The Healing Arts
A background in medical illustration merges with fine art to provide restorative benefits.
Art has the power to heal.
It evokes an emotional response, and
emotions have an effect on the body’s
physiological responses. Medical
studies document the favorable
therapeutic impact of visual arts:
Looking at art can change brain wave
patterns, the autoimmune response
and neurotransmitters that shift the
body from stress to relaxation. It also
can modulate attitudes from fear to
acceptance, from negativity to hope.
Below the Surface
As a young child, I understood that
the surface appearance of objects
depended upon the scaffolding
underneath. The shape of a face, for
example, wasn’t determined by the
skin, but by the bones of the skull upon
which muscle and sinew supported fat
beneath the skin. My interest in the
anatomy of shapes was recognized by
a college professor who suggested that
a marriage of nature, human form and
artistry could be crystallized in the
study of medical art.
With this in mind, I decided
to pursue a master’s of science in
medical illustration at the Medical
College of Georgia (now Augusta
University). As a medical art student,
I explored dissected cadavers in
gross anatomy lab, and learned
about the microscopic world of
health and disease through histology
and pathology. I also went into the
operating room—pencil, sketchpad
and camera in hand—to observe and
draw surgical procedures.
In the studio, I produced sketches
with strict attention to anatomical
accuracy, revealing not just surface
anatomy but that which lies beneath. I
sought input from instructors and rendered
pencil drawings into final form
in a variety of media. This was before
the era of digital art, so I created mine
by hand at the drawing table. When,
after years of freelance medical art, I
was ready for a change, I picked up a
pastel. It seemed the ideal medium.
Any new art form presents challenges,
and I had to learn when to
underpaint and how to layer colors.
One of many workshops I took was
Sally Strand’s “The Color of Light.” It
was a difficult workshop for me, full
of color theory after years of graphite
sketches and pen and ink final drawings.
At home, I set up still lifes to
work through workshop concepts.
As I painted, however, it dawned
on me that I’d actually done this many
times before. A medical artist always
draws from the viewpoint of the
physician looking at the patient, just
as a fine artist looks at a subject from
a viewer’s vantage point. I realized
that medical art is essentially a still
life, and, as is true with any still life,
it involves narrow depth of field, with
attention to shape, light and shadow.
I felt I had come full circle artistically.
Medical Art Meets Fine Art
Artists evolve, and I began to look
inside to see what personal experiences
I could tap. What would happen
if I took the precision, detail and accuracy
of medical art but gave myself the
freedom to adapt and apply a visual
twist? The idea of combining aspects
of medical art with fine art was born.
I began a painting series that
combined the two with an emphasis
on wholeness, healing and repair. My
training in medical art facilitated
adapting natural objects to medical
treatment and the healing process.
Space can be opened for healing by
displacing a patient’s fear of medical
devices and human ailment onto the
natural form of plant life combined
It was a logical progression for
me to apply medical tools to still life
objects as a metaphor for healing.
Fruit, for example, serves as a good
stand-in for body with skin, fleshy
sections and juice. In one painting,
I sought to reveal the life force in a
lemon by showcasing its “injury” and
then “repairing” it to highlight the act
of renewal. I replaced the diseased
lemon slice in Lemon-Aid
with a healthy lime slice.
In Artichoke Heart-Beat,
the artichoke is situated in the position
of the human heart in the chest.
In a play on words, the stethoscope is
tucked under a petal, ready to pick up
sound. Meanwhile, I recapitulate cardiac
anatomy in Heart of the Matter.
A New Direction
Last fall, I was selected for an artist
residency program in the north Georgia
mountains at the Hambidge Center
in Rabun Gap. The freedom of being
removed from the distractions of
everyday living spawned an environment
in which my creativity
flourished. I enjoyed the cross-disciplinary
interaction with artists
of various ages and stages in their
careers. The time, studio space,
creative energy and freedom to work uninterrupted provided focus for the
“Healing Power of Art” series.
Cancer vs. T-Cells (above) is a conceptual
painting that began with the
crab, a symbol for cancer. T-cells, a
type of white blood cell, are instrumental
in fighting cancer. I did a
rubbing alcohol wash under-painting
on UART paper in a darker value than
the pastels I had intended to use, and
a happy accident occurred. A drop of
alcohol fell onto the paper, forming a
“T-cell” with the same tendrils as the
electron micrograph T-cells. Eureka!
I flung more alcohol on the paper,
creating hundreds of T -cells in their
plasmatic sea, before beginning to
This painting series has been a
fusion of medicine and art, ultimately
designed to inspire wellness. I’ve
received feedback from viewers saying
that the works evoke a sense of a
return to wholeness, completion and
healing. Understandably, people are
sometimes frightened or repelled by
medical instruments and surgeries,
but I intend for my art to serve as a
meditation for well-being, helping to
move people from fear toward acceptance,
gratitude and survivorship.
It has been said that medicine
heals the body while art heals the soul.
It’s my hope that by combining two
facets of my art, both can occur.
Nancy Marshburn (nancymarshburn.
com), of Davidson, N.C., is a member of
the Piedmont Pastel Society, a signature
member of the Pastel Society of America and a Master Circle member in the International Association of Pastel Societies.