How to Draw Shoulders in 3 Easy Shapes
The problem: complicated anatomy
Have you ever been drawing the figure from a side or front view and become quite confused about what you’re seeing in the upper shoulder and upper back? You might find a variety of unfamiliar bumps and indents which don’t make much sense. This article is here for you!
Maybe you then try looking for help in an anatomy book, and everything just feel impossibly complicated? And you’re tying yourself in knots thinking, “So, there’s 10 different muscles that go across this joint, but to understand the muscles, do I need to understand the complicated bone structure? And, the shoulder is a ball joint so it move in all different directions which changes all the forms? And not only that, the whole shoulder structure can move from the middle of the collarbones: up, down, forwards and back?!”
The solution (in a nutshell!): simplify to 3 shapes you can see
In short, the anatomy of the shoulders can seem really complicated. But for your figure drawing, it doesn’t need to be. If we simplify the shoulders into three shapes that can be seen on the surface of the figure, that is going to give us most of what we need to be able to draw all these different poses.
These three shapes roughly correspond to:
1. The deltoid and the shape it creates with the spine of the shoulder blade (shown below)
2. The teres major and the shape its lower edge creates with the inner edge (medial border) of the shoulder blade going up to that deltoid shape (shown below)
3. The trapezius which is going to go from the spine up to the shoulder blade (shown below)
The really great thing about simplifying the shoulder anatomy into these simple forms is that they can be generally easy to find if you follow a few simple clues. I’m going to go through the clues below – these will give us the basic framework that we need for everything else. For an overview on how to simplify the body as a whole, check out this article.
Clue One: Where is the Acromion?
The acromion is this outer bony bit of your shoulder, shown in GREEN in the below diagram. It’s often really easy to find.
As with the example below, if you feel your shoulder and your arm is down, you should be able to feel some kind of bony bit there, which is the Acromion.
If your arm is raised like in the example below, the deltoid muscle might bulge out around that Acromion so it becomes an indent, but still you can feel the boniness there.
Clue Two: Where is the top of the shoulder blade?
Once you can see the Acromion, you know that the spine of the shoulder blade will be coming off that. The spine of the shoulderblade is basically the top edge of the triangular shape. It’s a bit confusing that it’s called the spine because there’s also the actual spine running up the middle of the back. In this article, if I say ‘spine’ I mean the actual spine, and I’ll only refer to the top edge of the shoulderblade as the ‘spine of the shoulderblade’.
We may not know exactly which bump and indentation could be the spine of the shoulder blade, but there might be some candidates.
Clue Three: Where is the inner edge of the shoulder blade?
We know that there’s going to be another line, which is the sort of inner edge of the shoulder blade, officially called the medial border. It’s going to be coming off at an angle from the spine of the shoulder blade, like in the below diagram.
The angle between the spine of the shoulderblade and medial border is going to be more than 90 degrees.
Clue Four: What is the person doing with their shoulder?
So what are the shoulders doing and does that help you figure out where that shoulder blade is? An easy way to figure this out is to do the pose yourself to figure out what the model is doing.
If the shoulder is pulled forward, you can expect that the shoulder blade to come away from the spine and start to come around to the side of the rib cage.
If the shoulder is pulled back then you would expect the shoulder blade to come in closer to the spine.
If the shoulder is raised, you expect the shoulder blade to be going up high.
If the arm is rotated up, you expect the shoulder blade to rotate around so that the bottom tip of that triangular shape goes away from the spine like in the example below.
But we still might need more clues to understand where the shoulder blade is.
Clue Five: The Deltoid
One useful thing to know is that the deltoid muscle attaches onto the spine of the shoulder blade. The deltoid is this kind of triangular or a tear-shaped muscle and it’s like a cap over the whole shoulder structure. It’s going to go from the front attaching on the collarbones all the way around the acromion to the back attaching along the spine of the shoulder blade.
So we’re going to see that shape and we’re not going to clearly see it go all the way to the spine of the shoulder blade because there’s a tendon there which is a flatter so it’s not bulging out. However, the form still kind of points to the spine of the shoulder blade as in the images below.
Clue six: The Teres Major
So at this point we should be getting pretty confident about where that shoulder blade is. One more clue though, is the teres major.
From the upper arm, a little way down the upper arm, there’s going to be this muscle that curves straight into the torso. We can find its lower edge and that’s going to take us straight to the bottom of the shoulder blade.
Clue seven: The Trapezius
So with those clues in place, we have a pretty good idea of where the shoulderblade is. Then there is one more muscle to look out for which is the trapezius and so what we’re going to do is see this kind of kite-shaped muscle of the upper back.
It’s going to go from the back of your head out to the acromions so it creates a curve, and then back down towards the spine. As it goes from the acromion down to the spine it’s going to kind of clip the top inner corner of the shoulder blade. And so if you can see that shape, sometimes you can, sometimes it’s hard to see, but if you can, it’s going to help you figure out where the shoulder blade is as well.
Very often, you may not know exactly what is going on with every aspect of shoulder anatomy, even with the simplified ideas above. And the cool thing is that in this context, it doesn’t actually matter.
Maybe you can’t see the Acromion, but often then you can still see the spine of the scapula coming down. Or maybe you can see the shape of the deltoid pointing to the spine of the scapula, the teres major pointing to the bottom tip of the shoulder blade. Often, you might be able to find three or four of the clues above but not all of them. What you can see will give you the answers to everything else.
There’s more to shoulder anatomy than this, and eventually you’ll want to familiarise yourself with the infraspinatus, the full form of the teres major, how the supraspinatus can bulge out sometimes and various other complexities. However, those shapes are less important and also more subtle and variable depending on what the shoulder is doing. It is really counterproductive to overwhelm yourself with all that until you’ve become good at these 3 simple shapes.
The simple shapes that we’ve gone through in this article are very meaningful for the structure and gesture in your drawing, and are consistently going to be there for you, so that’s going to be your starting poin. If you want to study more about shoulder anatomy then you can go deeper with anatomy books, courses and tutorials.
If you enjoyed this article and haven’t checked out my arm anatomy article, you can read it in full here.
Finally, if you want to learn really simplified anatomy for the figure overall, the things that really matter, I would highly recommend our Fresh Eyes Challenge. Signing up also gives also gives you access to our supportive community and our free reference library as well.
And last but not least, you can download my free PDF guide where you can see what skill level you’re at now and what skill level you need to work on next here.