From Cadaver Sketching to the Digital Classroom
Updated: Feb 5
I decided to take my Intro to Life Science Visualization students on a little adventure to the anatomy cadaver lab. As we stood outside the double doors with an inscription above, reading “Where the Living learn from the Dead,” I asked each student to say one word to describe how they are feeling.
“Excited, nervous, curious, interested” were a few of the words mentioned. Because this is the first time everyone was seeing a cadaver, I covered the cadavers’ faces with white muslin. The face is the most recognizable, humanistic attribute of the cadaver. Perhaps by looking at the muscular structure and internal organs, the students can focus more on learning anatomy and less thinking about the person's life and death.
It’s a natural phenomenon, death; though our culture is not a death-positive one. Except for an open casket funeral with a heavily applied makeup and embalmed cadaver, many people have rarely been exposed to a post mortem specimen. “How many people, would you say, have seen a cadaver in their lifetime?,” one of the students asks. “Probably very few, maybe 2%, if I were to guess,” I reply. Really the only people that get to see the human form in all its internal glory are medical students, medical professionals, and forensic pathologists. I reminded the students, this day trip to the cadaver lab is an honor; to learn from our silent teachers. They have generously donated their body to science, to teach the next generation of caregivers. Every opportunity I have around a cadaver is an awe-inspiring one, to observe the differences in structures from person to person. The size of one liver to the next, the color of muscle ranging from bright pink to brown; everyone is made up of all the same internal structures, yet we vary slightly just as our external form suggests.
How does this compare to figure drawing class? “It’s like figure-drawing class on steroids,” one student remarks. There’s a lot going on here. With overheard fluorescent lights, we don’t have the perfect spotlight and soft lighting to capture form and volume. The cadaver has stiffened from the embalming fluid, we cannot flex the joints into a favorable position. In figure drawing class, you must focus on overall shapes and structures, looking for superficial anatomy landmarks. But here with the skin removed and much of the tissue dehydrated, it’s difficult to focus on overall form. The students spend too much time focusing on drawing wisps of torn fascia. “Don’t forget the big shapes,” I say. "Add a few details of which directions the muscle striations are traveling but then move on to the next shape. Don't look at individual muscles, but see how they compartmentalize to give you overall bulk. Focus on the darkest darks and the lightest lights," I inform.
Most have had some level of anatomy instruction, however they have not taken gross anatomy with dissection, that course is offered at the graduate level. The students did their best placing in the basic structures that they could name without looking at an atlas; the lungs, the heart, the liver, the intestines, the stomach. All the rest became hatch marks of pencil without much regard to identifiable structures.
With our live cadaver session complete, I instructed the students scan in their sketch and bring it into Adobe Photoshop, where we completed a value rendering. Outlining the main form in silhouette and slowly building up value by using a digital pencil brush on multiply blending mode. As the students intently concentrated on their monitors, they added volume and tone using a midrange of gray. We added a layer of 10-15% black on darken blending mode to make sure we had no white on the screen. “Wait to add white until the very end, where you really want the illustration to pop,” I instruct, "White, used sparingly, has dramatic effect in illustrations, either to add shiny, wet surface appearance, or to create an area of focus, or next to dark tones, an area of high contrast."
We created our cadaver sketches and value studies, based on observation, so an area that was cut or reflected was shown that way in the drawing. Formaldehyde embalming is the traditional way of fixing tissue and making it sterile (eliminating risk of pathogens). One of the negatives of formaldehyde cadavers is their ashen coloring, most of the tissue lose their color and become a universal pale, grayish, fleshy color throughout. Over time, the tissue also becomes slightly dehydrated. I tried to explain to the students, cadaver study is great for understanding the spatial relationships between structures, however, when creating a final piece you have to consider the context. An illustration about the intestines should show bright pink, plump, moist tissue; not the dehydrated, grey cadaveric tissue we experienced. “Think about visual storytelling,” I remind the students, “You are not meant to draw what you see exactly, but draw the story you want to tell.”
Ultimately, I hoped to inspire the students. If one is truly fascinated by anatomy, the human body, and art, then you know you are in the right vocation. Maybe the students will be inspired to continue their studies in life science visualization and apply for one of the graduate programs or perhaps apply to medical school. Maybe the initial exposure to a cadaver will make the next encounter more familiar. Although technology tries to simulate learning the human body in methods such as AR and VR, students will always admit that nothing beats learning human anatomy from actual human tissue. As long as members of society continue to donate their bodies to science, we will continue to observe, learn from, and honor the age-old practice of using cadavers to understand anatomical form and function.