Dissecting and Drawing the Forearm: Anatomical Illustration for the Classroom


Flexor Compartment of Distal Forearm layer 3
Flexor Compartment of Distal Forearm layer 3

The human hand is challenging to study, due to having many narrow vessels and tendons packed together in a small space. Because of this, it is useful to have clear diagrams showing just a few structures at a time. From February to mid-March 2017, a human distal forearm was dissected and used as a model for six drawings in the style of a traditional anatomical atlas. These images are meant to be teaching tools for helping students identify structures, just like a professionally made atlas. During the dissection process, rough pencil sketches were made in the lab as new structures were exposed. Later, these sketches were redrawn in full color with colored pencil. Anatomical illustration could be an educational activity for students: by trying to draw diagrams clear enough for others to understand, students would retain more information and improve their communication skills.


In Dr. Olson’s basic gross anatomy course at NIU, the undergraduates often use atlases to help identify countless tiny structures. These atlases introduce students to the art of anatomical illustration, which has roots as far back as the Renaissance. The hand is an ideal subject for an atlas because it has so many tendons, vessels, and bones that can be difficult to keep track of, so it would be helpful to have clear diagrams of these parts. The hand is also more “relatable” relative to internal organs; hands are frequently used for nonverbal communication. People depend on their hands to do so many tasks everyday but rarely think about what goes on behind the scenes.

To separate the forearm from the cadaver, Dr. Olson steadied the body while I sawed (with an actual hand saw) through the radius and ulna distal to the elbow. I used a scalpel to cut a vertical slit in the skin along the anterior side of the arm, from the wrist to the bottom. Then I cut a horizontal line along the wrist and pulled back two flaps of skin to expose the flexors. With a scalpel and forceps, I removed fascia and fat from each muscle and vessel to see the structures more clearly. I made a pencil sketch of the flexors and used the Thieme Atlas of Anatomy 2nd edition to try to identify the structures myself. Then I checked my answers with Dr. Olson. For the next few weeks, I repeated this process of dissecting more structures, sketching the muscles, and labeling the drawings with help from Dr. Olson and TA Sally Jo Detloff. I was generally able to dissect tissues without damaging them, although I accidentally cut the ulnar nerve and had to tie it together with string. Between dissections, I sprayed the arm with humectant and wrapped it in terry cloth to retain moisture.


The first drawing was of foot bones.

When I had finished dissecting most of the arm and hand, I had a set of rough draft sketches to turn into final drafts. I redrew each drawing on larger paper and colored the new drawings with colored pencils. To make digital versions of the diagrams, I scanned the drawings and used the GNU Image Manipulation Program to fix margins and erase blemishes. Finally, I presented my work at NIU, at both the Phi Sigma Research Symposium and at the Undergraduate Research and Artistry Day poster shows. I enjoyed teaching the attendees everything I had learned about how the arm works. At URAD, my project won second place out of fourteen exhibits (NIU “URAD and CES Winners Announced.”)


Before starting the atlas project, I had never made scientific illustrations and had not taken any illustration courses at NIU. My artistic education was mainly from drawing for fun and taking public school art classes prior to college. Other than confirming the labels with Dr. Olson, I worked on the atlas diagrams independently.

I used photos taken in the lab as references for my color palette, which was meant to be realistic but still simple to understand. Hence, the atlas colors were bolder and more diverse than in the actual arm, where arteries and vessels were the same colors and everything turned more orange over time. The nails were colored to match the cadaver’s nails, which were, in fact, dark magenta. See the final Forearm Atlas diagrams: Flexor Compartment Layers 1-3, Flexors in the Palm, Extensor Compartment Layer 1, and Lateral View: Extensors.

One of the first atlas quality drawings.


Other students could benefit from drawing their own diagrams of their dissections. Doing so would help them memorize the names, locations and relationships between structures. While drawing, students might come up with deeper questions about how the body works, like I did during my project. Students could trade drawings and give each other feedback about the clarity of the diagrams. Students would be reminded to focus their critiques on legibility and accuracy rather than on aesthetic appeal. By making their diagrams understandable to others, students would improve at teaching and communicating. Ideally, they would also have fun improving their drawing skills.

Thank you to HAPS for the Student Grant, and thanks to NIU’s Office of Student Engagement for providing me a grant from the Student Engagement Fund. This project was supported by the Body Donation Program at Northern Illinois University, supervised by Dr. Daniel Olson, Director of the Anatomy Laboratory, which ensured the proper and respectful handling and disposal of the tissues used in this project.

Literature Cited

NIU. “URAD and CES Winners Announced.” NIU Today, 26 Apr. 2017, Retrieved from http://www.niutoday.info/2017/04/26/urad-and-ces-winners-announced/.

Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning. “URAD Program 2017.” Northern Illinois University, 2017, Retrieved from http://niu.edu/engagedlearning/_pdfs/urad/urad-program-2017.pdf.

Schuenke, Michael, et al. Atlas of Anatomy. Second ed., New York, New York, Thieme Medical Publishers, Inc., 2012.

Eliya Baker graduated from Northern Illinois University with a B.S. in Premed Biology and minors in Psychology and Chemistry. She is not formally trained in art, but enjoys making art as a hobby.  Her teacher and lab instructor is Dr. Daniel R. Olson Ed.D., the Director of the Anatomy Laboratory at NIU. 

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