Dissecting Da Vinci: What makes a modern medical artist?

Da Vinci Da Vinci applied his architectural drawing skills to produce detailed 3D studies of the human body

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If there was ever any question about how far Leonardo Da Vinci was ahead of his time, the answer lies in his anatomical drawings.

Da Vinci produced them in an era when medical illustration did not exist as a profession.

Despite five centuries of technological advancement, these remarkable Renaissance artworks still influence medical artists today.

Da Vinci's studies of the human body are on display at the Mechanics of Man exhibition at the Edinburgh International Festival.

"Their value has not worn out over time," says Peter Abrahams, Professor of Clinical Anatomy at Warwick Medical School.

"Very little has changed from his work. Perhaps five per cent of it was wrong. His drawing of the spine is still the best that has ever been done."

Incredible accuracy

Prof Abrahams, who has used Da Vinci in his teaching for 40 years, collaborated with the Royal Collection to produce the exhibition at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Preserving a body of art

The cardiovascular system and principal organs of a woman
  • When Da Vinci died in 1519 his unpublished papers were left to his assistant Francesco Melzi.
  • Italian sculptor Pompeo Leoni bought them after Melzi's death. He mounted them in an album which was brought to England.
  • It is believed this album was acquired for the Royal Collection in the 17th Century by Charles II.
  • The 600 Da Vinci drawings at Windsor Castle are now preserved in controlled conditions, stored between ultraviolet-filtered acrylic sheets.

"The most important skill for a medical artist is precision," adds Abrahams. "Only draw what you see.

"Da Vinci was a perfectionist. He could take from his eyes and put it down exactly on paper.

"He was brilliant because he was drawing in two dimensions but he made it look 3D. You have to be a very talented to do this."

Da Vinci initially studied the human body to aid his figure painting, to make his subjects as life-like as possible.

He planned to produce an illustrated treatise on anatomy, but his papers remained unpublished when he died in 1519.

Thirty of these sheets are on display in Edinburgh, presented alongside modern computer images of the body from CT and MRI scans.

The comparison demonstrates Da Vinci's incredible accuracy and indicates the importance of computers in modern medical illustration.

"Medical artists today are usually graphic artists," says Abrahams. "They are well versed at using computer programs - this is how most art today is produced.

Lucrative business

"Most are better computer operators than artists. They are very good at diagrams but very rarely produce works of art like Da Vinci."

While computers have changed the scope of the job, Phillip Ball, Chairman of the Medical Artists' Association, says his colleagues still have a vital part to play.

"Ninety five per cent of medical art is now done on computer," says Ball. "The other five per cent of artists are making 3D models.

"This can be a lucrative business. In the Middle East many trainee surgeons are not allowed to work on cadavers.

"In Muslim countries where they bury their bodies by sunset, they use 3D models in hospitals instead. These can cost thousands of pounds."

Life-sized female model made from wax ,polyester and lead with headphones Modern medical art requires accuracy, but still allows room for expression

A medical artist since 1978, Ball is now Illustration Manager at the University of Cambridge. He says photographs and scans have replaced the traditional role of artists in hospitals.

Medical artists are now more often employed by publishers, for books, software and apps.

"The job has changed from drawing what you see in front of you, to illustrating the theoretical," adds Ball.

"We draw the things that can't be photographed - chemical pathways and what happens inside.

Who becomes a medical artist?

Hand of elderly patient with cardiac failure

Most medical artists study art, then later train in anatomy and physiology. But Ann Holden joined the profession after 20 years as a vet.

In her training with the Medical Artists' Educational Trust the modern influence of Da Vinci was clear.

"We spent hours copying Leonardo's work," she says. "Looking at how he achieved shape and form, using deceptively simple line shading.

"We used this study to think about how Leonardo's techniques could inform our own work."

"Even with Photoshop, computers can only do so much. What artists can do is the cerebral interpretation."

Da Vinci himself developed a range of techniques to interpret the body in meticulous detail.

Mirror writing

Using his engineering and architectural drawing skills - he applied the principles of plan, elevation and section to show the internal structure of a human.

Da Vinci based many of his studies on 30 human corpses he dissected in Italy between 1507 and 1513.

He produced hundreds of pages illustrating vessels, organs, bone and muscle. They include hand-written notes in his characteristic mirror writing.

The importance of Da Vinci's drawings is not lost on Modern medical artists. They cover the office walls of Medical Illustration Manager Ruth Eaves at Royal Bolton Hospital.

"His work is a constant challenge to me to improve my work and be as good as I can be," she says.

"What drives most medical artists, and links directly to Da Vinci himself, is insatiable curiosity of how things work in nature and the human body."

Chest drain model Detailed models are produced for medical training
Story of human form

"I don't think there are many other art professions that think in the same way as medical artists do."

While technology has come to dominate the work of modern medical artists, Eaves insists the work they create is still 'art'.

"Although it may seem there is less room for expression or style, we can still tell a fascinating story," she adds.

"Using software we can show the journey of the tiniest cell in all its 3D glory, and enable the viewer to see it from all angles, and through animation see how it works.

"We are storytellers of the human form, illustrating structures you normally can't see. Our art is illustrating the marvel of the human body."

The Culture Show at Edinburgh:Leonardo da Vinci - The Anatomist is on BBC Two at 10pm on Wednesday 14 August 2013, then afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

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