I find Robert Haynes deep in the audiovisual department of one of Sydney’s major hospitals, where he has been drawing operations and autopsies for nearly 30 years. His windowless room, tucked away at the end of a labyrinth of corridors, is scattered with pens, drawings, illustrations and medical texts.
As a medical artist, Robert is the person the hospital relies on to do the things a camera can’t: make images from life that are realistic enough to clearly display the nerves, ligaments etc. that doctors and students need to see, but not so realistic that the important parts get lost among all the visual noise of the blood and injuries around them.
As Robert tells me, that means that after all these years he has seen a lot of surgery, and drawn a lot of dead bodes.
What has been the most confronting thing you have been asked to illustrate?
I remember coming to work one day after hearing on the radio that a man had lost his hand in a printing press. When I got here I was asked to draw the hand from several angles. It had been cleanly sliced at the wrist. I remember doing the palm Ė you could see it had the ink imprinted into it by the accident.
I wonder why they didn’t attempt to sew the hand back on?
Yeah, it’s surprising because it was a very clean cut. But I think this was before a lot of that microsurgery was done.
Was that confronting Ė to be asked to stand there and take the time to calmly draw things like that?
Yes it wasÖ but I got used to it. I think the worst one I had was in the autopsy room one day when there was a little baby, about a year old in there. That upset me a bit, you know. To see someone that age there. One of the things I have noticed is that if you treat this stuff like meat in a butcherís shop then you sort of switch off. It doesnít worry you so much then.
But I remember this one young bloke in the autopsy room. I forget how he died. I was looking at some openings in his body that didnít look too good, but I was handling it ok until I saw his head, and ah, he had a moustache. That, for some odd reason, made him look more real, not like something in a butcherís shop. Made it look very real to me. I donít go there at all anymore.
Do you use a computer for any of your illustrations?
No, no, I tried that but it just didn’t work. You canít make the lines the way you need them to be in the drawings. You get the same consistency, with no variation in the weight of the line work. Even the air-brushing looks so mechanical. But the graphic artist working here does it well - his work is not so mechanical-looking.
This work is about communicating. You tend to stylise things a bit or simplify things a bit to make them more simple to follow. To do it too realistically wouldn’t work that well, the illustrations would get too complicated so you try to keep it as simple as possible.
And that’s why simply taking photos of these things isnít enough - you have to get a sense of what it is that needs to be communicated and emphasise those features in your drawing, right?
Yeah, exactly. Quite often the work is used for lectures and medical students, or for textbooks or conferences. The doctors always tell you, I want this to come out, or thatís not that important.
But you also do images for other purposes too, don’t you?
Yeah, I produce cartoons, storyboards for shooting training videos, posters, certificates - you know, whatever the hospital needs.
[On the day we meet, Robert has just gone part-time, and it seems fitting that as I talk to him he has been completing, with extreme care, the exquisite lettering on a certificate to be presented to hospital staff in recognition of many years’ service.]
Have you ever thought of exhibiting the huge body of work you have done here over the years?
Yeah, people have said, Why don’t you do a really large painting of the human form? And, ah, I don’t know, I guess I want to get away from that completely.
Do you see this profession as artistic?
Yeah, in a technical way. It’s more akin to a draftsman’s work or an architectís or something like that. Itís still artistic but it’s more on the technical side than the pure art side. Iíve done enough of this stuff over the years. I want to get back into the pure art with my abstracts. I’m only here three days a week now so I have started painting at home in this studio I have just had built out the back. It’s fantastic you know, with lots of natural light, so I get out the back and get stuck into it. ’s going to be great, and then I won’t bother the wife too much.
What would you look for in a young artist interested in this type of work?
If they can draw a hand. Because the drawing of a hand can tell you a lot about an artist’ talents.
Looking back, what’s the thing you’ve enjoyed most about the job?
The people. There’s a nice team here and it’s very satisfying to produce the artwork because you really get appreciated. The surgeons and managers will actually ring me to thank me for the work I’ve done.
And what was the worst part?
Sitting at a desk all day long. But I guess there are a lot of jobs like this.