Intended for healthcare professionals


Why I . . . paint portraits of NHS colleagues

BMJ 2022; 378 doi: (Published 05 July 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;378:o1560
  1. Kathy Oxtoby
  1. London, UK

Junior doctor Lena Ibrahim talks to Kathy Oxtoby about combining her passion for painting portraits with her love of medicine

“Capturing details that are human, such as the texture of the skin and the glistening of the eyes, has always interested me,” says Lena Ibrahim.

As a result, the junior doctor enjoys portrait painting. “It ignites a challenge within me to replicate these features on canvas” she says.

Her interest in the human form also inspired her to choose dermatology. “It’s a heavily visual specialty, a great balance between medicine and surgery, and, like painting, allows me to use my manual dexterity,” she says.

This marriage of art and medicine has come together in a series of paintings of healthcare colleagues at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital that has earned Ibrahim praise from across the world, and thousands of followers on social media. One painting—a self-portrait painted for a Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ competition that shows her drinking coffee after finishing a late shift—went viral within hours of her posting a photo of it on Twitter.

Ibrahim started to paint portraits of colleagues because she “wanted to share with the world the doctor as an ordinary human being.”

Art is a great way to reflect that, she says. “As doctors we are constantly encouraged to reflect in writing, but painting is a much more beautiful way of meditating on your experiences and expressing yourself.”

As a child Ibrahim was always visual and creative. She enjoyed all sorts of arts and crafts and was introduced to oil painting when she was at school. “I started to paint portraits of my classmates. My teachers saw my potential and strongly encouraged me to persist,” she says.

Ibrahim’s first career aspiration was to be a professional artist but her equal enjoyment of science subjects eventually drew her towards medicine. “I wanted the best of both worlds and realised that pursuing a career in medicine would allow me to do art on the side,” she says.

She graduated from medical school at the University of East Anglia last year. “Now I’m able to split my time—doing clinical work and spending my down time as an artist—but it can be challenging with unpredictable and long shift patterns,” she adds.

Ibrahim sees herself as both a doctor and artist, and says the two work well together. Medicine is “a source of inspiration fuelling my artwork—particularly patient stories,” while “art makes me a better doctor, in so many ways,” she says. “When I’m spending too much time on one part of a painting and not seeing any progress, I stand away to see the whole picture. It’s the same with medicine—you need to consider the body as a whole.

“Painting is also great for your mental health. It’s a time to switch off and shift your focus to simply applying paint onto the canvas. Painting allows me to reflect on my day and the patients who inspire me every day.”

When creating art, Ibrahim tends to choose a theme—currently she is working on a series based on her “new chapter” as an NHS junior doctor. With their permission, she takes photos of friends and colleagues and then paints portraits based on these images.

“Painting is my favourite part of the process,” she says. “I switch off, put my earphones on, and enter another world, forgetting everything else. I paint in my art room at home, which has my canvases, easel, paintbrushes, and glass palette.”

Ibrahim plans to continue taking part in exhibitions and competitions and to create more portraits—“so many colleagues have been asking me when I’m going to paint them,” she says.

One day she hopes to be both a professional artist and a dermatologist. “My role model is Ala Bashir the Iraqi painter, sculptor, and plastic surgeon. He’s exhibited internationally and he inspires me to do the same. Art is a huge part of my identity and just as much a passion for me as medicine—and I can’t ever see myself letting that passion go.”

How to make the change

  • Get inspired—go to art galleries and exhibitions to explore different techniques and genres to discover your own personal style

  • Invest in a small sketchbook to capture any thoughts or ideas

  • Make a commitment to create a quick, simple sketch on a regular basis to keep that creative momentum

  • Set the bar low—don’t expect a masterpiece in the early stages. It’s easy to be discouraged if your current work is far off from what you had in mind. Keep the end in sight

  • Don’t overthink painting—just start