Friday, March 13, 2009

Netter’s Medical Illustration

One of the places art meets science is medical illustration, and one of the masters of the field was Frank Netter, M.D. (1906-1991), whose contribution to the field is on the order of Vesalius or Leonardo.

Trained as a doctor, he began doing illustrations to clarify his understanding of anatomy. “I found that I could learn my subjects best by drawing," he said. His life work of more than 4,000 illustrations grew, he said, “in response to the desires and requests of the medical profession.”

The paintings of bones, muscles, cross sections, and internal organs often use color coding to clarify separate subsystems. Dr. Netter used watercolor and gouache, with colored pencils and pastels for shading and fine detail. He once said:

"It is important to achieve a happy medium between complexity and simplification. If the pictures are too complex, they may be difficult and confusing to read; if oversimplified, they may not be adequately definitive or may even be misleading. I have therefore striven for a middle course of realism without the clutter of confusing minutiae."

His work is collected in the Atlas of Human Anatomy (1989), which is still held up as a gold standard among students of medical illustration. For those interested in studying medical illustration, there are specialized programs at Johns Hopkins in Maryland, the Medical College of Georgia, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Cleveland Institute of Art, and the University of Toronto.
Wikipedia: link.
Graphic Witness: link.
Netter Images: link.


Erik Bongers said...

Can I focus on just one line of this post?
"I found that I could learn my subjects best by drawing."

Quite often when someone is trying to explain something to me and I find it difficult to understand, I will often take out pencil and paper and rather bluntly interrupt with the words "Draw it for me!"

However, I noticed that not everyone needs those visual clues to help them understand concepts more quickly. This led me to believe that people can be divided into visual and conceptual thinkers, where the first need something more concrete, like a drawing or a maquette and others are fine with just abstract concepts.

As I mentioned in reactions to previous posts, I think that authors of comic books should be aware that some of their readers will read the story through the pictures, while others will focus mainly on the text. In an ideal case your comic book allows to be read solely via pictures and at the same time solely via text.

So, to come back to this post, based on that one remark, I'm sure that this doctor was a visual thinker. And I believe that visual thinkers have a advantage for visual arts.

Erik Bongers said...

I forgot to add, that I believe that good 'visual thinking' is what is often called 'talent' by those who do not feel they have it.

Steve said...

Piggy-backing on Erik's comment about "learning by drawing"...a professor who once taught medical illustration, Joe Trumpey, now teaches a science field sketching class at the University of Michigan. Part of his course offering is having college students and elementary/middle school students both go out in the field and make detailed drawings of flora and fauna. Joe and his wife, an elementary teacher, have compiled data showing improved understanding of science content by making drawings. They began with the theory that drawing something deepens your understanding of that subject. They added the interesting twist of having college and elementary students share and discuss their work. My elementary students particiapted and were thrilled to receive visits from college students/artists. You can read about it at :

And, the University of Michigan offers a Masters in Medical Illustration.

Anonymous said...

As fine artists go, I'm of the opinion that Max Brodel, who is widely considered the father of medical illustration, is a far better artist than Netter. While Netter was an excellent anatomist and draftsman, his fame is the result of putting out sheer volume of work and not necessarily the quality of said work.

Brodel's work has lasted through the years not because of his founding of the department at Johns Hopkins, but also because his illustrations remain to be some of the most instructive and accurate we have to this day. Furthermore, the use of carbon dust as a medium was first popularized by him, if not invented.

Jason Peck said...

Hi James,

Netter's Illustrations are wonderful. I wish I had known about him years ago.

Medical illustration is very tedious, and Netter is right, to much is confusing, and to little can be misleading.

So far Ive illustrated 2 medical books. Clinical Evaluation and Diagnostic Test for Neuromuscular Disorders, and Neuromuscular Case Studies. Both are by Tulio E. Bertorini.

Thanks for letting us know about Netter, I really like his technique. I'll have to give the watercolor and gouache a try. These days publishers seem to only want computer colored illustrations.

Best Jason

Julia Lundman said...

This is a damn good blog Gurney!

Michael said...

Regarding Erik's two options of visual and conceptual thinkers in which people can be divided, there are others as well. Some people are audio, some tactile, many are a combination. This gets complicated. I hear ideas and see them played out in my mind. I have a hard time seeing if there are audio distractions, for instance. There is also a sculpting that goes on in my mind. I have sensations of shaping form as I perceive or work out ideas.

Taj Nabhani said...

I guess Howard Pyle was right, if you illustrate what you know, the rest is easy! I can't wait to see you in Toronto!
All the best.

Erik Bongers said...

I agree with Michael. My division between visual and conceptual thinkers is a simplification.
(but simple = understandable to me)

Actually I'm not even sure it's correct division. Maybe 'visual thinking' is a tool we all have to some extend.

And about the audio distractions: some people seem to concentrate better with some background music, so there you go - it's indeed not that simple.

But I seem to have dragged the focus away from the real subject of this post - the medical drawing.

I like the striving for clarity and legibility of these drawings. Of course these are 'functional' drawings. But then I wonder, aren't comic book drawings (and illustrations in general) not also functional drawings? Wouldn't higher legibility of the individual drawings increase the overall readability of a whole book? Or does too much clarity of a drawing break the fantasy/imagination of the reader?

Antoine M. said...

Few days before I've sent a mail to James
Gurney because I wanted to know which kind
Of technics was used by Netter and the result
Is a post on the blog. Wonderfull ! One
Of my master speaks about an other favorite master.

I'm actually drawimg and writing an anatomical book, maybe will ask Mr Gurney to draw the cover page : in my dreams he would accept...
So thank you Mr Gurney.

A. Micheau - MD

Ps : I teach and draw anatomy and I think that Netter is the best anatomical illustrator because
His pictures are at the same time accurate, complete, clear, esthetic and didactic.

James Gurney said...

Thank you, Antoine for making me aware of Dr. Netter's work. I had heard his name several times before, but you got me to do a post! Good luck with your work.

Erik, interesting idea about making storytelling pictures as legible and clear as possible--the function being advancing the story, instead of explaining anatomy. I think there's a lot to that, but still there must be room for mystery, ambiguity, and suggestion, which involves the viewer's imagination.

Beth Almond said...

I just discovered 7 prints done by Frank Netter and mailed out to doctors around 1950 (including my father, a country doctor in WV), compliments of Armour Laboratories -- medical "doctor" scenes depicting various aspects of the doc's role (house calls, hospital rooms, anatomy lab, gyn examing room (really!), ambulance call, etc). Does anyone have any information in regards to this aspect of Dr. Netter's work? Thanks! Beth Almond