First BMC Assignment: Carbon Dust Drawing

Anterior View of Human Skull

Hello! In the spirit of Halloween, I just so happen to have drawn a human skull as part of my first biomedical communications assignment 🙂 For our first assignment, we had the privilege to draw dissected specimens from the Grant’s Museum, which is located at University of Toronto. These specimens are the same specimens that you see illustrated in the famous Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy textbooks used by medical students worldwide.

For my first assignment we were given the choice to use carbon dust powder or wash using watercolour to demonstrate continuous tone illustration. I decided to use carbon dust because a) it’s a traditional method used in medical illustration, and b) I never done it before and it would be a good opportunity to learn. Carbon dust is a medium derived from carbon pencil that have been sanded down into shavings by using sandpaper. This method was created by Max Brödel, a medical illustrator in the early 1900s, and became popularized among medical and scientific illustrators because of its grey-scale, tonal appearance. Back in the day, this made black and white reproduction easier. The technique involves dipping a paintbrush into the carbon dust and “painting” it onto your drawing. Its really just rubbing/blending the dust into the paper until you achieve an even “tone” and then working in your shadows and highlights. You don’t need whole lot of dust/shavings/powder- a little goes a long way. The medium is also very forgiving, so you can erase it very easily.  To store the carbon “dust/shavings/powder,” it’s best to store in a small container to keep it contained since you can imagine it could get very messy!

Even though I had sketched some specimens from the Grant’s Museum, I decided to draw a skull from my bone box (yes, each student was given a bone box to study from!) because the even tone created by carbon dust would make an amazing bone illustration. So, I decided to tackle the challenge of drawing a human skull even though originally, I told myself not to do because I was intimidated by the complexity of some of the structures found in the skull.

Initially, I will admit I did not like using the carbon dust. I was having difficulties achieving that “even” tone, but after getting some assistance from my prof, I learned that patience was key! Also, you need to work on building layers. So first, fill in the outline of your drawing (including negative spaces, but not the background) with a light “wash” layer. Then continue to build your layers and creating the form of your subject by filling in the general shadows and thinking about where your highlights are. Once you got the form right, you start adding more details by working more on the details of the shadows and outline of certain structures.

I was warned by upper year students that this medium was very messy, but I actually didn’t find it too bad. I was also surprised that I didn’t need to shave a whole lot of carbon pencil to create carbon dust and a small amount of dust covered quite a bit. I’m actually surprised this method is not used much among the art community because it achieves such a realistic look. To me, it seem very similar to drawing with graphite pencils and using a blending stump, but instead you are using a paint brush to “blend” your drawing. Overall, I’m glad that I got a chance to work with this medium and I’m actually thinking of using it again some time down the road.


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