Aimee Rowe: Drawing for surgeons

Aimee RoweDrawing for surgeons is a two day course convened by Rowan Pritchard-Jones, plastic surgeon, and his art teacher colleague. The course is aimed at surgeons and trainees, from F1 upwards. As a medical student I didn’t quite fit these criteria, but I requested permission to attend-a request initially greeted with a degree of bemusement but ultimately embraced with enthusiasm.

The group I joined were as friendly as they were varied, from F2 doctors to retired consultants, and this provided an excellent chance for networking. All participants had similar motivations for being there; to improve their drawing skills for use in the workplace, and to enhance their recreation. We were all given drawing equipment, which included: an artists’ roll with pen, pencil, watercolour pencils, and watercolour paints, along with a drawing journal. The materials had been well thought out, to make it easy to transport. I have taken advantage of this portability since the course by taking my kit into theatre on more than one occasion (impressed surgeons all round).

The class started with a talk and some basic exercises. The focus of the day was to stop us “looking” like surgeons. Not in appearance, but in the way we regard the world around us. One way artists and surgeons differ is that surgeons see anatomical structures with names and functions; artists see shapes, form, and tone. Exercises included negative space drawing, blind drawing, and upside-down drawing, all of which focus on observing shapes and relationships of shapes. We then had a whirl at some portraiture, with varying degrees of success. The emphasis was on drawing hands and faces and this was both challenging and constructive. Using artists’ techniques of observing line and shape these daunting subjects suddenly became a technical exercise, something familiar to surgeons.

After a demanding day of learning we then headed to the National Portrait Gallery, and the opportunity to socialise with the group before dispersing to rest for the second day. The second day was spent immersed in the Wellcome Pathology Collection. The experience was a joy and a privilege and I would recommend that any passing medical students do make a visit to the collection, a valuable part of medical history which is also a vibrant and active learning resource. We spent the day having more tuition and using our newly acquired drawing skills on the various specimens available in the museum.

The importance of this course may be lost on many medical students. So often I hear cries of “oh, but I can’t draw,” and less often “I’m a medic, why would I need to draw?” This course emphasises that everyone can draw, it is a skill that can be learnt, and that there are countless uses for a deft hand; being able to accurately document in notes is essential but a picture can say a thousand words.  I have also found that drawing is a valuable tool for communication with patients; it is easy to forget that medicine is a foreign subject for many patients and using drawing skills can increase your arsenal of communication methods. Finally it is important to understand that there is more to “drawing” than just drawing. Observation is such a large part of both art and medicine and time was spent on this course emphasising and honing perceptive skills.

Drawing for surgeons will change the way you draw and influence the way you think. The skills used in art, manual dexterity, observation, and creative thinking are all prized in medicine. I suggest it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the “art” of medicine and what it could mean for you.

Aimee Rowe did an undergraduate degree in biomedical sciences at Kings College, concentrating on neuroscience and anatomy. She then started the graduate entry medicine course at Nottingham and is due to graduate next year. She has always been an artist in her spare time and runs the Nottingham University Medics’ Art Society. Her career goal is to be a plastic surgeon.