Student Artists Bring Bones to Life

Drawing skeletons teaches students about anatomy

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From left: Eve Lampert, Kayley Noxell and Werner Zimmermann

Werner Zimmermann can’t stop. Look at this skull, he says, lifting a polar bear cranium from the table. Or check out the bones of this monkey and this baboon. “Look at the relation to the human skeleton,” he says. “There’s lots to draw – it’s a great day.”

The Guelph-based artist won’t do much of that drawing today. Instead, he’s visiting U of G’s anatomy labs to oversee the work of developing artists from his life drawing class at Toronto’s Seneca College.

Some 40 first-year students from the college’s animation program have arrived for the day, all armed with pens and pencils and enough curiosity to fill numerous pages in their drawing tablets. Tomorrow, Zimmermann will return with another busload of third-year students from the media arts program at Humber College in Toronto.

Under a U of G outreach program, he brings prospective artists and animators from both of his college classes to his hometown every February. Here, they spend one day “drawing from the bones,” honing their eyes and hands in preparation for careers as artists, animators and illustrators.

The opportunity to bring those college students to Guelph’s human and veterinary anatomy labs is invaluable, says Zimmermann.

“Instead of looking online or seeing things in textbooks, they get to see the real thing,” he says. “It’s important to be able to move around, see different vantage points.”

That’s better than visiting a museum with its specimens contained behind glass, says Adam Ujhelyi. He graduated from Seneca in 2010 and has returned today for more practice.

Now a freelance illustrator in his hometown of Guelph, he says he finds plenty of ideas amid the skulls and skeletons arrayed on tables in the veterinary anatomy lab at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC). “There are so many specimens here, it’s really inspiring.”

Another benefit is hands-on help from Guelph’s anatomy experts.

Also housed nearby in OVC is Guelph’s human anatomy lab, run by the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences (HHNS). Here, fourth-year anatomy students use dissected cadavers to show the artists aspects of the human body.

“We welcome artists to do this,” says HHNS professor Lorraine Jadeski, director of the human anatomy lab. “What we want to do is give them a sense of what’s inside the body.”

Today Zimmermann reminds his students that he’s looking for quick, accurate representations. First comes gesture, he says, then shape, then form – and only then the details.

A key thing is to learn how parts of the body connect and work together. For Zimmermann, the knee bone really is connected to the thigh bone, which is connected to the hip bone.

Sounding like an anatomy expert himself, he demonstrates to students how the sartorius muscle winds through the upper leg and how supinator and pronator muscles help flex or rotate feet and hands.

“I want you to draw for understanding,” he says.

That’s echoed by James Turgeon, a 2010 human kinetics grad who now works as one of two lab technicians and outreach co-ordinators in the HHNS anatomy lab. “If you’re drawing just the arm, you have to think about the whole body.”

He oversees a busy outreach schedule along with Jaime-Lee Munroe, who completed a biological science degree in 2009. Besides U of G undergrads and University of Guelph-Humber kinesiology students, thousands of students in high schools, community and career colleges, and professional institutions visit here every year for customized anatomy workshops.

Those opportunities also benefit Guelph students in the anatomy program, notably those senior undergrads discussing dissections and prosections with today’s artists. Referring to those lab demonstrators, Munroe says, “It’s a great growing and learning experience for them.”

Observing the students settled around specimens in the veterinary anatomy lab, Tim Clark, program assistant with Seneca’s school of creative arts and animation, says, “This is something the school can offer potential students – another post-secondary institution willing to open its labs.”

His college’s students also visit the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto each year.

Zimmermann started bringing college art classes to U of G in the 1990s. He started teaching at Sheridan College in 1986, the same year he illustrated his first children’s book, Farmer Joe’s Hot Day.

He also brings students from his Guelph studio here to draw, and visits on his own to tone his drawing muscles and to find models for book illustrations.

His award-winning books include collaborations with author Jean Little on Pippin the Christmas Pig in 2004 and with Helaine Becker in 2010 on Porcupine in a Pine Tree. He’s working on a new book for 2014 whose characters will also be inspired by the U of G bones.

Zimmermann started fine art studies at Guelph in the 1970s. His son, Chris, graduated with a fine art degree in 2000 and now works in web design for The Co-operators in Guelph.

Many of these visiting college students find work in the entertainment industry, including working with animation companies such as Pixar and DreamWorks. Others end up in illustration, gaming and visual effects.

Working on video games and graphic novels is what interests Michael Michaelides, a Toronto resident in his first year at Seneca.

This morning at Guelph, he’s already wielded his pencil to capture a goat, a chimp, a swan and a dolphin. “It’s pretty cool to see all the skeletons and how they’re built and how our skeleton is related to theirs.”

Showing off a pen-and-ink drawing of a basset hound skeleton, Joshua Salmon says it’s useful to get out of the drawing studio and look beneath the skin of a range of creatures. “It’s great, it’s amazing, all these animals.”