I've been treating myself to some drawing workshops this spring... and when I treat my creative self, it usually involves seeking out animals of the deceased and preserved variety, with a sketchbook under my arm. And so it was that I found myself in the delightful classroom of Observatory, a Brooklyn-based art and science event space. Joanna Ebenstein, who manages Observatory, also curates the amazing Morbid Anatomy blog - a source of endless inspiration, and a killer travel planner for those who's first destination in a foreign city is usually the local catacombs. In addition to Observatory's wide variety of evening lecture subjects (covering histories of science, medicine, and the culture of the macabre), the loosly dubbed "Morbid Anatomy Art Academy" runs classes in such curiously alluring topics as anthropomorphic taxidermy, dollhouse crime scene recreation, and death-mask making. Joanna is a powerhouse, and when she scheduled a few animal anatomy drawing weekends, I absolutely could not resist.
Below my skeleton sketches (coyote skull above, then human skulls, followed by Homogalax - the earliest known tapir) are a few photos - the only one that isn't immediately self explanatory is the lower right image of something in a silver tray. That something is actually a stillborn orangutan body that had been partially dissected by various researchers. It was one of the most intense specimens I've yet seen - moreso even than the human hands that were sitting on an adjacent table... it had no head and was literally in assymetric dissaray. *A specimen like this is exceptionally rare, and "hacked up" as it was, each shred of tissue and bone was being conserved to await the next wave of scientists looking for a sample that might illuminate their research.
There are many drawing and painting techniques I have yet to try, and then there are the techniques I've never even heard of... carbon dust drawing is one of those. Back in March, the Academy held a weekend class on learning this obscure, meticulously beautiful method, and curiosity got the best of me. Taught by accomplished medical illustrator, Marie Dauenheimer, the workshop started with an overview of the history of carbon dust drawing, and proceeded into an afternoon of experimenting with a few drawings ourselves (starting with the grinding of our own dust from a stack of carbon drawing sticks) - naturally, we had a table full of skulls as our subjects (see main photo above).
Carbon dust drawing was developed in the late 19th century and perfected by Max Brodel, a medical artist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The technique is a slow one, building layer upon layer of soft grey "dust washes" to create desired tones, though the resulting images have an etherial luminosity and near photogrphic quality that is really quite stunning. I'd like to continue these exercises when I can and will definitely add carbon dust to my roster of picture-making methods worth the effort. Below, my "finished enough" sheep skull in dust...