Guest writer: Discovering your body through art by Victoria McCulloch

This post is written by Victoria McCulloch. Victoria is a Lecturer in Anatomy at the University of Edinburgh, and a Freelance Medical Illustrator. She describes herself as a ‘traditional, 2D artist, mainly working in pencil’. Apart from being passionate about art and anatomy and having the opportunity to combine the two at work, one of her favourite parts of her job is being in the lab and getting students to be hands-on in their learning using specimens, and seeing the light bulb moment when students suddenly understand the anatomy they are learning.


Through the centuries we have used art to depict the human body to help teach and understand how the body works. Walking through any art gallery or museum you will see the human form depicted in different ways through painting or sculpture, such as sculptures by the Ancient Greeks or the famous anatomical illustrations by Leonardo da Vinci, some of the most accurate of their time, highlighting our fascination with the human body.

These artistic processes can be used and adapted to aid in our learning of human anatomy, creating arts-based learning. Arts-based learning encourages people to use artistic skills as educational tools in non-artistic disciplines, and it has seen a surge in popularity in recent years with more people giving this teaching method a go. In my opinion, it is a fantastic way to learn anatomy, to be hands-on with your learning and a great way to relax and enjoy the learning experience.

Human anatomy is a visual subject. We need to be able to see, touch and feel the shape and textures of different structures to better understand how they work and how they all fit together within the body. Using art allows us to visualise our anatomy, from the largest structures to the smallest; from the chunky muscles in the thigh, to the tiny bones in the ear, the ossicles. I love art and when I studied human anatomy as an undergraduate student, I drew the anatomy out to better understand it, so I know the benefits that art has on learning first-hand. More recently, as a Lecturer in Anatomy, I have seen the benefits that art has on both students learning and the public’s understanding of the human body.

I am passionate about the enhancement of anatomy education through the use of art. Since I joined the University of Edinburgh I have run a variety of arts-based anatomy workshops with students, the public and have organised workshops with Art-Beat: Art and Anatomy Edinburgh, an arts-based anatomy education project at the University of Edinburgh. The two arts-based teaching methods I have adopted are body painting and modelling, either with plasticine or Play-Doh. Both of these methods allow us to recreate the anatomy in a hands-on way, but they are also fun, messy and nostalgic. People remember getting their face painted at parties or playing with plasticine as a child, and these memories, paired with the brightly coloured materials, provide both children and grown-ups with the opportunity to learn through play.

Anatomical body painting is extremely popular as it is an excellent way to learn surface anatomy; the structures that sit close to the skin that you can see, like veins, or feel, like muscles. Body painting allows you to be creative, and the use of bright colours often helps people remember the anatomy they are painting. Ultraviolet paints can also be used to enhance the novelty of the learning experience, reminding people of raves or 80’s themed parties!

Body painting of structures within the forearm, University of Edinburgh, 2020.

The workshops I have run, either by myself or with Art-Beat: Art and Anatomy Edinburgh, are open to anyone with an interest in learning anatomy and trying a new creative way of learning. People who have attended these workshops are often from a variety of backgrounds, including arts and science, but these workshops also attract people who don’t see themselves as arty, but want to try something new.

One of the barriers to arts-based learning is that people who don’t feel confident in their artistic ability, don’t like art, or perhaps prefer to admire art from afar, may not want to participate. The best thing about combining art and anatomy, and this is very important, is you don’t have to be good at art! It’s not about the final outcome, or your artistic ability, it’s about the learning process and having fun whilst doing it. From experience, people who have attended my workshops and don’t consider themselves arty have enjoyed the experience and have been proud of the anatomy they have created. Arts-based learning creates a friendly and relaxed environment for people to enjoy learning something new.

Ultraviolet body paint, University of Edinburgh, 2019.

Recreating the anatomy through modelling gives us a hands-on connection with the information. I like to use plasticine or Play-Doh, partly due to the nostalgia and novelty factor, but also because they are very reasonably priced, so if people want to try modelling some anatomy at home they can. Body paints are also inexpensive and can be a brilliant home activity for all ages.

With modelling, I like to focus on the muscles of facial expression, as these very thin muscles allow us to convey emotion and create different facial expressions, telling others what we are thinking without saying a word. To model these muscles we use plastic skulls, a cost-effective material that can be re-used, which at the end of the workshops show a range of facial expressions, mostly anger and shock.

Modelling the muscles of facial expression with plasticine, University of Edinburgh, 2019.

After the workshops I ask people for words that describe their experience of arts-based learning. Two of the most common words used to describe the experience are “relaxing” and “fun”. These are great words to describe arts-based learning, and alongside these one-word summaries, people have told me that along with being relaxed, they have learnt something new about their anatomy.

Play-Doh heart, University of Edinburgh, 2019.

If you’ve never tried arts-based learning to learn about your anatomy, give it a go!
Remember, it’s not about the artistic outcome, it’s about you enjoying yourself and learning something new about your anatomy.

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