Haptico-Visual Observation and Drawing:
A Novel Method for Studying Anatomy

Seven years ago, my work as an artist underwent a significant transition. Having been a typical art-worlder, trafficking only in art-world circles, I began incorporating scientific thinking and scientific purpose into my creative practice, and as a human being I feel much more whole for it.

This is how it happened: In 2010, I had a simple but fundamental thought that stayed with me. The thought was that as an artist who’d spent his post-art school life making drawings largely for the sake of the satisfaction they gave me, I was taking up space and breathing air for free. About a week later I made a decision: I wanted to pay for my free use of air and space by contributing to the positive evolution of humanity. Doing this would at least allow me to approach a fair exchange of value—the value of being alive for the value of benefiting humankind. My idea was that if I could help medical students become better observers, they would potentially become better doctors, better diagnosticians, and better surgeons. I had already been teaching observational drawing to artists, so the transition seemed natural.

I began teaching medical students at the University of Cape Town to observe anatomy through a multi-sensory drawing approach that, crucially, includes touch (haptics). I had used touch for many years prior to this, while teaching artists and designers to draw, as a means of gathering information about an object while observing it. When I started teaching medical students to observe in this way, I began to look at why this method works and at the science underpinning it. In essence, we gather a huge amount of data about an object through the sense of touch; the afferent nerves from the hands (to the brain) take up a much larger portion of the somatosensory cortex as compared to the entire trunk, or an entire lower limb, for example.

I call this multi-sensory observation method the Haptico-Visual Observation & Drawing (HVO&D) method.

The application of the HVO&D method results in a greatly increased level of observation of the form of a three-dimensional object, as well as the cognitive memorization of it. As such, the observer-drawer will also be able to retrieve the form of the object from memory and draw the object without looking at it. The drawing itself is testament to the degree to which the object has been closely observed and will contain the unique marks made by the drawer’s hand. In a workshop for medical students who are studying anatomical parts using this method, their drawing marks can be visually analyzed by the trained educator who can quickly determine the area(s) where the student has not observed closely enough, and therefore not fully grasped the entirety of the three-dimensional form under observation. The student can then be directed to revisit those areas for further observation and learning.

In independent interviews with the students who had learned this observation method during a ten-day workshop, they reported being able to “see” a mental picture of the humerus they had been studying after just the second day. They also reported noticing aspects of the humerus that they did not notice prior to the workshop, even though they had studied it through other means. The students were all able to make marks that corresponded to the three-dimensional form of the humerus they were observing—this after most of them were initially nervous about their ability to draw. They all reported that touch combined with drawing had a marked effect on their ability to understand the three-dimensional structure of the humerus as well as for memorization and recall to take place. To better understand why this observation method works as well as it does, we are currently engaged in research into this approach, specifically with regards to the learning of anatomy.


Leonard Shapiro

Leonard Shapiro is an artist who teaches a multi-sensory observation method in the medical science field.