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.

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Workflow for Illustrators

For illustrators, it can get cumbersome to share multiple illustrations with multiple people, and get feedback from them all. It would be great to have a cloud-based solution that allows people to make comments in real-time. Last year at the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI) Annual Meeting, Andrew Swift of iSOFORM presented his workflow on GoogleDocs and DropBox.

I started adopting it for the projects that I’m involved in and it is awesome. It makes me want to use GoogleDocs more often for collaborative projects. I love that you can include reference photos, real-time comments and a built-in approval process:

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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.

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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:

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

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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:

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Retractors

So I had a 5 minute phone conversation about chest retractors over the holidays. I was asked to sketch an open chest (with the lung, rib and intercostal muscles visible) and a chest retractor. After another 5 minutes on Google, this is what I figured it would look like. No idea if the scale is right!

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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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