Trinley Dorje, a physiotherapy assistant at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre and Toronto General Hospital, part of University Health Network (UHN) discusses what it means to be an anatomical artist. (Video: UHN/PMCC)


Forensic anthropologist turned medical professional moonlighting as an anatomical artist. 

A distinct journey? Perhaps. But for Trinley Dorje, it's a straight line drawn since her childhood. 

"My fascination with anatomy started when I was very young, I was about eight or nine years-old. I was always outside, always in the bush, always hiking, that sort of thing," says Dorje, who grew up in Welland, ON. 

"I would come across roadkill, I would come across dead animals in the forest and I was obviously quite fascinated with these discoveries. To me it was new. This is what we look like on the inside. So I was always very interested in anatomy. I studied it intensively throughout my education," she says. 

Fittingly, during her first career, she pored over human remains to solve many criminal cases and also worked on ancient mass graves (forensic anthropology). That's when Dorje's fascination with the anatomy deepened. 

"I developed a strong foundation in skeletal anatomy, human disease, trauma and taphonomy –​ the processes involved in fossilization," she says. "When I was thinking about using art as a creative outlet, anatomy seemed to be the most natural transition." 

Drawing inspiration from patients

A career shift in 2009 gave her a different lens on the structure of the human body –​ through living patients. That's when she added physiotherapy assistant at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre and Toronto General Hospital to her resume.  

"They inspire me a lot especially the LVAD (left ventricular assist device) population. That's who I work with on a day-to-day basis," says Dorje. 

"When you are at the point when the option of an LVAD is available to you, you're actually quite ill. My job is to get them on a walking program – walking multiple times a day – an exercise program, balance exercises, anything that can get them back to their baseline before they became seriously ill," she says.

Trinley Dorje
Her fascination with the human anatomy is at the heart of Trinley Dorje’s artistic work. Her pieces debuted at the Toronto General Hospital Art Show last year and continue to garner attention. (Photo: UHN/PMCC)

In October 2016, Dorje sought a stress reliever for herself. That journey took her down a new path.

"I was looking for something that would help me relax in my down time. I always knew I could draw anatomy –​ it's how I learned anatomy initially. So I decided to get a sketch book and give it a try," she says. 

Since then, Dorje's pieces have graced book covers and magazine articles, been featured in numerous art shows and exhibits, including her debut at the Toronto General Art Show (2017) – paving the way for another fledgling side-career for Dorje: anatomical artist. 

"Ninety-nine per cent of my art is still all anatomical. The heart specifically and the brain are two areas that I find really interesting," Dorje says. "The heart because it is our powerhouse, it keeps us going. It's the pump of our body. It's also very vulnerable to disease, it's very vulnerable to the health choices we make, stress, etc."

She adds, "Unless you work within the medical community, you usually don't get to see how the heart looks through a CT scan or an MRI or angiography. So that's where the difference is in my art and what makes it unique."


One deliberate choice Dorje made was to differentiate her art through the use of digital painting. 

"It's a way to take traditional forms of water colour, acrylic or oils and through the use of digital painting software create the artwork. While I don't need to wait for paint to dry, I still had to learn the techniques behind those specific types of painting styles."

The Independence
Using a blend of hand-drawn sketches and software, Trinley Dorje depicts different aspects of the human anatomy, notably the heart and the brain, using digital painting techniques. (Photo: Courtesy of Trinley Dorje)

Dorje is self-taught, relying on online tutorials and videos to hone her craft, which she is careful to point out is not computer-generated.

"The stylus that I use, or the mouse, is my paint brush and the canvas is the computer screen. The computer does not generate any type of the art whatsoever. Just as a paint brush responds to stroke and pressure, so does the stylus," she says.

"There is no photo manipulation through Photoshop or anything like that. I draw everything by hand first, scan it onto my computer, import it into the software, and then I start painting from there." 

Hand-drawn sketches can take several hours to create. Then there's ensuring anatomical accuracy. Finally, comes the delicate task of breathing life into the art through colour, texture, depth and other techniques.

In her largest accomplishment to date, Dorje's work will cross the pond to be part of an art exhibit at a science gallery in Dublin, Ireland.

She submitted two art proposals made specifically for the show on the subject of pregnancy and motherhood. A jury panel selected both of her pieces to be featured. Dorje will be on hand for the debut, before the artwork travels to hospitals and universities across Ireland this summer. 

"I didn't expect it to be as popular as it has been," she says. 

Two of her pieces also hang inside the Cardiovascular & Vascular Surgery ward on the fourth floor of the Munk Building. 

"I don't tell patients they are works of mine," she says.​

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