Studio Session: Medical Illustrator Kristen Larson Keil

Sara CrockerMarch 23, 2023
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As a medical illustrator, Kristen Larson Keil creates art that brings to life neurological research and discoveries related to the brain. And doing that requires her to use both sides of hers.

“I can’t do abstract art,” she says, “but I really enjoy precision and detail and anatomy and science – it’s just this magical combination of the things I love.”

Larson Keil is a senior medical illustrator and interim manager of neuroscience publications at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. Her work, which also includes spinal anatomy, appears in medical journals, textbooks and even Barrow’s social media. “Explaining that detail and really complex things in a way that people can understand… is a challenge, but it’s a lot of fun,” Larson Keil says.

She’s seen her “unique specialty” thrust into the limelight with the pandemic.
As the medical illustration of the coronavirus – a ridged gray sphere with red spikes – scrolled across newscasts and social media, interest and awareness of her field grew. It wasn’t always that way.

As a teen in Kearney, Nebraska, Larson Keil planned to become a doctor. But her art teacher encouraged her to consider something that would allow her to continue to use her skills as an artist – and connected her with a former student working as a medical illustrator.

“It was just the perfect combination of all the things that I loved, so that became my focus,” she says. She studied medical illustration in her undergrad and post-graduate work. Translating medical concepts visually requires a strong understanding of science in addition to art.

“We’ll do a lot of research,” she says, adding that it’s critical to be attuned to the latest scientific research. “The brain is still kind of a mystery. There’s still so much we’re learning about it.”

See Larson Keil’s work on Twitter @kristenlarson.

The medical illustrations Larson Keil and her team develop are used in medical journals, textbooks, presentations by Barrow doctors and social media. “To be able to have our artwork out there helping explain these new ideas or new things that [our doctors are] discovering – it’s really exciting,” she says.
In addition to digital references, Larson Keil relies on physical models. The Barrow team built a digital 3D rendering and printed it with a 3D printer. “This is a really accurate model that we can use to see where that nerve is going in, where that muscle is going out.” She also works from archived MRIs that “go slice-by-slice through a human brain.”
“When I first started, we were drawing with pencil, scanning it in and colorizing it in Photoshop,” Larson Keil says. Today, she and her team still sketch up rough ideas, but she largely illustrates using a stylus pen, transcribing every line or stoke digitally.
To keep her drawing skills sharp, for many years Larson Keil did portraits in graphite. While she doesn’t have the time to do as many portraits today, “I get weekly requests from my kids to draw things for them so they can color them in or add their own spin,” she says.

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