The Process: Drawing Anatomy



Dissection allows us to see the reality of the inner body in all its awesome complexity; the details of bones and muscles tell a story of movement and action, of life lived.  Radiology gives us light-filled photographs of our inner spaces that let us see them in a new way.

But art, working with the real, finds its meaning and its beauty, and lets us endow it with life.  

Art creates a different vision of the inner body: one that is personal  rather than medical (though still anatomically accurate), and more reflective of our experience of the bodies we inhabit.  

My first anatomy drawings were inspired by my work with dance anatomist and neuromuscular trainer Irene Dowd, who gave me a movement-oriented and dynamic understanding of my scoliosis, and helped me to inhabit my body in a more balanced and three-dimensional way.  Irene has a real human skeleton in her studio and in the early 1990’s we began meeting for weekly drawing sessions.  Thus began my fascination with the skeleton.  I felt like I could spend the rest of my life drawing it and never understand enough.

As a patient with a lifetime of x-rays, I had always been fascinated by these mysterious, shadowy pictures. I began by tracing from my x-rays, then looking at Irene’s skeleton to help translate their flatness into three dimensionality.

A full-spine x-ray (complete with necklace and earrings) was the first radiology image made for me not as a patient but as an artist.  As my Visible Skeleton series began to develop, I searched for an imaging technology that would help me visualize my skeleton in more dynamic poses.  

In 2000, thanks to the openness of radiologist Dr. Andrew Litt at NYU Medical Center, I was able to have a spiral CT scan with 3D volume rendering.  Now I could view my skeleton from any angle, rotating and tilting it to match the movements or poses I wanted to draw.  By 2008, spiral CT technology could capture an even greater level of detail (as small as .75 millimeters), and I had a second 3D scan.  I had just begun work on my Hand Dance series, and we even managed to fit my hands into the scanner.  It took more than a thousand ‘slice’ pictures – in just six seconds.  As Artist in Residence at the NYU School of Medicine I could spend more time in the 3D Lab, and Emilio Vega and Michael Bloom trained me on the Vitrea/Vital Images workstation.


My presence at the medical school brought the opportunity to observe and draw from cadaver dissections as well as bones.  In the Anatomy Lab, I could compare the normal variations in an array of anatomical specimens – six different right hand skeletons, say – with the idiosyncrasies of my own anatomy as seen in my medical images.  The intricately intertwined muscles, tendons, blood vessels, and nerves that I could now see with my own eyes looked so different from the pictures in medical books, where the individual gives way to the generic, and the texture of real life is smoothed away



I got to know Dr. Avelin Malyango, an anatomy professor who shared my belief in the value of drawing.  He told me that textbooks were scarce when he studied medicine in Tanzania, and drawing was considered a required skill for anatomists.  He appreciated my drawings and praised them as being so much more ‘real’ than the ones in the anatomy books!  He went out of his way to provide opportunities for me to observe and learn.  I watched him perform several laminectomies: dissections of the lamina of the vertebrae that revealed the spinal cord.  At one point (just so I could experience it), he even made me wield the knife; I cut through the dura mater (the protective connective tissue around the cord), which opened up like a sheaf of wheat.  I could see individual nerves, freed from their protective wrapping, starting to curl up gracefully like fine strands of angel hair pasta.  


Brain as body

My role as artist in residence at the med school brought the opportunity to have my brain scanned, via 7-Tesla MRI.  I had never tried to draw the brain before; as a visual image it seemed impenetrable, far from expressing its role as the locus of consciousness.  Now I felt inspired, and began to see an artistic way in – by approaching the brain not as ‘mind’ but as body.

Since bones were what I knew best, I decided to start my investigations of the brain by drawing its protective container, the skull.  At first I simply ‘made marks’ – drawing what I saw without really understanding its meaning.  Then I went back to my anatomy books to find out what I had drawn: hollow spaces turned out to be the containers for cerebellum and cerebrum; openings were for spinal cord and cranial nerves; the pattern of branching lines embedded in the cranium’s inner lining had been imprinted by meningeal arteries.

Up to this time I had used my 3D scan images only as references for drawing, but now I was inspired to make art directly from the radiology images themselves.  I brought my light-filled scan images from the 3D Lab into Photoshop in my studio, using masks and color adjustments to bring out their subtle details, and layering them together with digitally scanned drawings and floating colors papers.  

Later, in the neuroanatomy lab, I drew from thin brain sections – tissue unlike any I had drawn before, made up entirely of nerves.  The subtle color distinctions between grey and white matter created delicate lines and patterns: nerve pathways made visible – the physical stuff of movement, thought, perception, association, and memory.   



Anatomy Lab Drawings 

Drawings from Medical Images 

Nerve Pathways