understanding of the terminology and anatomy involved aided my research of the topic before beginning. This illustration required 3D knowledge in order to create the characters and environment. At BVIS, I was taught 3D modeling and animation using mainly Autodesk 3D Studio Max and Pixologic ZBrush. This illustration was made with 3D Studio Max and finishing touches were made in Adobe Photoshop. The beetle, internal organs, ants, and environment were 3D modeled and textured in 3D Studio Max. The insets were digitally painted in Photoshop.

What is your favorite medium?

I have a passion for 3D but I think my favorite medium is traditional pen and ink. I have always been fascinated by how masters, like Max Brӧdel, made such expressive and strategic lines in their illustrations. One of the reasons I love pen and ink is because for me it is always a challenge and it forces me to evolve my techniques. With every illustration you come away learning something unique. That being said I also love 3D work for the same reasons in that it is always a new challenge and I am constantly learning new methods.

Do you use photography in the creative process?

Photography can be a huge asset in the creative process for illustrations. For a past entomology illustration, I utilized microscopes adapted with cameras to get accurate photographic references of different species of mosquitoes. Having photographic references was extremely beneficial to work off of when I wasn’t in the lab on the microscope. Photography is a very powerful media and each illustrator can use it differently depending on the piece.

Can you give examples of why an illustration may work better than a photograph of the same subject?

One situation where an illustration could be chosen over a photograph would be to show a surgical procedure. The illustration would have the accuracy of the photograph but the artist can exclude details that aren’t necessary like extra tissue or blood and accentuate specific details that are important for the procedure. For learning purposes, the artist can reduce extraneous information and clear the fog so to speak to show the viewer what is most important.

What is the influence of digital technology on your illustrations?

Digital technology is present in all of my work. Currently, the only art I do traditionally now is sketching. Some illustrations are more digital heavy than others and that all depends on the medium. For instance, if I created a traditional pen and ink illustration I would still scan it in and clean up any imperfections digitally. On the other hand, for a scientific illustration needing 3D the majority of the illustration would be done digitally including some of the sketching.

What has technology enabled you to do that you were not able to do before?

I think it has created an opening for completely new styles of illustrating and teaching. For some it is more of a tool to create what you would create traditionally but in a shorter timeframe. Digital illustrations can be easily reproduced and used for multiple purposes. I know for many of my peers, technology has allowed them to expand upon what it means to be a Biomedical Visualization specialist. New advances such as VR and haptic simulations create new niches for creation. For me personally technology has enabled me to work on a team that creates patient education animations. The digital platform allows these animations to be easily accessible to patients in the doctor’s office and at home.

How purposeful would say is the role of a natural science illustrator in science and education?

In my opinion, natural scientific illustration plays a key role in bridging the gap between scientific literature and its audience. The illustrator has the knowledge to understand and the power to communicate. Personally I see the natural science illustrator as the great mediator by aiding the scientist to communicate to the lay audience in a digestible and attractive format.

What artists/illustrators inspire or influence you.

Starting out, I found inspiration from many great classic medical illustrators like Tom Jones, Max Brӧdel, and Frank Netter. These are some of the celebrities of medical illustration. I was also influenced early on by local scientific illustrators, such as Peggy Macnamara. While attending graduate school I dove deeper into the community and met so many fantastic illustrators. I feel that my style is constantly evolving and I find inspiration not only from past artists but from my instructors and my peers.

Do you have any advice for illustrators who are interested in a career in biomedical/life sciences?

My advice for illustrators would be to find topics you are passionate about and create pieces that challenge you. If you have more of a background in art, then take science classes that interest you. I would also find an artist who inspires you and practice their style. If you are interested in continuing education there are many great undergraduate and graduate programs across the country along with certifications for scientific illustration. For graduate school, make sure you check each program’s requirements. Also think about your portfolio. A great way to challenge yourself artistically and add to your portfolio is by going to figure drawing sessions.

Why did you enter BioImages and what do you think of the competition?

We are very encouraged as students to display work that we are proud of. Many BVIS students past and present have submitted to the BioImages competition and it is always a great way to share with the biocommunication community. The BioImages competition has a wonderful reputation for showcasing powerful multidisciplinary visualizations of life sciences and medicine. The competition reflects the rich history of the BCA and its continuing history of showcasing images that tell stories of medical and scientific discoveries.

Why did you choose to submit this particular image?

I wanted to submit this piece because it was the one that had challenged me the most. It was my first 3D illustration while in graduate school and needles to say I had many hurdles and learning curves to overcome. I had wonderful support and feedback from my instructors and classmates and in the end I was able to create an illustration that I was proud of.