Maya's clog.

...a medical illustrator draws comics and writes blog posts

interview: Dave Killpack

I'd like to introduce a new segment. I'll be interviewing my colleagues to try to give some insight into what medical illustrators are like. What do we do? How do we tick? What's a "day in the life" and why the heck do we enjoy biomedical visualization so much? Enjoy!Maya interviews medical illustratorsDave Killpack, my friend and owner of Illumination Studios, is an award-winning medical illustrator with many years of experience. He makes animations to envy, and is very good with veterinary subjects as well as medical. Maya: Dave, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview! I've known you since I moved to Texas (the first time) and you've definitely put down roots here. Can you tell us a little bit about where are you from, and how you ended up the Dallas area?

Dave: I grew up on a farm in southwest Iowa.  My family didn't travel much but even at a fairly young age I thought Texas seemed like a good place to be.  I suppose being interested in herpetology (study of reptiles and amphibians) had something to do with that notion.  After I graduated from Iowa State University, I accepted a position at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas as a Medical Illustrator.

Maya: How did you become interested in scientific and medical illustration?

Dave: It seems like I've always been interested in scientific visualization as a career.  I suppose that's not entirely true; I think I wanted to be a farmer as a small boy, then a paleontologist, and shortly after that a scientific illustrator.  While I was attending ISU, I was employed at a company called Engineering Animation as a scientific illustrator.  At the time, I believe they employed more medical illustrators than any other company and I had the good fortune of working with them.  That really sparked my interest in medical illustration specifically.  I really enjoy the diversity of scientific visualization including medical and scientific illustration, animation, etc.  I always try to keep a number of projects going in different specialties because that variety is a large part of the interest for me.

Dave Killpack illustration example

Maya: What do you say when you meet somebody new and they ask "What do you do for a living?"

Dave: This is one of those questions that those of us with a somewhat atypical job always wonder what other people in the same shoes might say.  Personally, I try to mix it up and it depends a bit on what I gauge the person's realm of experience to be but my response ranges from something like "I make the images in science textbooks" to "I create animations like you might see on the science channel."  Depending on their response, I add info or backpedal from there ;)

Maya: It's so true! I'm always changing it up, but I have a few scripted responses to choose from. My favorite is "I draw organs!" - though that one really only works on friends. How do you describe your job to somebody in the medical community, or to a scientist?

Dave: For someone in the sciences, I often tell them that I facilitate and streamline the communication of their science.  That's a bit general and typically evolves from there depending on their specialty.  For a surgeon I might say, "I eliminate extraneous details and clarify your procedures" whereas for an entomologist, "I draw attention to details that are important for accurate identification."  Physicians and scientists in general have tremendous access to a variety of imaging technologies these days but that doesn't mean they know the best or most elegant way to use them to tell their story.  In fact, if someone questions the need for my services based on their usage of these technologies, I might ask if they think every person with access to a word processing application is a writer.  That being said, I find that pretty much everyone in the sciences is excited about the services I provide.

Maya: Art or science?

Dave: Good question...I used to always say science hands down.  And the question I was answering is..."If you want to be successful in scientific visualization, is it better be an artist first and a scientist second or the other way around?"  Over the years, I have met a roughly equal percentage of people who have been very successful in this profession with obvious strengths in either art or science.  Now I often think of it less as one or the other and more about a continuum where a strength in either one might provide a particular asset to that individual.  For me personally though, I've always been interested in the science first and the art was just one way of expressing that interest.

Maya: I'll put you down for "science" then! What inspires you?

Dave: This question is a great followup to the previous one because I can answer science again.  I love new and unique scientific information and I instinctively visualize it in a way that I would like to see it presented.  I think the science will always be first for me, but after doing this for a number of years I can also say that the artistic components such as unique or beautiful rendering techniques (and I mean rendering either traditionally or digitally) and elegant design are a close second.  When an amazing scientific concept is carried out with the an appropriate and beautiful style...for me, that is the most inspirational execution of scientific visualization.  I should also throw in that when I have a project that I think needs something and I just can't figure out what to do, I like to refer to other artistic expressions and contemporary design for inspiration.  I also have a series of Internet favorites folders with various artists from a variety of disciplines that I refer to for inspiration.

Maya: That's great. Science is definitely a beautiful thing! Is there a favorite artist you consistently look to? What about a favorite scientist?

Dave: It would be hard to limit myself to just one in either category but if I had to list a few of my all time favorites: Leonardo da Vinci, Alfred Russel Wallace, & Charles Darwin and a couple current faves: E.O. Wilson & John D. Dawson.

Maya: Now that you're inspired, let's talk about your current work and life. Can you tell us a little bit about your company?

Dave: Illumination Studios was conceived before I graduated from Iowa State and I'd been working toward the goal of full time self employment for 8-9 years.  I started full time work for myself in 2008 and so far, even with an otherwise terrible economy, things have been good. I think several features that help with that are diversity of work (I do a lot of work in different markets) and diversity of product (I offer everything from line drawings and vector animation to photorealistic paintings and 3D animation).  I also provide associated services such as web/application design, scientific writing, logo and other design, etc for my clients making me a bit of a one-stop shop.

Maya: What is your workday like?

Dave: A typical work day, if you can call any of them typical, starts at 4-5am.  I try to get a few hours of work in before the rest of the family wakes and then spend an hour or 2 with them.  Around 8:30-9, its back to work til lunch time...often with the family if the workload allows. After lunch, and back to work til my "family time" alarm kicks on at 5:30pm.  In case you can't tell, I'm a bit of a workaholic but I also love spending time with my family so I try to drop everything and spend the evenings with them too.  I'll often do some work after the kids are in bed too depending on current project schedules.  As for the work itself, depending on the project I might be working on a 3D model, rendering an animation, digitally painting an illustration, or working on a user interface for an application or some combination of the above.

Maya: You had a second child this past year. How does your [awesome] family affect your work-self? How do you find time to get the work done with two small [adorable] children in the same building?

Dave: A great question and one that ties in with my typical work day response.  The key to getting time to work are schedules, rules, and boundaries - for the kids, not me ;).  For example, my youngest son sleeps through the night but often wakes up around 4-5.  I change his diaper, my wife feeds him and then he sleeps til 7 or 8.  My eldest son is 3 and gets up at 7:15 every morning (he has a clock that turns green when its time to get up).  We play, have breakfast, and hang out til about 8:30 when Mom's shift begins.  My wife stays at home with the kids (or takes them on outings to get them out of the house) so that helps greatly as well.  My eldest son is getting into art and legos so he has a spot in my studio to do his work.  In fact, he tells his mom "I'm going to work now" when he's headed into the studio.  We also have rules about noise or interrupting when daddy is on the phone and I try not to be on the phone during family time. Maya: That's pretty cute! Does your work stay in your physical office?

Dave: Mostly yes...I do have a couple of laptops and can work elsewhere if needed but mainly because of the mountains of reference material I often use, its tough to be very portable.  As you know, certain stages of a project are more portable than others.  There are also client meetings, OR visits, conferences and trade shows that may require travel but most of the work is done in the studio.

Maya: Do you ever miss working for "the man"?

Dave: At times I miss working with other people nearby who do the same sort of thing. It's nice to have others to critique your work and help with problem solving.  I think most solo practitioners get that feeling though.  And of course the health insurance is certainly much more expensive on your own but I think the benefits to being your own boss far outweigh that and I enjoy working alone most of the time.  When I get the urge to chat with someone, I find a friend (such as yourself) online for a few minutes and have even started trying to get that creative critique online as well.

Maya: What is the most frustrating thing about your work? The most rewarding?

Dave: The most frustrating thing has to be a project that I am less than interested in when I know I've got another project that I'm really interested in that also needs work.  I have to find ways to make that less interesting project more engaging or it languishes.  The most rewarding part of my work is when I've successfully completed a project and finding that not only does the client love it but that I still like it too.

Maya: These are great repsonses! Do you have any advice for those considering a career in medical illustration?

Dave: Love science...not only will it will help you understand your projects and identify with many clients but it will keep you interest piqued.

Love art...its what you'll be doing day in and day out.

Be open to new technology...its more important now than ever that people in all fields, not just scientific visualization, can grasp new methods quickly.

Maya: Describe yourself in 3 words.

Dave: Innovative, Driven, Devoted

Maya: I only wish that "innovative" started with a "d." Dave, thanks so much for sharing your talent and your life with us!