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Visualizing the body

Live body painting of athlete muscles for museum crowds

August 28, 2013

Any kind of event that brings scientific illustrators and their work closer to the public is very rewarding. The praise and inquiries usually received on our end are guaranteed ego boosters to remember on grey days; but even better is the opportunity to bring understanding to the profession and to the messages of science it carries.

I have drawn live for museum audiences a number of times, from fossils, to insects, to highly endangered mammal species, sometimes digitally, some others on paper, demoing the techniques, discussing career choices, inviting all alike to observe and draw. And few things equal the glow on a child’s face when the insect comes to focus under the microscope or the amazement of an adult that pauses for the first time to appreciate the detail in nature.

However drawing on humans as canvas under the eyes of a museum crowd last week was a debut. Applause to the National Museum of Health and Medicine for their original and well-organized event – The Anatomy of Sports Day – that brought together as teams the athletes, the physical therapists and the scientific illustrators, to raise awareness for muscle anatomy and potential injuries prompted by different sports.

Former American National Football League player Chris Draft was the perfect partner in crime. In his wide back, reflection of the years of playing as a linebacker,a two-hour painting session surfaced all the muscles usually hidden under the skin (Fig. 1). Any movement of the painted body then revealed the natural deformation of the muscles, demonstrating their flexibility and susceptibility to injuries, explained by the physical therapist.

Fig.1 - Jogador de futebol Americano Chris Draft durante a sessão de pintura dos músculos das costas. Fotografia de AsherNewsome.
Fig.1 – American football player Chris Draft during back muscles painting session. Photo by Asher Newsome.

Each sport has its own key set of muscle groups involved and different vulnerabilities. And the united talent of athletes and illustrators uncovered them during the event. Running, swimming, weight lifting, cycling, volleyball and horse riding were present – yes, horse riding, with equestrian anatomy properly represented (Figs. 2–4).

Fig.2 - Ilustradora Taina Litwak pinta os músculos no braço do jogador de voleibol Dat Dang. Fotografia de Asher Newsome.
Fig.2 – Illustrator TainaLitwak paints arm muscles of volleyball player Dat Dang. Photo by Asher Newsome.
Fig.3 - Anatomia equestre em movimento. Fotografia de Asher Newsome.
Fig.3 – Equestrian anatomy on the move.Photo by Asher Newsome.
Fig.4 - Atletas Gwen Nelmes (natação), Alex Modaressi (levantamento de pesos) e Chris Draft (jogador de futebol Americano) com os músculos das costas pintados. Fotografia de Diana Marques.
Fig.4 – Athletes Gwen Nelmes (swimmer), Alex Modaressi (weight lifter) and Chris Draft (American football player) with painted back muscles. Photo by Diana Marques.

This kind of direct visualization of muscles above skin is not unheard of, having been used even as a technique for teaching anatomy (see this book by illustrator John Cody); and it is true that the general public is now more aware of human anatomy since the popularization of exhibits like Bodies or BodyWorlds. However, it’s the performance live tied with an overall enthusiasm that engages the public, athletes, illustrators, therapists and museum staff alike. A very well thought out outreach activity that perfectly translates the power of visualization and plastic applications of scientific illustration.

Written by Diana Marques

Diana is a 1) a scientific illustrator and animator; 2) researching technology, visual communication and museums in a Digital Media PhD; 3) a biologist; 4) and occasionally a couple things more. Find her on the Web, LinkedIn and Twitter.