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HomemifeatureThe Art of Eye Surgery

The Art of Eye Surgery

While the connection may not be immediately apparent to some, for New Zealand ophthalmologist Wayne Birchall, his thriving sideline as an artist perfectly complements his day job.

When Wayne Birchall is about to perform delicate eye surgery on a patient, he knows he must have a steady hand and have the confidence to make a definite movement. Hesitation could have dire consequences.

The same is true when he swaps his ophthalmic equipment for a paintbrush.

“Doing the fine lines on some paintings requires quite a steady hand but you can’t be too tentative. Once you have committed to a movement, if you stop, you won’t be able to draw the perfect line,” Dr. Birchall said.

I’m often working on three or four paintings at the same time. It’s a hobby. I can paint for hours on the weekends when the mood strikes me.

Prolonged Passion

For Dr. Birchall, originally from Manchester, art has been a life-long interest. But after studying medicine at university in the UK, a busy career as a general practitioner and the demands of raising a family meant that his artistic skills took a back seat. A GP for eight years, Dr. Birchall switched disciplines, becoming an ophthalmologist at the age of 36.

In part, that career transition was motivated by art. “I had been working on Tibetan Buddhist art. It’s a very prescribed art form, with set patterns, guides and dimensions. While there is some room for individual freedom of expression, it is relatively stylised.

“I find this type of work gives me great satisfaction. I completed my first Buddha painting 17 years ago (it took me six months to paint) and when I finished it I realised I could actually do this work that required such fine detail.

“Doing that painting was actually one of the things that put me on course for ophthalmology. I had been discussing it with an ophthalmologist friend, I had learned a bit about it, but doing that painting gave me the reassurance that I would be able to manage the delicate microsurgery,” Dr. Birchall said.

He came to New Zealand in 2004 to complete his ophthalmology training and stayed on – he now practises in the New Zealand city of Whangarei, in the upper north island. It is an area renowned for its beautiful beaches and breathtaking scenery.

“There’s certainly no shortage of material to inspire you,” Dr. Birchall says of his adopted home.“I have dabbled in art since at school and took my ‘O’ level in art at 16. Back then it was watercolour painting.

“My wife Moira is an ex-art teacher and started doing more of her own work in New Zealand with several successful exhibitions in the past two years. That motivated me to get going again but I wanted to try something a bit different. I had generally been painting landscapes and the Buddhist art but I wanted to try something more abstract,” Dr. Birchall said.


Dr. Birchall has participated in numerous voluntary eye-health trips – to Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Cambodia. He said his experiences provided him with further material that has helped push his art in new directions.

He said in Bougainville in 2006–07, he saw for the first time queues of bilaterally blind patients with big white pupils as a result of cataracts.

“I photographed some at the time with their permission and having decided to do some more painting lately, I decided that they would be a good subject to illustrate the impact of cataract blindness.”

Dr. Birchall produced a number of mixed media artworks including photographs and an abstract painting called ‘Tenplea Yia Tudak’, which is Papua New Guinea pidgin for ‘Ten Years of Darkness’.

“The young man in that painting had been blind for 10 years. He had walked for a couple of days to get to where we were operating. The civil conflict or ‘crisis’ in Bougainville had also lasted about 10 years with the complete breakdown of the medical system, so he had very little access to health care, let alone eye surgery,” Dr. Birchall said.

“Before cataract surgery, his face was just blank, expressionless. The next day he was beaming. That transformation made a big impression on me and it has influenced some of the paintings I have done since.”

I used images of closely cropped eyes in boxes to symbolise these people being held prisoner by their blindness, and the white crosses represent prison bars, but also the graves of people killed in the Bougainville conflict.

Dr. Birchall is currently working on a series of portraits of cataract blind patients of different ages.

“These patients live in a world of vibrant tropical colours but can’t see them anymore and they understandably often appear emotionally flat with little facial expression – especially those blind for some years. I painted the faces in black and white to express this loss of vitality and emotional ‘colour’. In the background I also used bright pacific and tropical colours to represent the world hidden from them – colours visitors like me take for granted and associate with the beach and holidays! For thousands caught up in the conflict, the islands were far from paradise.

“After cataract surgery many were not only overjoyed but regained their personality overnight. But at the end of the day, people will see (in the paintings) what they want to see. I guess with abstract painting it is a very individual thing. Two different people will see two different things in the one painting,” Dr. Birchall said.

Multi Media

While Dr. Birchall receives great enjoyment from his painting, his creativity also extends to photography and film-making. He has a number of projects in the works and has just completed a 20 minute natural history film shot on a boat trip to Dusky and Doubtful Sounds in New Zealand’s Fiordland.

“I find it very satisfying producing something and seeing the end product – I guess it is the same for any artist, writer and film-maker. The creative process is good for the mind.”

While Dr. Birchall claims he paints “for himself”, he has exhibited some of his work and has sold some of his watercolours. “It is nice to be appreciated for your work and for other people to get some enjoyment from it. But even if there wasn’t that appreciation, I find it is relaxing, almost meditative.

“I’m often working on three or four paintings at the same time. It’s a hobby. I can paint for hours on the weekends when the mood strikes me. It is a shared activity with my wife, who is also an artist, so we are in the same space. I guess the art was one of the attractions when we met and it’s great having a resident teacher and critic!” Dr. Birchall said.

He acknowledges his New Zealand lifestyle has a lot to do with his ability to find time for his art.

“I have to say that although I work full time I’m only on call one in four weekends. That really helps, though the days don’t seem long enough when a painting is going well.”


Dr. Birchall has plans for an exhibition of his work, but admits he will have to produce a few more “worthy” pieces before that can happen.

“I will be working towards that. I have to guard against overworking and fiddling with a painting, and declare it finished – I think knowing when to stop is a hard skill to develop”

He’s speculated that such an exhibition could perhaps coincide with one of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO) Congresses and he has next year in mind when he
will have a more sizeable collection of work. He’s open to the possibility of a joint exhibition if he can connect with other eye health professionals with a similar artistic passion.

“At the moment, I don’t know if there are any other ‘eye’ artists that I can collaborate with, but I’m sure they are out there,” he said.


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