Artists of anatomy

Illustrators: Practitioners of a painstaking craft learn to use pencils with surgical precision.

May 11, 2001|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Talk about your still lifes.

In most art schools, budding Rembrandts paint bowls of bananas or reclining nudes to learn their craft. Megan Bluhm's first assignment was a pelvic bone in charcoal. The only nudes she sketches are dead.

"They hold real still," she says. "That's the nice part about it."

Bluhm is a modern student of an ancient art: medical illustration. Even in this world of high-tech imaging, medicine still relies on old-fashioned illustrators to show what's going on inside the human body.

The eye is still often better than the camera, says Gary Lees, director of the Johns Hopkins Department of Art as Applied to Medicine. In showing a surgical technique, for example, or the location of a specific muscle, an artist can edit out what's extraneous. "The camera sees everything. You can't say, `Get rid of the blood,'" says Lees.

Drawings and watercolors of such unusual artistic subjects as knee-replacement surgery, an HIV-infected T-cell and a map of cranial nerves are among the illustrations going on display tonight in the lobby of Hopkins' Houck building at 600 N. Wolfe St. The exhibit runs through May 25.

Working with pen, brush and - increasingly - computer, medical illustrators blend the technique of an artist with a physician's knowledge of anatomy. Their work winds up in medical textbooks, classrooms, courtrooms - even Hollywood. (One recent graduate helped design the out-of-body animated sequence in the Brad Pitt movie "Fight Club.")

While traditional artists strive to convey emotion, medical illustrators work to communicate information. "Each piece of art should tell a story," says Bang Wong, a 28-year-old student.

When Hopkins neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson separated Siamese twins, a medical illustrator was there to record it. When Hopkins cancer researcher Dr. Saul Sharkis recently found a revolutionary new use for stem cells from bone marrow, a medical illustrator was there to draw them. Medical artists are often asked to scrub up and sketch at the surgeon's elbow, recording the medical drama unfolding beneath the scalpel.

It's tricky work. Misdrawn lines can't be erased, since flecks of rubber could fly into an open incision and trigger an infection.

But artists often get VIP treatment in the operating room - even from big-name surgeons. Wong recalls one operation when the surgeon nudged a resident out of the way so Wong could get a better view of the action.

"We make them immortal," he says.

Artists have long applied their craft to medicine. In Europe, some ancient cave paintings show bison and other creatures drawn with a spot where their heart would be. "The caveman was essentially communicating the best place to aim for," says Lees.

Ancient Egyptians diagrammed human anatomy for embalmers. Leonardo da Vinci was famous for his pen-and-ink anatomical studies.

Founded in 1911 by German illustrator Max Broedel, the Hopkins program is the oldest of its kind in the United States and one of only five in the country today. Each year, the two-year graduate program gets more than 300 applications for six openings.

Although operating-room sketches and anatomical studies remain the profession's bread-and-butter, medical illustrators have also ventured into other areas. Many graduates go on to draw animals and plants for museums and magazines. Some help create ears, hands and other prosthetic parts. As scientists delve into the body's molecular inner workings, illustrators are being called on to draw the molecules at work, often using sophisticated three-dimensional computer animation.

Budding medical illustrators take many of the same classes as a first-year medical student, including anatomy, histology (the microscopic study of tissues) and pathology.

Students typically don lab coats or surgical scrubs when they work. While they have toolboxes of Staedtler pencils, brushes and erasers, their workroom doesn't look like most art studios. A human skeleton looms over Bluhm's desk. Elsewhere is a cabinet filled with stainless-steel surgical instruments. There's vials of eyeballs, dead seahorses and a live spider.

Yesterday, Bluhm sat at her desk sketching seahorses, using dead creatures borrowed from the National Aquarium. She's working on a sketch of gill movements as part of a biology sketching class.

"It amazes me how much research is involved," says Bluhm, who like most students is a classically trained artist. She had studied previously at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

To complete a recent assignment on the gluteal region - or "butt anatomy," as she likes to call it - she checked out 13 books.

"We have to be that much more knowledgeable than even the people who are going to be referring to my text," she says. "You could be redoing the mistakes that other artists did."

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