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Medical Illustrations that Blend Spirituality and Science

Sarah Berman’s medical illustrations are full of weird, whimsical details.

Picture the human circulatory system. Think of the central arteries, and how branches of tiny capillaries radiate outwards into endless fractal patterns.

Now, picture the veins of a crisp green leaf.

For artist and illustrator Sarah Berman, nature’s parallels provide the ties between her own disparate fields of art and science. “When you look at nature and you appreciate the beauty of it, that comes from its sacred geometry, from mathematics, from science,” says Berman. “Creatively, that’s what inspires me most of all.”

Thankfully, inspiration’s in ample supply. Berman was raised on an apple orchard and now lives in New Paltz, a village nestled between the towering mountains and lush valleys of upstate New York. When she’s not carting her sketchbook around the countryside, she spends her days creating meticulous anatomical diagrams for global healthcare companies like Pfizer, Allergan, and Tylenol.

“If we were taught scientific things in a way that’s more relevant to our own lives, to our environment, it would be more exciting and magical.”

Even in Berman’s slick corporate work, there’s always a lingering sense of its creator’s awe, delight, and deep connection to the subject matter—a quality she credits to her surroundings. “My process is a mixture of intuitive, whimsical things combined with a lot of structure and information,” says Berman. “I’m an artist who needs both of those things to create and feel in the way that I do. And living upstate has done a lot of that for me.”

This natural curiosity enabled Berman to succeed in medical illustration, a field traditionally dominated by designers with advanced scientific degrees. Instead of donning the lab coat and pursuing the requisite MSc, Berman opted to study illustration at Parsons School of Design and supplement her science education at the Genspace community biotech lab in Brooklyn. Here, she created Communicating Through Human Energy and Bacteria, the acclaimed series of UV bacterial paintings that garnered coverage from outlets like Popular Science and NPR.

As seen in Human Energy—which sought to depict non-verbal, energetic communication with fluorescent proteins—Berman’s work frequently intertwines scientific processes with more spiritual concepts.

“It’s interesting to think of things that could exist, that are seen by society as more of a hippie, new-age thing,” explains Berman. “Energy is often viewed in a spiritual sense. Yet there are plenty of energies that we observe in the world and use everyday. These are factual pieces of information that are held up by evidence. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t others that we haven’t discovered yet. Thinking about these open concepts, and mixing them with scientific information is really interesting to me.”

After graduating from Parsons, her eclectic portfolio began to draw the attention of medical writers who needed illustrations for their material, allowing Berman to further her scientific education with each new assignment. “The more you know about a system, the more effectively you can communicate it through a visual. Project to project, I get to learn what I need to know while I’m illustrating. It’s sort of a backwards process, rather than going to school and retaining all this information.”

Poring over anatomy diagrams sounds gruelling, but it’s thrilling work for Berman. “Usually when you hear the word science, it feels heavy, hard to digest,” admits Berman. “But if we were taught scientific things in a way that’s more relevant to our own lives, to our environment, it would be more exciting and magical. I think the natural curiosity in us would come out.”

Find more of Sarah Berman’s work at her online portfolio, built using Format.

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