Expressionism in the ward: medical student illustrates the art of reading emotions

Posted by pt91 at Jul 12, 2012 11:00 AM |
Artwork explores the importance of facial expressions to the health care professional
Expressionism in the ward: medical student illustrates the art of reading emotions

Graeme with one of the artworks that he exhibited. Credit: Paul Smith, University of Leicester

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 12 July 2012

Photographs of artwork available from

A University of Leicester medical student has produced a thought-provoking series of sketches and paintings that ask you to consider what really is 'written all over your face'.

Have you ever wondered about the non-verbal cues we give off in our facial expressions? If you were a doctor how could you tell from a patient’s face that they are angry or fearful? Have you ever been with a colleague and noticed that your comment has resulted in an expression of sadness?

As part of his Medical Humanities elective placement, final-year student Graeme Pettifer took out his paintbrush for the first time in over a decade to create a series of works that reflect on how the medical professional relies on facial expressions to answer these sorts of questions.

The works were recently exhibited at the University’s Medical School where they are soon to find a permanent home.

Graeme said, “I'm a post graduate student, so entered medicine as a mature student. I first ventured into higher education doing a fine art degree, but this wasn't for me, so transferred to physiotherapy: hence the link with medicine. I had not picked up a pencil meaningfully for about 13 years, but still attended art exhibitions in my spare time.

“I have always been keen to incorporate the use of art into my medical education, be it teaching others, or using visual prompts as revision aids. A picture speaks a thousand words, would be a slightly corny, but apt summary of the potential use of art in university education. “

Graeme’s elective project examined interpreting facial expressions and focused on the work of psychologist Professor Paul Ekman. Through it, he has tried to explore an area central to the medical consultation and an essential element of good team working – needless to say, these are issues that go to the heart of being a good doctor.

Dr Rhona Knight, Senior Clinical Educator at the Medical School, said, “In a world of evidence based medicine where numbers and hard outcomes seem to claim many of the headlines it is important to remember that medicine itself is an art. As clinicians are aware, empathy and connecting with patients results in a greater understanding of the patient experience. What is it like to live in their shoes? 

“Facial expressions are perhaps one of the most important sources of non-verbal cues. Applying the theory to the portraits Graeme has worked on enables this learning to be put into practice. The hope is that this can then be translated to the clinical setting and help improve the less measurable aspects essential in delivering good patient care.”

Three of Graeme’s works will remain with the medical school and will be on display in the University’s Maurice Shock Medical Sciences Building. He is also working on a website and a social networking presence to provide an online educational resource for others studying the topic.

Notes to editors:

For more information please contact Graeme Pettifer at

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