Exploring the intersection between medicine and art with medical student and reportage artist Natalie Yu

Following her four-week artist residency with CW+, we caught up with final-year medical student and artist Natalie Yu to chat about her experience of our Drawn in Residence Programme.  

Drawn in Residence is an evolving programme at CW+, designed to encourage drawing at the frontline of care in our hospitals. We use drawing to communicate, enhance our environment and improve the wellbeing of staff, patients and visitors. Find out more about the programme.

Illustrations of the Treatment Centre at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.

Hi Natalie! Please introduce yourself to our readers.

Hello! I am a final-year medical student at Imperial College London. This August, I will be starting my junior doctor job at the University Hospital of North Tees. I was very fortunate to do my medical elective under Emily Thomas, the Arts Manager for West Middlesex University Hospital and my wonderful supervisor.

During my time at CW+, I took on the dual role of being both an Artist in Residence and a medical student shadowing the team. Most of my work involved following CW+ projects and illustrating them – for example, the National Arts in Health Network Day and the Arts for All programme.

Illustrations of Neptune Ward at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.

Why did you want to do an artist residency with CW+?

I knew that I wanted to further explore this intersection between medicine and art, and I also knew that CW+ would be the place to do it. So when I found out my elective could be six weeks of anything medically related, I reached out to CW+. I was so excited when I received a response!

Reportage drawn on clinical placements before CW+.

How do you juggle your role as a medical student with your illustration work?

I find time where I can. Sometimes that involves drawing in the downtime during placements, like when we wait for ward rounds or clinics to start. That is where I captured most of the reportage illustrations. As you might expect, those moments are quite brief, so I learnt to draw faster which, in turn, has made it easier to balance the two. Now, I find it is less about choosing between medicine and art and more about letting the two co-exist.

What do you want the impact of your artwork to be?

I feel like there are a few different answers to this because I have been lucky to explore multiple ideas with CW+.

For example, I created a few animations of Arts for All artists. Their performances can be difficult to photograph due to issues with patient confidentiality. With drawing, I can selectively decide what is recorded in real time. Afterwards, I can bring the drawings into a digital space, where I can add stand-in patients, colour, music and animation to give the viewer a more immersive impression of what it feels like to watch a performance. I hope to celebrate their wonderful work and to raise awareness of how artists and CW+ contribute to patient wellbeing.

I also produced a series of reportage drawings in the Treatment Centre at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. CW+ is involved in the overhaul of the centre, and I spent time with the staff to understand their experience of the renovation. I drew them hard at work, and they seemed happy that their efforts were being recognised. My Treatment Centre drawings are an ongoing process, but I’m hoping they capture a slice of the centre’s history as it evolves into its new form.

I also experimented with a graphic recording of the National Arts in Hospitals Network day and for Green Up. With a careful blend of note taking and graphic elements, I created a visual documentation of the events. It’s a fantastic way to encourage further conversation about the topics – I found that people would start discussing aspects of the drawing when they saw it.

Altogether, I think this is only the beginning. I am looking forward to finding out how my clinical experience as a doctor will change the impact I can make with my art.

Illustration from the NAHN day.

What was the highlight of your residency?

I drew Dariana, a nurse from the Treatment Centre, and showed it to the people in the room. Another nurse exclaimed, ‘That’s definitely Dariana! It’s her glasses and the way she looks ready to pounce out of her seat.’ It was meaningful to me because it solidified my confidence in being able to capture the essence of a person – something I have always wanted to do well.

Drawing of staff member Dariana.

What do you do for your wellbeing?

I spend time with my friends and treat myself to good food. I should probably exercise more too, but what is life without something to work towards?

Do you have any special memories from your residency you would like to share?

One of my favourite drawings is of Trisha and Kristine, two Treatment Centre nurses. Trisha was the one who playfully said, ‘Draw us!’, and I was more than happy to have people model for me. I recall them giggling and chatting as they tried to stay still while they had their lunch. They were happy with the drawing.

The room I drew is no longer there – it was knocked down as part of the refurbishment and is now used as storage space. However, the connections I made have remained. When I returned to the centre, Trisha found me and cheerfully introduced me to her colleagues. I will always be grateful for how welcoming the staff were at the centre.

See more of Natalie’s work:

Instagram: @natyu05

Website: natyuart.weebly.com

Email: natyuart@gmail.com