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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
education
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
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.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    IT Project Manager

    Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

    Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

    Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

    IT Manager

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

    Day In a Page

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London