Observing Life-drawing in Medical Education

The human body is obviously of great interest to the physician; the patient’s body and mind are the focus of health care.  Visual artists also have great interest in the human body, explored most directly through life-drawing studies.

Sitting woman, drawing in black crayon, school of Rembrandt (17th century). From Wikipedia.

While there is a long history of using ‘living models” in anatomy training (Collett et al 2009), attempts to use life-drawing sessions in medical education are more recent and rare.  Although educational useful in several ways, initial reports suggest life-drawing is not appear to be helpful to students for learning anatomy (Collett et al 2009, Phillips 2000). It seems that the emotional charged nature of the naked human body involved in life-drawing and limitation to visible surface anatomy limit the utility of life-drawing for teaching of anatomy.

The use of life-drawing does appear to be helpful for providing students with a more holisitic view of the human body (Phillips 2000) or to explore ideas of cultural stereotypes related to attractiveness and beauty (Collett et al 2005). Life-drawing sessions also provide opportunities for observation drawing training and students do feel that the observation drawing does provide increased clinical skills of hand-eye coordination and an ability to observe critically (Collett et al 2005).


Although life-drawing may have limited utility for teaching anatomy topics, when students engage in observation drawing training that uses anatomical specimens (bones, pro-sections), the sessions improved or allowed discovery of unrealized drawing skills, helped them to observe structure in new ways, and to consider morphology from different perspectives (Mitchell 2001).  Responding to Phillips’ use of life-drawing, Mitchell’s letter to the editor provides a brief summary of a semester long course titled “Images of Anatomy” offered to BSc degree students at St George’s Hospital Medical School from 1999-2001 focused gross anatomy training within a clinical context.  Part of the course involved three 2-hour sessions on drawing anatomical images taught by a professional art teacher.

Providing formal observation drawing skills training to medical students that uses anatomical models and pro-sections as subject matter is what was continues to be explored at Dalhousie Medical School (MODEL Program).

Please feel free to share your thoughts below…


Collett T. J. and McLachlan 2005.  Does ‘doing art’ inform students’ learning of anatomy? Medical Education, (39) 521.

Collett T. J., Kirvell D., Nakorn A., and McLaclan J. C. 2009.  The role of living models in the teaching of surface anatomy: Some experiences from a UK Medical School.  Medical Teacher, (31) pgs. e90-e96.

Mitchell B. S. 2001.  Life Drawing Classes (Letter to the Editor). Medical Education (35) 516-517.

Phillips P. S. 2000.  Running a life drawing class for pre-clinical medical students.  Medical Education (34), pgs. 1020-1025.

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