Carbon dust drawing: Historic technique informs the future

The Biomedical Communications graduate students train in Anatomy and Human Embryology with the University of Toronto medical students over the first 10 weeks of the program. At the same time, they learn carbon dust drawing to produce clinical images suitable for textbooks from which medical students learn.

Pioneered in the early 1900s by Max Brödel, the father of modern medical illustration, the technique makes medical, gray-scale, tonal illustrations look like living tissue and it reproduced well in an era of only black and white printing.

“This technique lends itself well to surgery,” said Biomedical Communications Associate Professor David Mazierski who teaches the Textbook Illustration portion of Anatomy.

Mazierski takes the first-year students to Grant’s Museum in the Division of Anatomy on the University of Toronto’s St. George campus. There, they make sketches from the dissection specimens using ordinary graphite pencils. The students return to the Biomedical Communications’ studio in the nearby Fitzgerald Building and transfer their sketches to the final board—a paper with texture or “tooth” that holds the carbon dust.

To transfer the sketch, students rub the back of the sketch with carbon pencil. They place the sketch onto the board and trace over it to leave a faint transfer of the drawing. They go over the transfer with the carbon pencil to strengthen the outlines and to add shading lines and detail, said Mazierski. Next, students brush over the drawing with a soft flat paintbrush to lighten it. They sharpen their carbon pencil points on sandpaper and collect the dust in a small box. They dip soft watercolour brushes into the carbon dust and brush tone onto the surface of the paper.

“The thing about carbon dust is that it is very forgiving,” said first-year Biomedical Communications student Andrew Tran.

Students can lighten tone with a piece of chamois cloth, add to their drawing or add more dust. They create highlights by removing tone or even erasing all the way back to the board. They add small, sharply defined dots of white paint to create a specular highlight to depict the reflection of a light source in a wet surface. Oily fat tissues reflect light. Specular highlights can depict this in drawings, said Tran. “You add a lot more light onto fat tissue to indicate that it is shiny.”

In addition to learning this technique, Tran said he now sees shadow differently and is more aware of how light reflects from an object.

In an era of digital painting and illustrating tools, carbon dust drawing still teaches vital observational and representational skills.

“Learning this technique is a link with the history of medical and scientific illustration,” said Mazierski, “and a foundation for the students as they advance to computer graphics and other forms of visual communication.”

by Maeve Doyle