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The Art of Science

July 16, 2004—Through a twist of fate, Keith Kasnot ’74 became a pioneer in the use of computers for medical illustration and animation. His illustrations have appeared in numerous publications, including National Geographic and Scientific American, and his award-winning medical animation has been featured in television documentaries and pharmaceutical advertising campaigns.

Keith Kasnot


Not only has his work helped people understand biological functions, but his fusion of accuracy and aesthetics have become works of art.

Originally from Pittsburgh, Kasnot moved to Scranton when he was twelve. He majored in sculpture at IUP and studied fine art for a year in Heidelberg, Germany, followed by a semester working in Manhattan with internationally renowned sculptor Seymour Lipton. But by the time Kasnot began graduate school at IUP he had become disillusioned about his future. “I hit a point in my life where I was questioning myself, so I decided to join the Marine Corps,” he said. He was accepted and was all set to begin training as a first lieutenant.


But while driving home in February, 1976, he slid around a corner in his ’68 MGB, breaking both of his knees. “I can’t run distances anymore but can still ride a mountain bike,” he said. “Pretty good, all things considered.”

The Marines gave him a deferment because of his injury. It was while recovering in the hospital that Kasnot met a physical therapist who changed his life. Not only did he end up marrying the aptly named Hope, but she brought him anatomy books during his recovery to answer questions about his condition. That information led to a career.

“At that point, I knew nothing about anatomy and physiology,” Kasnot said. “I’d always had an interest in science, and when I saw all of the medical illustrations, I thought, ‘Wow, this is great stuff.’”


Kasnot sank his teeth into the subject after his accident. Discovering he wanted to be a medical illustrator but not having a scientific background, he took human anatomy courses at the University of Pittsburgh and basic sciences at Allegheny Community College. He married Hope and was accepted by all three of the graduate level medical illustration programs he applied to (there are only six in the country). He eventually chose the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, supporting himself by driving a taxicab while Hope continued to work in Pittsburgh until they moved to Dallas. He received his master’s degree in 1983.

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The Beauty of Form and Function


Kasnot’s artwork has been praised for its detail and graphic realism. He is strongly influenced by the work of Max Brodel, the founder of the nation’s first medical illustration program at Johns Hopkins in the 1930s. Brodel wrote, “Mere copying of a medical object is really not medical illustrating at all.”

Kasnot’s stylistic approach, combining traditional painting techniques with digital design, reveals images that are not only accurate enough for medical magazines but also beautiful enough to hang on a living room wall. His goal of combining technical accuracy and beauty is the same as what drove Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci: to communicate the form and function of the human body through illustration.

Several years’ worth of experience as art director for Intermedics, a biotechnology company, and as creative director for the Arizona Heart Institute in Phoenix gave him contacts and taught him the business of marketing and advertising from both the corporate and the agency’s points of view. Feeling that he could be more productive and maintain better focus on his work, Kasnot eventually decided to take direct control of his destiny and became a freelance illustrator in 1987.


“It’s been fairly easy for me to keep busy,” Kasnot said. Working out of his home, his workdays generally run from 7:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m., with the occasional Sunday off.

Despite requests, Kasnot does not have time to work on anything other than medical illustrations. The field, however, offers an amazingly wide array of options:

  • He has provided illustrations for personal injury and malpractice cases. Such “medicolegal” illustrations help juries understand the technology-laden jargon of an expert witness, clarifying critical aspects of a case.
  • Working with doctors who treat cancer or trauma patients, his prosthetic models are used to create artificial ears, noses, etc. to replace damaged parts of the face that have been removed.
  • He has written scientific book reviews on medical illustration books and contributed to medical and illustration trade journals.
  • His animations are used by pharmaceutical companies to show the mechanisms of action of drugs or the causes of atherosclerosis. These can appear on videotape for physicians, on DVD for plasma screen projections at trade shows, or as on-line downloads.

All of this is in addition to the images he produces for magazines, books, posters, and more. His work has appeared on a series of textbook covers for Simon and Schuster and on the covers of numerous national and international publications, and his animations have appeared in several televised documentaries including PBS’ NOVA (“The Genetic Gamble” and “Artificial Heart”) and the BBC Horizon series.

Select for a gallery of Keith Kasnot’s work

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Artistic License


“The subject matter is usually provided by the client,” Kasnot said. “For example, if I’m working for a magazine or medical journal, they usually send a manuscript of the lead story, and ask me to read it and come up with a couple of concepts for the cover.” After discussing ideas and concepts with the art director, he creates a sketch and e-mails it in. Once he gets the go-ahead, then the real work starts.


Print can be more difficult. “Drug mechanisms of action can be multitiered,” he said. “My job becomes harder if I have to actually try to illustrate that concept in a static image, essentially a snapshot. Animation can be a little easier because you can reveal the mechanisms over time. While animation is technically difficult to do, you can’t beat it for storytelling.”

For pharmaceutical companies, he uses his scientific background to help understand what a drug does in the body and then come up with a concept to describe it. Kasnot tries to keep his illustrations as close as possible to real life. “But in many cases, even the scientists at the pharmaceutical companies don’t know what some of this stuff really looks like,” he said.

Some of the more commonplace pharmaceuticals can be represented fairly accurately. A website called the Protein Data Bank contains a catalog of millions of proteins that shows known chemical formulas translated into 3-D objects. Kasnot can download a file for hemoglobin, for example, and import it into his Maya software.

visible man

“It makes my life a lot easier if the drug is one that has been around a while and researchers have imaged it,” he said. “I just finished a project for Bristol Myers Squibb about garenoxicin, a brand new antibiotic which is the first desfloroquinolone [des-f(6): where the fluorine group is removed from one of the carbon rings]. It’s easy to find a standard quinolone molecule in the protein databank, but to find one that’s desflourinated is a little more difficult. A lot of stuff can be found if you know where to look, but there needs to be some artistic license involved no matter how accurate the reference.”

Artistic license also applies to problems of scale. Portraying a virus next to a bacterium, for example, is like putting a pea next to a basketball. “Sometimes you have to fudge in terms of scale in order to elucidate things correctly,” Kasnot said. “But physicians and people who are knowledgeable in the field understand that there’s some artistic license involved in pretty much everything. It’s just a given.”

Images for biotechnology companies are easier to illustrate. They typically portray implanted devices such as stents in arteries or artisen lenses in eyes. “We generally know what every organ in the human body looks like, especially since the Visible Human dataset was developed,” he said. “Devices that are going through arteries, or things like pacemakers and lasers, can be imaged pretty accurately. What’s tricky is when you get down into smaller and smaller submicroscopic areas. That’s where more artistic license becomes necessary.”

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Digital Takes Over

In the pre-computer days, Kasnot used an airbrush for all of his illustrations, including on the acetate cels used for animation. His animations were produced with an Oxberry 16mm animation stand, similar to what was used by Walt Disney studios. It was painstaking, time-consuming work, but was also standard procedure for the time.

equipment rack

Just one of Kasnot’s equipment racks

In the early ’90s, computer processors grew powerful enough to handle the requirements of simple animation. PowerAnimator, produced by Silicon Graphics, was the first major software program that helped make the animator’s life easier. That program phased into Maya, the same software used by Pixar Animation Studios for the films Finding Nemo and A Bug’s Life. Costing $16,000 at the time, its expense meant that big production studios were usually the only ones who could afford to make digital animation. Seeing the potential of reduced effort and increased output, Kasnot invested in the program.

“At the time, I was more advanced digitally than many other people,” said Kasnot. “Doing simple things like sending a jpg file to someone was difficult because the technology was so new. I’ve always thought of myself as right on the cusp of technology. I always had to have the best computers and the fastest processors.”

Powerful computers are essential for producing his animation. His home workshop contains ten workstations, each with plenty of RAM and multiple processors. He describes animation software as being an big electronic flipbook. The software renders thousands of still images (multiply thirty frames per second times the number of seconds of total animation), each of which needs to be individually created. The more processor speed that is available means he can do the work that much more quickly.

He hasn’t used an airbrush in about ten years, believing that anything he does digitally looks just as good as what an airbrush could produce.

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Favorites from Work and Home

Kennewick Man

One of Kasnot’s favorite projects was for National Geographic, helping to reconstruct the facial appearance of Kennewick Man. The 9,600-year-old remains were found below the surface of Lake Wallula in Washington in 1996. “Everyone was scratching their heads wondering what a Caucasoid was doing on Indian land long before the Indians were even here,” he said. Working with the director of the physical anthropology department at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and using advanced scanners and software, Kasnot recreated the face and features of the ancient man. The results strongly suggested that Kennewick Man was an Ainu descended from the Chinese and Japanese. (Select for details on how the face of Kennewick Man was reconstructed.)

Beluga whale

For the book Inside/Out: The Best of National Geographic Diagrams and Cutaways , Kasnot was commissioned to illustrate of the airway of a beluga whale. As part of his preparation, he traveled to the cetacean research center on Coronado Island near San Diego and was sent a sixteen pound beluga skull from Sea World. “The airways and air passages in a beluga skull had never been elucidated before,” he said. “With the help of some CT scans of the skull, I was able to reconstruct it based upon cross-sectional anatomy.”

The many hours spent at his job is rewarded by being able to indulge his love of travel. “When I was studying in Heidelburg, I’d take off hitchhiking every weekend,” he said. “I had about three weeks off for Christmas and hitchhiked all the way to Sicily.”

He noticed that everyone in Germany seemed to travel to Italy and France in August. Kasnot vowed that if he ever got in a position to leave for a month on holiday, he was going to do it.

For the last fifteen years he’s done just that, taking his family on at least a month’s vacation every year. Their trips range from six weeks that included a tenting safari in Africa, cruising the Nile, and ending up in Rome, to traveling to Alaska, cave diving in Mexico, or just lying on the beach at the Jersey shore.

Keith Kasnot

Keith Kasnot in Germany, 2003

Despite his life-changing accident, Kasnot remains fond of sports cars. He attends the Barrett Jackson classic car auction in Scottsdale every year and owns a vintage 1971 Porsche 911E and a Jaguar XK8 convertible. He is also an avid mountain bike rider and enjoys collecting German white wines. He and Hope live in Phoenix, where she is a physical therapist. Their son, Christopher, is studying history at Arizona State University, and their high-school daughter, Stacy, is thinking about becoming an architect.

Kasnot’s dream project is to showcase his animation in an IMAX movie. “To see my work that big would be just unbelievable.”

For more information on Keith Kasnot and to view more images and samples of his animations, please visit  Kaz Studios .

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