Inner Landscapes – An Interview with Penny Oliver

August 27, 2010 § 6 Comments

"Diverticulosis". Painting by Penny Oliver.

About a year ago I was contacted by Penny Oliver, a reader of this blog who presented herself as a studio artist who concentrated her energies on anatomical and histological paintings. She wrote:

Your line of work is one of the resources that keeps me going!  Without the documentation of surgical procedures and the study of tissues, I would have a hard time doing what I do.

Medical photography as a basis for art! I decided to ask this interesting artist for an interview, and here it is.

Why did you start painting anatomy?

I have always been inspired by nature. Practically every color, texture and pattern that we visually recognize, can be found in nature. As a child I drew animals, as an amateur photographer I chose intimate nature scenes. Moving into the human body was an easy transition when I stumbled upon my husband’s pathology textbook in medical school.

Years later, as I was studying and researching for my undergraduate senior thesis, I began to formulate the connections and similarities between the imagery of our inner bodies to the natural landscape. I decided to make a few paintings based on histology slides of the eye, ear, bone, and brain. To enhance the connection of our inner landscape to the outer landscape I also created ceramic works using forms found in nature. I made molds of shells, seeds, coral etc.. created small sculptural pieces of art. All of this came together beautifully for my final exhibition at college.

Because my husband was a physician in training at the time, we invited many of his colleagues to the exhibit. They seemed to be inspired and excited about the artwork! I sold many pieces and began my first commissioned painting shortly thereafter, “Canals of Havers” (below). This was the catalyst for

"Canals of Havers". Painting by Penny Oliver.

How do you pick your subjects?

Since beginning I have mainly worked on a commission basis. What that means is that a person might contact me with an idea or a desire to have something specific painted for them. We usually spend some time discussing their exact wants but often times I am given artistic license and can come up with the concept myself. I then present the idea and if accepted, I begin the work! Most of my studio time is spent on work like that.

Can you tell us a bit about the creative process?

My creativity is almost always sparked by something visual, as opposed to an idea or concept. I am inspired daily by nature. When I feel that surge of creative energy I try to pinpoint the source – it might be a recognized pattern or a color that mimics something from my past or even something I have seen in my past research. For instance, I recently saw some histology slides that were part of a study of the female breast. Without going into detail, I was instantly struck by the similarities in form and shape that could be drawn to certain plants. I also recognized the fact that this imagery could be used to mimic traditional japanese scroll paintings. Voila! A painting is born!

On a technical note, I spend a lot of time researching each given area of anatomy before any sketches are even attempted. It is really important to me that I have an understanding of the anatomy, its function and its relationship to the other landmarks near it. This is a scientific study as well as a visual study.

After I have researched and feel comfortable with the anatomy, histology and biology of the subject I will then do some sketches free hand as well as in Photoshop. After that, the process ebbs and flows between frantic painting, contemplation, and experimentation.

I do not always have a clear picture in my mind of the finished piece. It is the process which is of utmost importance. Each time I stop and start the painting I take time to write down the next 5 steps in my process. After those are done, then I can decide what to do next. I do hope to become more efficient at this process and of course, that will come with time and experience.

Are your paintings renderings of actual diagnostic images or inspired by one (or several)?

"Concha Bullosa". Painting by Penny Oliver.

Some of my first commissioned pieces were taken almost directly from one diagnostic image or another. I have begun to evolve in my work a little bit and find that working with many images or resources is better and lends a greater depth to the work. For most of my paintings now I collect a handful of really poignant images/sources and work from them. CT scans (Concha Bullosa is directly from a CT scan), actual gross anatomy, surgical videos, illustrations, histology and MRI are all part of my process.

If I choose to paint something that is very much like the diagnostic image, I always seek permission to do so. I have found that most of the people I contact for permission to use their research images are very excited at the prospect of their hard work being turned into a dynamic piece of art. Really, this is what first inspired me to begin DiagnosisART; the joy and pride I could extract from the physicians, professors, and researchers who spend so much of their lives generating these images in the pursuit of helping others!

Have you made any pathology paintings and why these conditions?

I have done some pathology and I am planning to do more (I will be doing some thyroid papillary carcinoma soon). I am always a little bit “torn” over the prospect of making beautiful a disease that causes suffering. I have to consider how to recreate the pathology in a respectful but also accurate way. There are many tools by which to do this. A painting isn’t just paint on a surface. It is made up of symbolic colors, meaningful lines and composition that should direct the viewer’s gaze. I try to use those tools to temper the mood and create peace in the midst of the disease.

The pathology may also help me in future charity work. Through my paintings I ultimately hope to collaborate with charities to make products and distributable information in a way that is artistically appealing. The public can be made aware of how they can help if their attention is caught by a work of art that is beautiful and has broader meaning.

What materials do you work with?

I generally pick from two types of surfaces; masonite (Hardbord™ brand) or canvas that I stretch myself. I paint exclusively in acrylics right now. I have been painting with acrylics since I was about ten years old, so I feel very comfortable with the medium and understand its capabilities and limitations. Often times I will add texture to my paintings: sand, moss, glass, even feathers or whatever suites the imagery!

"Cochlea Suite". Painting by Penny Oliver.

I often find it hard to get non-medical people enthusiastic about my work. What about you? Who are your clients?

I have to say that I have many supportive and enthusiastic, non-medical followers!  However, all of my commissions have come from physicians and the prints I have sold went to other medical professionals such as audiologists, nurses and therapists.  I get a lot of positive feedback from my non-medical friends, but I have to be honest with myself and realize that this is a specialty niche’. When I considered devoting my time to this endeavor, I never imagined that non-medical people would jump on board. I am focused on the medical field and more specifically, I have a focus on the head and neck area.

"Eustachian Lens Fovia Purkinje". Painting by Penny Oliver.

There are two reasons I am focusing so specifically. First, because to become proficient at something, you need practice, practice, practice. I am not going to be able to become adept unless I focus. Secondly, my husband is a head and neck surgeon and can help me with the resources and information that I need.

Now that being said, I think that everyone is innately interested in this type of art and that there is a way to make it presentable to the masses. After all, it is about each and every one of us! For instance, I am working on a set of female inspired paintings which would be relevant for any female as well as the obstetrician/gynecologist. They will be “feminine” via the palette I choose, composition and painting style.

Do you paint other things than anatomy?

I used to paint things mainly from nature, animals, plants, flowers – dead or alive, it didn’t matter! I don’t have as much time now to do those pieces but hope to find time in the future again. I have a particular propensity for decaying flora… for instance, I see the changing colors and textures of a dying flower as more beautiful than the perky brightness of it at its peak. Things like this speak to me about the spirit; life and death and the process of recreation!

I truly feel that I could paint anything I see. I am a photo-realist at heart and have to force myself out of that box from time to time.

"Grandpa". Painting by Penny Oliver.

Do you know of any other painters working with medical images?

Not personally, but I know that there are many! I have begun to compile a list of artists who use anatomy in their work. Perhaps someday I can create a web space for us to commune. There are of course a ton of illustrators but that is a genre all its own which I find useful for my research purposes, but it is not the way I would like to take my work.

Check out more of Penny Oliver’s art on her Facebook page and at

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