In the eye of the beholder: the art of the plastic surgeon

Nurse - the pencil . . . Emma Cook on an aesthetics awareness course for doctors

IT IS mid-afternoon in a rather musty lecture hall in the Royal College Of Surgeons. Twenty plastic surgeons, deep in concentration, are sketching at easels in between staring appreciatively at their subject: a statuesque naked woman reclining on a slab of marble in the centre of the room. For all of these surgeons flesh is an everyday spectacle, but drawing it, rather than operating on it, requires a different range of responses. In particular, aesthetic appreciation.

One man peers over his bi-focals, frowning at the model. "I find this fascinating," he says, shading in a generously proportioned breast with his charcoal. "We tend to confine ourselves to the bits of body we're working on without fully appreciating the relationship between them all as a whole."

This is the fourth day of a week-long annual course called the Art of Reconstructive Surgery, designed and taught by sculptor Pandora Melly and consultant plastic surgeon Professor Roy Sanders. At the beginning of the course, surgeons are introduced to the basic principles of making heads in clay to enhance their perception of facial planes. They then practise simple drawing techniques as well as trying to sculpt an image of their own head.

"We teach them how to use art as a way of remembering," says Melly. "If someone has had their nose bitten off by a Rottweiler, it's so difficult to know how all the features fit together when you come to rebuild the face." She encourages them to sculpt their own faces using touch only - no mirrors. "It's almost like their eyes fighting with their hands."

According to Professor Sanders, plastic surgeons are trained solely in anatomy and physiology so they have less understanding of proportions, relationships and form. "There are so many errors of concept derived from the theory of anatomy," he says. "When they first make a mouth out of clay, it will be absolutely flat, when there's actually a very sharp curve to it."

A row of primitive clay forms stand waiting to dry, most of them lopsided, some with bulbous eyes, others with large lumpy foreheads and puckered complexions. It seems hard to imagine the same hands that made these can, in real life, routinely create the perfect nose or chiselled cheekbones. "Even experienced surgeons may say, `I can't make this face look like a woman's'," says Professor Sanders. "The reason is the proportions are wrong."

Malcolm Deane, a plastic surgeon from Nottingham, is busy moulding a thin, tapered nose onto his clay statue. "I know the face intimately," he says. "But to actually model it like this is entirely different.This is a darn sight easier than dealing with living tissue." He disposes with the nose and rolls it up into a small ball to start again. "If you don't like it, you can just cut a bit off or slap a bit more on. It's super."

As Melly points out, this part of the exercise is about experimentation and exploration. "This is waking up their artistic ability but for scientific purposes." Unlike artists, plastic surgeons are normally allowed very little freedom of expression. Although, she says, their surgical work - like art - is attributable. "In the same way that you can spot a Rodin or Giacometti, each surgeon has a trade mark. Their style evolves."

In this context, would a surgeon consider him or herself to be an artist? "I suppose we are sculptors in flesh," muses Timothy Milward, a plastic surgeon working in Leicester. "We do an enormous amount of reconstruction. The aim is to match what was there before." Nick Jones, a rhinologist from Nottingham, agrees. "I think of myself as a sculptor in my job," he says, his apron splattered with dried clay. "You're trying to meet people's cosmetic and aesthetic needs. But you inevitably impose your own ideas as well."

Melly is convinced she has identified a particular "artist" already. "I can spot quite a number of actresses who've had their noses done by one person on the course," she says. "You can tell because it looks like the same one repeated on each face."

Yet no surgeon, it seems, wishes to be known for their individual style or work. "I would view it as an insult if someone could recognise my line of plastic surgery," says Milward. "Because then it means I'm deciding what the patient wants."

But to some extent their work will be informed by personal ideals of attractiveness, which is why a central part of the course is the consideration of beauty, distortion and the grey area in between. Melly will ask them to sculpt what they percieve to be either an ugly or a beautiful head. Often, she says, they will create something that "feels" rather than "looks" beautiful. "In the end, it's about what gives them pleasure to produce."

As one participant sums up, staring critically at his sketch of the nude: "The main thing I've learnt is that there's no such thing as absolute beauty."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Copywriter / Direct Response Copywriter

    £20k plus sales linked bonus. : Guru Careers: We are seeking a Copywriter to j...

    Recruitment Genius: Accounting Technician

    £17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has bec...

    Guru Careers: 3D Creative Designer

    Up to £26k DOE: Guru Careers: A Junior / Mid-Level 3D Creative Designer is nee...

    Recruitment Genius: Ecommerce Website Digital Marketing Manager - Fashion / Retail

    £40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You'll be joining a truly talen...

    Day In a Page

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen