Sketching for science

Thousand Oaks man honored for work as a medical illustrator

An illustration by Tim Hengst shows the back of an eye with a large retinal detachment and large retinal tears.

Photo: Tim Hengst

During his first semester of college at Cal Lutheran University in 1968, Tim Hengst developed a fascination with the workings of the human body. He was majoring in art, but after signing up for Curtis Nelson’s anatomy class, primarily to fulfill his college science requirement, Hengst discovered a new passion.

Taking that one class ultimately put Hengst on a path toward an often overl ooked yet valuable line of work.

For the past 38 years, the Thousand Oaks resident has been a medical illustrator—an artist who depicts the human body, surgical procedures and other biological images for use in medical textbooks and journals.

“My professor noticed my interest in anatomy,” the CLU alumnus said. “(Nelson) had actually at one time thought about becoming a medical illustrator. Knowing I was an art major, he introduced me to it. I had no idea there was even such a career.

“I started looking into it, and by sophomore year I patterned the rest of my elective courses to fit the requirements and get into grad school.”

Hengst went on to earn a master’s degree in art as applied to medicine from Johns Hopkins University.

Last month the international nonprofit Association of Medical Illustrators presented the 63-year-old artist with its Lifetime Achievement Award—the highest honor the organization bestows on an individual.

The award recognizes AMI members whose life, work and accomplishments have signifi- cantly contributed to the medical illustration profession.

“ It was really a thrill,” Hengst said. “I’ve been an active member in the association since 1975. . . . I always looked at past recipients with great admiration and didn’t really think I’d ever be in that group. It was just a great honor.”

Besides being a board-certified medical illustrator, Hengst is also a professor and the current chair of CLU’s multimedia program. He’s been teaching at the Thous and Oaks campus since 2001.

“The classes I teach are not medically related,” he said. “ But we use all the same digital tools we now use to illustrate in the medical field.”

Beneath the surface

Over the course of his career, Hengst has illustrated more than 50 medical textbooks and 100 journal articles.

His favorite body part to illustrate is the eye, he said.

“It’s almost a different world,” said the artist, who has received honors from the American Academy of Ophthalmology for his work. “Everything else is right there in front of you, but the eye is kind of mysterious. You have to look through the pupil to see into the eye. It’s so unique that there’s a whole separate surgical specialty for it.”

Although medical illustrators also sometimes create images for high school and college biology textbooks, Hengst specializes primarily in surgical texts—books that doctors use to study a surgical specialty.

The artist has illustrated books on orthopedics, brain aneurisms and complicated heart surgeries.

Early in his career, he worked as an illustrator for the Texas Children’s Hospital, the Texas Heart Institute and the Wilmer Ophthalmological Institute.

“The most challenging thing about medical illustration is being able to educate visually—trying to come up with a way to clearly demonstrate a complex procedure in a visual way that people can understand,” Hengst said. “The conceptual part of it is the most difficult. But it’s also the fun part.”

Art meets science

Hengst said he’s had an exciting career thus far.

“The really great part of the job is that you’re actually on the cutting edge of medical discovery and breakthroughs,” he said. “You’re illustrating procedures that are innovative and on the leading edge of medicine. Because people are writing journal articles or textbooks describing the new techniques, you really get to be at the forefront.”

Besides teaching at CLU and running his own medical illustration business, Hengst is the executive director of the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company—the university’s professional theater company.

He also produces digital abstract art using photography and computer graphics.

“I love all aspects of art,” he said. “Science is a real right-brain phenomenon, while art is a left-brain phenomenon. Not many people are able to cross over between the two, but it’s something that’s always come kind of naturally to me.”

--- Published in The Acorn on Aug. 29, 2013

Click here to listen to an interview with Tim Hengst on KCLU.