I started drawing when I was about eleven, or at least, defining myself as someone who drew around that time. It felt less like I had learned how to draw, and more like I had simply figured it out. It wasn’t that I could understand objects as structures in space, but the opposite: I realised that you could flatten them. No matter what scene I was looking at, no matter how far its depth expanded, no matter what I knew about its material presence, it could always be photographed. Once something was caught inside a photo, you could literally measure each feature of it: every value fit on a scale of one to ten, every angle could be determined with a protractor, every eyelash could be tracked alongside the millimeter edge of a ruler. It wasn’t that I was making all of these measurements, but something changed when I realised that I could, that this was a type of seeing that I could switch into. It was like staring at an optical illusion and finally seeing all of the concave shapes pop out of the page. And very quickly, I became better, but nearly twenty years later, I’m not entirely there.
The whole time, I’ve been bothered by this question: Why can’t I draw perfectly? It’s not that I think that I, specifically, should be uniquely good at drawing—but that I don’t understand why any of us are able to see the world clearly, and still fail to replicate it. When I look at a wonky portrait I’ve painted, it makes me feel distant from my own senses. I was trying to explain this uneasiness to Simon Cropper, who researches sensation and perception at the Complex Human Data Hub; Simon specialises in how our minds process visual data, how we sift through a mess of stimuli and pick out the bits that matter. I asked about a recent paper he worked on, which investigated why so many cultures around the world have separately developed similar folklore from constellations. It’s a bit mind-boggling, he says. The research began when he was out in the countryside looking at the stars thinking: everyone looks at that. It’s one of the few common experiences shared across the whole planet—and, with gradual changes—across wide expanses of time. Later, he was talking to an astronomer friend about the strangeness of the whole thing: not only did people make incredibly complex stories from the most sparse visual stimulus you could get and still make sense of—but that these same stories were replicated in different parts of the world. Orion—the prominent constellation named for a hunter in Greek mythology—is almost always interpreted as some type of warrior, whether in China or the Mediterranean or the pre-colonial Philippines. It’s shocking how, for millennia, people have, without consulting each other, looked at seven dots and said, yes, totally, that’s a man and he’s mad—how few pieces of data a person needs to start filling in the rest.
In college, I studied scientific and pre-medical illustration. One thing I liked about it was that it was a type of art with a definitive right or wrong. Whenever I heard wishy-washy talk about the subjectivity of art, I found myself feeling vaguely defensive. If beauty was in the eye of the beholder and no art was better than any other, then what was the point of practice? Why was I trying so hard to improve at something you couldn’t genuinely improve?
Observational drawing, of course, has tighter parameters—and once medical illustration was on the table, art felt less subjective than ever. You couldn’t place an esophagus anywhere that called to you. You had to put it in a very specific place, and even that wasn’t enough on its own—you had to include enough visual context for the viewer to orient it, simplify its surroundings, and decide which details mattered and which would only distract. You couldn’t give a surgeon a manual based on artistic whims or you’d actually hurt someone. In this major, the rules felt so clear at first: there was a physical reality we lived in and it was your responsibility to describe it accurately.
I repeat myself a lot when I talk about medical illustration, but I always feel like I need to explain what it is. Medical illustrators make diagrams for textbooks, VR models for anatomy programs, court exhibits for malpractice lawyers, figures for journals, and pamphlets for doctor’s offices. At the undergraduate level, we took half our classes in the art department and half in biology, and the most serious students attended a graduate program within a medical school, eventually joining a small group of board-certified medical illustrators.
People used to ask why scientific and medical illustration existed, why illustrators bothered studying biology: couldn’t we just take a photo? The answer was no, for a few reasons. It wasn’t as though we were transcribing an available photograph into a drawn duplication of itself and calling it a day. Photography has many spatial and temporal limitations, but one of the main problems is that so much of the real world is incredibly unclear. If you want to look inside a human leg for instance, the muscles aren’t nearly as distinct and orderly as what you’d see in an anatomical model. They’re covered in fascia and fat and subject to natural variation; they’re weird and stringy and cling to each other. It’s hard to tell what’s going on unless you’ve been trained to look for it, and often that training involves looking at depictions—whether drawn or photographed—where the natural forms are artificially defined. It’s hard to process the real thing until you see the fake thing first. It’s someone pointing to the sky and telling you which stars are inside a story—like you as a child squinting up until you start to see a lion, a bull, and later, a nerve, a ureter, mammary gland cushioned in fat, and even then, only barely.
When I try to imagine what a cadaver would look like if I’d never seen an anatomical diagram, it’s like trying to un-teach my brain English. In my anatomy section, there were three cadavers, four students per body, in an artificially ventilated lab space. There were plastic models on the counters, displaying muscles that were uniformly plump, red, and distinct—a distant relative of the vague, off-color mess we find beneath skin. Most classes, the teaching assistant played Michael Jackson while we worked. We were listening to “Billie Jean” when I ran an oscillating saw through a clavicle.
One day, my lab partner asked about a red glob on a lung. The instructor squinted and shrugged; it was just tissue. “Oh okay, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t anything,” my lab partner responded. Although the instructor continued to speculate that it might be serous membrane, clotted blood, or some sort of combination, I remained stuck on the idea that there are parts of us that have no obvious classification, parts that aren’t anything, and still, they live and grow within us.
There’s a longer story about why I’m not a medical illustrator today, but the shortest answer is that I wasn’t very good at it. It’s an art that you can get wrong, and that’s exactly what I did. I felt comfortable drawing an object that was in front of me, but I had a hard time imagining configurations I’d never seen. I spent most of my time frustrated and confused: visualising the body felt like fussing with a rubix cube I didn’t know the algorithm for, resisting the urge to just pull the stickers off and start over.
I’m not being modest, and I’m not saying that I couldn’t draw or understand biology—but that medical illustration required a type of spatial thinking that never came naturally to me, that needed me to break down the world in a way I just couldn’t. I don’t think of it as a sad thing: I’m glad I studied medical illustration, I’m honored that my cadaver’s donor trusted us with her body, and I believe it’s good for everyone to do something they’re bad at for a while. I’ve found work that I love, and, now, I get to spend my days writing and reading and then signing onto tutor sessions where I try to coax ninth graders into talking about poetry. Every day I feel so lucky. Instead of making medical illustrations, I’ve been able to research their history and study how anatomical drawings shape the way we understand our bodies and ourselves. The goal of a medical illustrator is to pull a narrative out of the body’s chaos. In visual art, as in essay-writing, forming a narrative means choosing what you believe is important for a viewer to see—and if you want a story to be legible, you have to leave things out.
For the past few years, I’ve been thinking about what it means to exist in something that’s too complex to process. I’ve been trying on VR headsets until they make me motion sick and reading 500-year-old letters from anatomists and legislation that regulates fetal images, and, more recently, talking to a researcher in Australia about why I could never draw the world entirely as it was.
It still bothered me, after all this time: everything I could see, but couldn’t replicate or communicate outwards. I wanted Simon to tell me: how I—how anyone—was able to look around, able to see so clearly that the legs of a chair created one shape rather than another, and still somehow find ourselves unable to identify that this is what we were seeing, and unable to transcribe it to the page.
The answer, Simon said, is that for the most part, I can’t see the world as clearly as I think I can—that I never could. When we look around, we see these small things we have certainty about—a form that indicates a face we recognise, a flicker of light—and our brains process the data alongside the patterns we’ve encountered and predictively fill in the rest. Although it uses these bits of data to construct an impression of a stable, clear reality around us, we generally aren’t seeing it in the first place. I thought of a memory game I used to play on the bus as a child. My friend would hold a bandana with a paisley-inspired pattern in front of my face and then instruct me to close my eyes. She’d ask me to describe it: how many swirls were in the bottom left corner? How many dots were in the center? And even though I felt like I could visualise the fabric so clearly, the bright teal cotton, any time I tried to focus in on a detail the image would start to disappear, like a dream I kept waking up from.
“It’s like being in the middle of this neural hologram, I suppose,” he said, “It’s one of those things that’s hard to think about. We convince ourselves we have this beautiful high-fidelity representation of reality, but when we want a snapshot of the world, it’s hard to grab, because that’s not how it exists.”
He talked about cubist paintings, which depict an object moving over time within the same frame. The paintings look all over the place and their subject is barely legible—but at some point in our head, before we’ve cleaned up the moving visual data, that’s actually what the world looks like. As we nod or move our eyes or look around a glass of water, our minds stitch together snapshot after snapshot, superimposed over each other. If you could print the visual data in our brains out on paper, he told me, it would look kind of like a cubist painting—but we don’t experience the world that way because it would be impossible and unhelpful.