MODEL Visual Literacy

Visual Literacy and Medical Drawings

This is a summary of a recent guest lecture and drawing workshop that was provided to the Integrated Science class at Dalhousie University.

Knowing the class would also visit the Body Worlds Vital exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, my talk included :

  • Why is drawing important in science? Examples of how I use drawing as a palaeontologist.
  • A brief history of the images in medicine and development of printing from illuminated manuscripts, to wood block printing, intaglio and colour offset printing.
  • Introduction to Frank Netter and Clinical Symposia publication.

The Clinical Symposia publication provides an excellent opportunity to study the development of a Frank Netter’s style and consider the publication from a visual literacy perspective. Each issue is a self-contained topic that has been specifically illustrated by Frank Netter, with pharmaceutical ads scattered throughout the small soft-bound booklet. The first volume was published in 1949 and 4 issues were published annually for the next fifty years.

Following the presentation – the students were handed out paper (8.5 x 11), a 0.7 BIC mechanical pencil with eraser, a 1 Cent coin (Canadian Penny), and one issue of the Clinical Symposia.

Dr. Tim Fedak, Penny Drawing activity for the Integrated Science Class.
Photo: Dr Lexie Arnott. Feb 2023.

Facilitated drawing activities then included:

  • Demonstration of warm up marks, eg. divided lines.
  • What is observation drawing? Importance of looking.
  • Penny rubbing, and two Penny drawings, scale = 1:1 versus 1:4
  • Drawing a Netter drawing – 1:2 scale

Each of these activities builds interest and demonstrates the value of observation, drawing scale versus details, and also provides a non-stressful demonstration of the value of drawing in science.

Student drawing of a Netter drawing, 2:1 scale.

At the end of the session, a PowerPoint slide with a QR link to a Google Form was used to have students quickly photograph their observation drawing and the original source, and upload the photograph to an online form. The students then handed in their drawing activities for instructor feedback.

It was wonderful to see the results the students produced and the online form worked very well. Providing one issue to each student seemed to work very well, as it provided everyone with something unique to explore. The medical aspect of the topic was also helpful in keeping the students interest.


Drawn to Life 2019

In October 2019, the Museum of Natural History developed a new exhibit “Drawn to Life: Understanding the World Through Drawing” – that featured historical examples of the use of drawing in Nova Scotia in fields of science, communication, education and industrial arts. The exhibit was organized and launched in conjunction with events that related to the International Big Draw Festival occuring at the same time with the same theme, Drawn to Life.

The 2019 report summarizes the planning, organization and events associated with the Drawn to Life exhibit, Halifax, Nova Scotia. October 2019.


Drawing Tidal Landscapes

Drawing Program

The Fundy Geological Museum, in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, organized a Coastal Drawing Excursion on June 18, 2016. The excursion was organized to explore the use drawing coastal landscapes as a museum experience. This initial pilot demonstrated that for participants the activity of drawing increases and extends the time spent observing and connecting with the landscape. The tempo of seeing and drawing requires time, which is necessary to witness the speed and vastness of the changing tides, notice the diverse wildlife and observe the dramatic coastal geology. The excursion also showed that ‘demonstrative drawing’ by a guide can be used to educate and share rich visual information very directly with participants.

One Day Drawing Excursion

The pilot was organized as a two day program (June 18-19). The intention of the program was to allow participants an opportunity to begin drawing early in the morning (second day), and appreciate the special light and atmosphere of the rising sun.  Although there was considerable interest expressed in the program, the two-day program was considered too long and resulted in low participation. Due to low registration, a one-day excursion was still held to evaluate several sites and activities for the program.Based on the results of the pilot, a future one-day program schedule (lunch provided) could be:

  •   9:30 am – Arrive at Museum
  • 10:00 am – Welcome & Intro: Examine Coastal Drawing Resources. Coffee/Tea.
  • 10:45 am –  Stop 1: Parrsboro Harbour, Low Tide
  • 12:00 pm – Stop 2: Two Islands, Wasson Bluff
  •   2:00 pm – Stop 3: Partridge Island
  •   4:00 pm – Stop 4: Parrsboro Harbour, High Tide

Participant Experience

Weather is obviously an issue with an outdoor Coastal Drawing Excursion. During the pilot, the day was sunny but had high winds develop later in the afternoon. In case of rain the program can be modified to take advantage of small shelters at some locations, however not all sites would be suitable. In general, participants should be advised that the weather is typically cooler along the Bay of Fundy coast. Suitable footwear is required for walking over rocky beaches.

Bay of Fundy Coastal Drawing Excursion

The guide provides direction to safe and interesting locations. The locations are chosen to provide interesting views of the tides, geology, and overall coastal landscapes.

The coastal landscapes are likely the most obvious subjects, but the terrain is also interesting. A “to scale” drawing of a cobble beach is something that is attainable within a short time. It encourages participants to observe the details of the rocks in detail. Detailed drawings of beach debris, logs and seaweed can also be of interest.

At the site, participants are left to do drawings in their sketch books. The guide may provide occasional discussion, instruction, or encourage use of new techniques. The guide can also use demonstrative drawing to convey information about various landscape or geology features, using the act of drawing as a visual map of information being shared.

Drawing of Two Islands and Five Islands in the distance. June 2016.
Drawing of Two Islands and Five Islands in the distance. June 2016.



Throughout the day, participants are encouraged to look at each other’s drawings and share information. They can also be encouraged to take a picture using their mobile; a photo that shows their drawing with the landscape in the background. Sharing the photos on social media provides opportunity to share experience with their friends. #FundyDrawing

Drawing of Light House at First Beach

The opportunity to take time to observe a changing tidal landscape with drawing, typically involves anywhere from 5-15 minutes. In this time, an observable change will be noticeable. For the change to be most apparent, it is important to establish a reference point at the beginning of the drawing.Participants might be encouraged to write a few words to identify smells or sounds that they are hearing during the drawing process.

The physical  drawings also act as memorable and valued objects they can share with friends and family. The participants can be offered an opportunity to frame (or mail) their drawings as gifts.

Complimentary Programs

Participants can also be encouraged to consider other complimentary events and programs. Program scheduling should enable participants to enjoy an evening of live-theatre (Ship’s Company Theatre), a nice dinner out, or experience Yoga on the Ocean Floor. Drawing would be attractive for those interested in purposely slowing down and be reflective, establishing a deeper connection with an engaging landscape.


Drawing Skeletons

The third of the Dalhousie Observation Drawing sessions occurred on March 26th, from 4:30-6:00. The weekday (Tuesdays) and time seem to work well for most students. The university halls are a quieter than the morning rush, and students can attend unless assignments are due the next day.

The third session focused on skeletal subjects, including several seal bones and two mounted feline skeletons. As usual the sessions started with several short (15 second) warm up drawings, and then some longer (30 second) warm up drawings.  The idea of these warm up drawings is to encourage trying to see large shapes, angles and proportions.  Most drawings should start in this way, with light pressure lines rapidly trying to capture the large proportions and shaps.

After the warm up the group did a memory drawing exercise. The seal bones were placed in the middle of the table and covered with a sheet of paper. When the sheet was lifted the participants had 30 seconds to observe the different elements, without doing any drawing. When the sheet was returned participants could then begin to draw, what they  remembered seeing.  The memory drawing is intended to demonstrate the fallability of memory.  The exercise also shows how much easier it is to draw when you observe rather than what you think you see.

Drawing skeleton specimens at the Dalhousie McCulloch Museum.
Drawing skeleton specimens at the Dalhousie McCulloch Museum.

With the warm up activities done, several longer drawings were completed on the normal newsprint paper but then the good paper (mylar) was brought out for a final (30 minute) drawing.  The use of mylar paper provided an increased ability to shade and produce very dark lines.  The mylar paper is a high-quality drawing material.  Although initially intimidated by the nice paper, the final drawings were very good.

Final drawings of the cat skeleton on mylar paper.
Final drawings of the cat skeleton on Mylar paper. Notice the seal bones on the table as well.

I am grateful for the students who have attended the sessions and participated in the Observation Drawing Sessions.  The term is starting to wind-down, assignments are coming due and exams are on the horizon. Based on these initial sessions the hosting of future sessions has good potential.


Drawing Observations

The second session of the Observation Drawing for Natural Sciences was held on March 19th. A (final?) winter storm arriving tonight and only two weeks left in the term, but still several students attended and drew for ninety minutes at the end of the day. The sessions are informal and social.

A typical session, tonight started with about eight 30 second drawings, getting eyes attentive to observing carefully while loosening up the hand to move as quickly as the eyes.  Following a brief look at a few of the drawings and a chat about distance, details, mark making, and surfaces, drawing continued with several two-minute and then ten-minute drawings.

Tonight the drawings were done on 14×17 newsprint pads, using charcoal sticks and 6B pencils.  The smaller pad size worked well and avoided the need for larger and heavier drawing boards.  In the museum there are several surfaces to rest the drawing pads on, but some kind of drawing stand may be helpful in the future.





Observation Drawing at Dalhousie

The first Observation Drawing session was held in the McCulloch Museum on March 12th.  Thanks for the interest of the the several students who attended.  The museum turned out to be a very good location for this type of session – with lots of variation in subject (Audubon birds, skeletons, coral, bugs, fossils and more), scale (bugs to whale bones) and with excellent space across the room.  Lighting in the cases is very good, and supplemental lights in the next session will provide opportunity to increase contrast/shadows.

McCulloch Museum Observation Drawing 2013

The bird case displays have some interesting history.

The McCulloch collection was established in the early-1800s, as educational material for the Pictou Academy (1816-1837).  While at the Academy, McCulloch instructed the teenaged, Sir William Dawson, the namesake of the Dalhousie Geology Student Society, former President of McGill University, and famous Carboniferous paleontologist and friend of Sir Charles Lylle.  Thomas McCulloch was also the first Principle of Dalhousie University (then Dalhousie College).

McCulloch’s bird collection was inspected by Audobon sometime around 1836, and Audubon apparently provided McCulloch a print as gratitude for meeting and discussion of ornithology. The McCulloch Museum was founded in 1884 when McCulloch’s brother donated the ornithology collection to Dalhousie University.

The Observation Drawing sessions will continue through March.



Observation Drawing Sessions

Dalhousie University McCulloch Museum

Take a break from studying.  Improve  your observation drawing skills.  Draw cool stuff!

Tuesdays March 12, 19, and 26th – 2013

4:30 – 6:00 pm

  • Natural Sciences involve making observations of natural forms and processes.
  • Observation drawing is an activity that enhances observation, visual communication, and spatial visualization skills.
  • Participants will receive brief instructions related to observation drawing skills and begin drawing specimens displayed in the museum.
  • Bring your own sketch book – or use drawing supplies provided.
  • Sessions are free – drop in and draw.

Sessions are facilitated by Dr. Tim Fedak, Assistant Professor Dalhousie Earth Sciences.  Dr. Fedak is a vertebrate paleontologist (PhD, Dalhousie 2007) with a foundation in visual art and an interest in developing observation drawing skills among students.

Contact us if you have any questions or comments.