The skeleton tells you about the structure you are looking at. We cover some of the essential points and shapes of it in our free beginner mini-course. The muscles give you the tension, relaxation, stretch and much of the sense of energy in the pose. Human muscles are layered and there are many of them in one body.
There’s no need to study all of them for life drawing purposes, but knowing the shapes and contortions of the major muscles that affect the body’s surface will help you to draw bodies expressively.
We recommend 3 exercises to improve your knowledge of muscles for drawing:
1. Develop your sense of ‘Kinesthesia’. Place your hand on a part of your body, for example your stomach with both hands, or place your left hand on your right armpit etc, then move that part in many directions. Feel how the muscle there contributes to the movement and try to remember the feel of different movements and how the shapes of the muscles change.
Then the next time you draw from a model or photo, try to sense the pose the model is making within your own body, basically imagining doing that pose. This sensation relates to ‘kinesthesia’ – you gain an understanding and a sort of empathy with the model’s pose in terms of muscle. The effect is largely sub-conscious, and will help give the drawing energy and life.
2. The second exercise will require one of your finished drawings. You will need some tracing paper to place over the drawing, or any paper as long as you can see through to the drawing underneath. You’ll also need a graphite pencil , a coloured pencil of any colour, and some anatomical references (see the links provided below).
Fix the tracing paper over the drawing at the corners so that it won’t move. Trace the contours of your drawing with a graphite pencil carefully, especially where there are bumps or dents. Also trace major lines inside the drawing where there are noticeable changes of tone or bumps. Then take a coloured pencil and try to position the major muscles within the traced shape, referring to your anatomical reference diagrams. It’s not easy because the size and even shape of muscles vary depending on the person and their appearance will change greatly by pose as well as the angle you’re viewing them from.
Your aim is just to merge the anatomical diagram into your drawing as best you can. If you struggle with one body part, then pay close attention to that area during your next drawing. Or you can search for a similar pose among the old masters’ drawings (Michelangelo and Raphael in particular) and study them.
Here are examples of some drawings and the tracing paper muscle exercise:
3. Now you will need a good sized version of a figure drawing by an old master of your choice. Again, we recommend Michelangelo and Raphael, but any master you admire would do, as long as the drawing has good muscular description. Go through the same process as exercise 2.
Muscle references: Fortunately, anatomical references are easy to find on the internet. Wikipedia’s muscular system pages are an excellent place to start. Inner body’s anatomy tool is also useful. We also like the old school diagrams from Vesalius which you can freely access at this historical anatomies website. Vesalius gives you the important shapes of each muscle as part of the whole body in poses. It is therefore much easier to relate to in terms of life drawing. Our favourite anatomy book is Valerie Winslow’s Classic Human Anatomy.
For exercises 2 and 3, these are the muscles you should pay particular attention to (you don’t need to learn the names, but pay attention to the shapes): Torso, front
- Deltoid (shoulder)
- Extensor carpi radialis
- Flexor carpi ulnalis
- Extensor digitarum
Thigh and knee
- Gluteus medius
- Tensor fasciae latae
- Rectus femoris
- Vastus lateralis
- Biceps femoris
- Vastus medialis
- Semitendinosus, Semimembranosus