Medical Drawing and Aims of Drawing in General

I’ve been thinking a lot about illustration lately because part of my resolution for (just before) the New Year is to devote more time to artwork, particularly physical artwork on paper. I’ve already written about how I will never have the required technical skills to be a scientific illustrator, but this has made me think about the goals of drawing in general. Why do we draw, and when does it have to do with science?

One of the oldest categories of scientific illustration is medical illustration. Leonardo Da Vinci is probably the king of classical anatomical illustration, which is particularly interesting since Da Vinci had no formal training in anatomy; he was just freakishly curious. Another big name in medical drawing is Max Brödel, whose innovative charcoal dust technique was such a success that he went on to found the department of Art as Applies to Medicine at Johns Hopkins, which now houses the most competitive medical illustration program in the world (and no, I never applied… obviously).

These sorts of illustration seem to have a very specific goal: to deliver information. That seems pretty logical with science illustration in general. But the thing that’s so striking is that the information is delivered in such an aesthetically beautiful way. It’s really a testament to why Johns Hopkins even has their program at all; after all, wouldn’t photographs deliver the same if not more accurate information. Perhaps, but the way it is delivered matters.

This isn’t to say all informative illustration must be aesthetically beautiful. Francis Wells is a cardiac surgeon who frequently uses drawing as part of his practice. More than just using drawing as a preparatory tool for surgery, he will even draw quick educational diagrams in the patient’s blood for his students while the team waits for the heart to restore normal rhythm after the main stage of a procedure (a normal part of cardiac surgery).

Surgeons operating in an operating theatre.
Hopefully your surgeon also waits until you’re stable before drawing in your blood.

Here the drawings are downright morbid in terms of their artistic qualities. This drawing process is like something out of a horror film. They will never be on display in a gallery (they are destroyed at the end of the procedure as clinical waste), but they serve a valuable function as educational tools for Francis Wells. Drawing here transcends aesthetic concerns toward something greater: the ability to transmit ideas.

Upon reflection, drawing is always serving this function. An accurate medical illustration delivers the idea and nature of the human body. Well’s illustrations in the operating room deliver his ideas on surgical technique. And even drawings that have nothing to do with medicine or science deliver ideas, whether it be emotional, spiritual, or social ones.

So as I embark on my journey to get back into drawing, I should ask myself less if my drawing looks good, but more whether it actually communicates some sort of idea regardless of how pretty it is.

Hopefully I won’t just use that as an excuse to draw poorly… We shall have to see.

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