“Do you still draw?”

“Do you still draw?”

It has been nearly two years since my family packed our 675-sq ft. downtown apartment to move across the country for a new job. Since then, I have been asked that question numerous times by family, friends and colleagues, and I never know quite what to say. My reaction is usually tinged with a bit of embarrassment and surprise that they remember how drawing was once a part of my life. I usually say yes, but not as much. I usually say yes, so they would not be disappointed.

The truth is that I still draw for patients and in operative reports. I scribble, “left” and “right” next to organs that slightly resemble their real-life counterparts. Patients sometimes want to keep the drawings, folding them gingerly and placing them into treasured notebooks they carry with them. Or they will snap pictures with their phones and hand them back. One terminally ill patient wanted to profile it in a book they were going to write someday. I draw little cartoon bears or Pikachu’s for patients (as requested) to mark the site of their surgery, instead of writing my initials, as per operating room protocol. I sometimes get laughs from patients, asking how many times I draw the same thing. I pull out pages of identical drawings from my clipboard that day. While I may not sit and draw for hours like I used to, drawing connects patients with their (or their child’s) condition and what the future may bring. It is something that opens up a dialogue for us to share, rather than being a one-sided lecture from me, their specialist. Still, that is probably not what people are referring to when they ask whether I still draw.

Like so many of my unfinished projects, I will probably get back to drawing again some day when I am ready. I have a revolving list of things that need to get done each day, i.e. what I need to do for my patients, writing reports of what I did, billings, forms, taking the baby to and from daycare, making sure the kids are fed, happy and get enough sleep, and everything in between. Drawing, like hitting the gym or eating more veggies, is in the pile of things that I know that I should do. It is a privilege and pleasure, so naturally, it gets assigned a lower priority.

Last week, I flew to an international medical conference held in San Francisco. I ducked out of the afternoon session on the last day and strolled the streets of the city. Looking up from the sidewalk, I saw a piece of anatomic art turned street art. Delicately drawn flowers with a brain topping each stem. It was a reminder of the beauty of drawing and the joy that drawing once brought to my practice as a surgeon. As I wandered San Francisco, I felt connected to being an artist again, rather than merely a technician.



“You have to learn to look without preconceptions. To let go of what you think and learn to really see.”

Last week, I left class and shared a short walk with the Director of Bioethics at my home institution. Our lively conversation started with bioethics, then went to grant writing, then arts-based research methods and finally, to the intersection of art and medicine. She remembered hearing Laura Ferguson, the artist in residence at NYU School of Medicine, speak at a recent American Society for Bioethics and Humanities conference. It was an odd thing to hear an artist speak about her experience with scoliosis and teaching an art and anatomy at a bioethics conference:

Drawing the Human Heart

For those who want to hear about her experience teaching medical students art and anatomy, I would recommend starting at 24:00 min.

I’ll end this with some beautiful quotes from Laura Ferguson.

On seeing in art:

“The key to good drawing is openness. You have to learn to look without preconceptions. To let go of what you think and learn to really see.”

For those who are learning (and never cease to learn):

“You may not have always the tools or the techniques to get what you see onto the paper, to allow others to see through your eyes. But that is the goal. To bring others into the experience.” 


How to Overcome Your Fear of Drawing

To date, I’ve spoken to three groups of surgeons and trainees, as well as other individuals about the use of drawing for surgical education, documentation and generally “figuring stuff out”. The most common response is, “I can’t draw.” This is coming from surgeons who have two fully-functioning hands, trained for years to operate and have fine motor skills better than the majority of the general population. And yet, the act of drawing is what they do with the scalpel or Bovie (a.k.a. electrocautery tool) in the operating room. For me, I had an inherent fear of drawing until my early thirties. In the end, it took an influential mentor, supportive family and friends, an art class, a sketchbook and the will to try.

It was a mental hurdle, rather than a lack of ability.

Here are 10 steps for anyone to overcome their fear of drawing:

  1. Forget about perfection.
  2. Buy a notebook – Something that is nice enough that you’ll want to use it but not so expensive that you’ll be afraid to use it (ahem, Moleskin). I started off with a regular $2 lined notebook from Staples. I made both written + visual notes and found the lines were less intimidating than blank pages.
  3. Get into a routine of drawing (daily if possible) – This could mean taking 5 minutes at the beginning or end of your day. The key is making it a habit.
  4. Roughly outline the image(s) first and fill in the finer details later – Do this without erasing anything at first. You can always return to this later with a darker pencil or pen over your outline, erasing mistakes later. The key is getting it down when your memory is fresh.
  5. Draw from reference photos or other stationary objects – Learning to draw is not just about mark-making but also honing your skills of observation. Photos and stationary objects will give you more time to observe. For instance, those who are learning to draw figures might go to a museum or gallery to learn on statues first.
  6. Listen to music – This might help for some distraction and “loosen” you up.
  7. Take beginner drawing class or buy a beginner drawing book – I prefer the art class, since it gave me a chance to be among other beginners and realize that I’m not totally off. They might get you to do some exercises to loosen up and be freer with your drawing, depending on the instructor. I found this to be immensely helpful.
  8. Show your work to (supportive) family and friends – Depending on who they are, you might have to be a bit selective on this one. People are generally very encouraging and not expecting you to be Michelangelo.
  9. Deconstruct your subject – Breaking down the object into simple geometric shapes is what many experienced artists still do and makes drawing much more accessible to novices. Then for shading, breaking tones down into 5-6 discreet tones will add realism (but not a necessity at this stage).If you can simplify it, then do so.
  10. Accept that you will never be done – Along the same vein as “Forget about perfection”, there is always something that you could add or change. If you accept that you’ll stop at (arbitrarily) 50% or 75% or 80% of completion, then it will allow you to move on.

Do you have any other tips to share? If so, leave a comment or share them with me @SurgicalArt on Twitter. Oh yes, I’m on Twitter now. Something I never thought I would say.


Speaking at the AMI 2016!

At the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI) Annual Meeting in 2015, I was simply blown away by the talent within the medical illustration community. Not only do medical illustrators create beautiful works of art, they also have a unique hybrid of skills – both in the worlds of art and science. It was that skill set that can be useful for problem-solving and we saw many examples of how medical illustrators helped to develop novel solutions to challenges in medicine. At this conference, I had wonderful side conversations at the coffee breaks, over beers and over dinner with other attendees. We shared an immediate bond over our (geeky) love of art and medicine. Our conversations were surprisingly genuine and in-depth, and not the idle chit-chat that I sometimes encounter at conferences.


I thought it would be a long shot when I submitted an abstract to the AMI Annual Meeting 2016 in Atlanta, GA. The abstract was based on the idea of drawing as a tool for surgical trainees and I was going to delve into some of my own experiences. Nevertheless, I received this email the other day:


Great…Now I have five months to worry about this!



Turner: A Painter of Light and Color

The last Turner exhibit that I attended was over ten years ago at the local art gallery and featured Turner, Whistler and Monet. It was so long ago that I can’t remember whom I attended the exhibit with. But I do remember Turner’s oil paintings and his distinct use of light and color. Of the three artists, his paintings clearly stood out.

On Saturday, I went to a new Turner exhibit and became re-acquainted with his work after many years. J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851) was a British landscape painter who had an incredible body of work spanning 60 years. Going through the gallery, he seemed to focus much of his attention on natural disasters, such as floods, fires and storms. There’s a great story of him asking to be tied to a ship’s mast during a storm in order to experience it first-hand. He painted his landscapes with broad, sweeping strokes and took a fine brush to draw in little details such as people and animals (which my daughter pointed out in delight).

Here are some of my favorites (2 of 3 were in the exhibit):

The Morning After the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (left)

Snow Storm: Steam-Boat Off a Harbour’s Mouth (top right)

Fishermen at Sea (bottom right)

The exhibit also inspired my little budding artist to share her own work:



The Tactile Aspects of Surgery

The other day, I was contacted by a pediatric surgery resident from Portugal whom I had met months ago. He was wondering if I could do a few drawings for a presentation. It would cover different aspects of his training, including urgent surgery, neonatal surgery, abdominal surgery, thoracic surgery, urology, head and neck, burn care and oncology. It would be pro bono and it might get some exposure to the faculty at his hospital. Being early January, I was faced with ethics paper deadlines, research projects and setting up my private practice upon graduation. Nevertheless, I cannot say no.

Given the time constraints, I plan to send him six rough sketches and two completed sketches from my portfolio. Here’s a rough sketch that illustrates midgut volvulus in a newborn baby. It is very “visual pathology”, as my Portuguese colleague put it.


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Insomnia and creativity

‎Last year, I was in the operating room several days per week and was much busier clinically. Aside from rough OR sketches, the only time I had to draw was on weekends and during my frequent periods of insomnia. I had difficulty sleeping and would just draw to get my mind off the constant thoughts about work. It was a form of meditation, of intense concentration that would not allow for any other thoughts. Although I loved it, life was about work and I would fit in drawing and running, with time for little else. I hardly saw my family last year and that was not sustainable.

The second (research) year of fellowship has been much less structured. Aside from the few days where I am scheduled in the clinic or operating room, the rest has been up to me with regards to research projects. I see my family every day, commute from the suburbs, run less and sleep more. All in all, I probably am still a happier person for it. I rarely have those nights where I am up several hours drawing. I have to say that I am much less inspired, although some would say manic. I do find it hard to enter that meditative state again when I draw during daylight hours. I don’t know what it is about night time and creativity, but there is something that is very special about those hours of the night.