The Art of Medicine: Learning to capture the human figure

In his series of articles on the art of drawing, artist and author James McMullan speaks to that intuitive intelligence which the visual artist needs to cultivate in order to capture forces inherent in the human body:

Once we tune into these cooperative forces that animate the body, they seem obvious; yet opening up the kind of intuitive intelligence we need in order to see these forces is difficult when we are so used to relying mainly on the simple scanning operations of our eyes. As we draw, we need to record pressures and not just edges, and we need to see relationships between parts rather than just pieces of the body.

Reading these words, I was struck by the similarity between the art employed in drawing the human figure and the art of the practice of medicine. Both require the use of intuition to recognize the forces in play before the eyes of the observer.

In his approach to the patient, the medical student tends to dwell on organ systems—parts or pieces of the human body. This stance follows immediately from the way in which gathering the medical history is taught.

First, the patient’s chief complaint is identified. Many times it centers around pain. The student probes the patient to develop an understanding of the pain itself: its character, its location, its radiation, its severity, its timing—all necessary elements to round out a description that might fit a pattern consistent with a known clinical entity.

The physical examination serves to develop and substantiate the final diagnosis. Sometimes further testing—lab studies, imaging studies, tissue sampling—is deemed necessary to clarify the problem. Throughout this entire process, bits and pieces of data are gathered and assembled into an impression to describe the whole.

Although the master clinician gathers data in a similar fashion, at the same time he or she does more than just probe with questions and scan with the eyes. Intuition comes into play, albeit subtly, informing the clinician on a deeper plane, allowing him or her to discern the complex relationships between the pressures and forces that impact the functioning of the human being before his eyes.

In McMullan’s words, the clinician perceives that “significant energy relationships in the body are often not right next to one another.”

McMullan maintains that “You have to be alive to the possibilities of each pose as you encounter it, and be willing to be surprised and to surprise yourself.”

It is important “to identify the central aspects of a pose in order to give yourself a theme that helps you to organize your thoughts and the order in which you tackle the different parts of the body.”

“The best drawings of the human figure seize on its life force.”

In McMullan’s opinion, “all of these practices will lead you to empathic thinking,” a perspective which benefits both clinician and patient as well as the artist.

McMullan’s line echoes Tolstoy in his essay, What is Art? — “it is upon this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.”

Historically, artists have studied anatomy to assist them in their understanding of the rendering of the human figure.

Perhaps clinicians need to consider the perspective of the artist to further an empathetic understanding of the patient.

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2 comments on “The Art of Medicine: Learning to capture the human figure

  1. K. D. Kragen says:

    Brian,
    McMullan’s analysis seems like a simplistic version of the more articulate 20th century philosopher Jacques Maritain (a Christian and Neo-Thomist). Maritain used the term “rational intuition,” referencing an epistemology of aesthetic perception which is both perceptual/intuitive and rational/analytic together, not discrete one from another. (cf. Maritain, “Creative Intuition In Art And Poetry – The A.W. Mellon Lectures In The Fine Arts,” 1953.)
    I appreciate very much your analogue between art and medicine: “I was struck by the similarity between the art employed in drawing the human figure and the art of the practice of medicine. Both require the use of intuition to recognize the forces in play before the eyes of the observer.” Wonderful observation.
    Yes, the empathic and existential aspects of perception, as in aesthetic perception, the way the artist perceives seamlessly both the material and the immaterial aspects of reality, it is here you draw your conclusion well: “Perhaps clinicians need to consider the perspective of the artist to further an empathetic understanding of the patient.” Always good to see someone draw that connection between the arts and the sciences. Nice piece of writing.
    Have a good Advent Season!
    Shalom,
    dave

  2. td says:

    I’d not opt for any artist to treat my ailments;)

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