Alex Webber is a medical and scientific illustrator from North Carolina, United States. She is known for her exceptional knack for illustrating the latest discoveries in medical science and healthcare.
“… I wasn’t terribly interested in graphic design and fine arts didn’t quite fit either. The first time I heard about medical illustration…it was a light bulb moment.…“
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Can you please tell us a bit about your background?
I’ve always been interested in art and science, especially where those two meet.
Growing up, my dad worked with electron microscopes and I was fascinated by SEM photos (scanning electron microscopy). I’ve known I wanted to be an artist since I was about five (other than a brief period where I wanted to be a race car driver) but I floated around for a bit trying to find where I fit.
I wasn’t terribly interested in graphic design and fine arts didn’t quite fit either. The first time I heard about medical illustration…it was a light bulb moment. I knew that’s where I fit. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I’ve been doing this since the early ’90s and I feel incredibly lucky that nearly thirty years on I still love what I do.
What inspired you to make art?
I’ve always drawn.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a brush in my hand. It’s just always been there.
My mom got me an old copy of Janson’s History of Art and I can remember spending hours in my room flipping through pages, trying to draw from the pictures.
Did you study at art school(s) or are you self-taught? What did you study? What were the “aha” moments? What did you find the most beneficial?
I took art all through school.
I was lucky enough to get to take a Saturday life drawing class at the Atlanta College of Art while I was in high school. And I applied for the Governor’s Honors Program in art and spent 6 weeks in a college-like environment between my junior and senior years.
I also spent a month at another summer program outside of Rome, Georgia. I can’t remember the name of the program but one of the instructors was Brian Brooks.
I studied art and zoology in college and received an interdisciplinary degree in Scientific Illustration. I went to graduate school at the Medical College of Georgia (now Regents University in Augusta GA) and finished with an MS in medical illustration.
I loved graduate school. It was hard and rigorous, but I knew I’d found my place.
How did you develop your own art style? Where do you go for inspiration? How do you keep your creativity flowing?
Even though I work digitally, my style is definitely based on traditional media.
When I finished graduate school – I felt like I had learned how to render, but that my drawing skills had not really improved at all. I spent many years working intentionally to improve my drawing style and the more I worked at it – the more I found I loved the sketch more than the finished piece.
So I started letting my drawing show through the illustration. I build the image up in sheer layers of color on top of my base drawing. This again is a development that comes out of traditional media.
I grew up painting in oils and struggled with watercolor. In college, I took a watercolor class and finally got a handle on how to paint with transparency.
This in turn affected how I used oils – I began using Liquin and letting my drawing show through and building up the color in sheer stages. I reproduce that digitally using layer styles. I can get colors with overplayed translucency that you can’t get by mixing.
How did you start making a living as an artist? What was your first paid art job?
My first paid art job was as a middle school kid.
I got a very small commission to draw some grayscale illustrations for a neighborhood cookbook. I was reproduced at Kinkos. Back in the early ’80s.
But I didn’t start making a living as an artist until after I finished graduate school. I got a full-time job as a medical illustrator right after graduation…and I hated it. I really thought I picked the wrong career path. It really made me doubt myself.
I left there and spent a year running a Mac lab at a local university and starting freelancing in the evenings. I realized that I hadn’t picked the wrong career, I’d just picked the wrong employment.
I was eventually able to go freelance full time about four or five years later and haven’t looked back.
What do you live from as an artist now? What are your main income streams and what is the approximate % split of each?
99% of my income is from illustration and about 1% is from fine arts projects.
I’m now about 15 years from retirement and would like to steadily increase the fine arts piece of the pie.
I still absolutely love what I do, but it would be nice to give some of the hard-core research a break. The work ahead is to unlearn all the tightness and to remember what it is to play.
What are you currently working on?
I have a big surgical book in the house now. It’s a vascular surgery book out of the Cleveland Clinic and Yale.
Surgery is a really difficult subject. (I mostly love it but there are moments you want to bang your head against a wall.) I love the challenges of surgical illustration. You have a process that needs to be broken down into a series of logical steps. You need to make sure each step shows an action taking place rather than producing a series of before and afters.
And then you layer on the challenge of drawing anatomy that is not normal and gets moved out of its normal anatomical relationships. And finally, throw in rendering tissue dynamics and textures on top of all of that, and generally on tight deadlines. It’s a challenge.
I also have a monthly magazine cover that I do for JADPRO – a magazine for nurse practitioners in oncology.
Here and there I do live anatomy body painting for a local health and wellness company and that is always a lot of fun.
What do you think are the most important characteristics of an artist?
I’m not sure what the most important characteristics of an artist are – I’m still working on that one.
But I think consistency is a really important characteristic for an illustrator. Also – don’t miss your deadlines and just generally be a nice person to work with.
Those things really help.
What are the art tools and other products and services you can’t live without?
A 0.5mm tech pencil, H leads, click erasers, and tracing paper.
I sketch on trace because you can spend all of your time drawing instead of erasing. Start with your rough image, blocking in general composition and proportions…flip over a new piece of trace and keep drawing as you work up a refined image.
Also, it stays flat, does stand up to erasing when you have to erase, and the lack of texture makes for a good scan.
What are your favorite art and other books (fiction, non-fiction)?
I read mainly modern fiction. I’m currently reading Mary Doria Russel’s latest.
While I do love art books, I love art museums even more. My husband and I have gone on pilgrimages to go see various artists and museums. It started with a weekend in DC at the National Galleries and the Freer.
We’ve been up to Boston to see the work and murals of John Singer Sargent, we’ve been to see the Edward Gorey house, and we’re thinking about heading up to see the Wyeth museum after seeing an exhibit covering three generations of the family.
Every time we leave town, we go to an art museum. It’s a thing.
Get in touch with Alex
- Website: www.dnaillustrations.com
- Association of Medical Illustrators: www.medillsb.com/dnaillustrations
- Instagram: @drawing_anatomy
Thank you, Alex, for joining us today!
All artworks by Alex Webber, used with permission.
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