How to learn anatomy – 5 DOs and DON’Ts

DO #1: Do understand the role that anatomy is going to play in your figure drawings

It’s not just a case of learning where muscles start and end, and then suddenly your figure drawings will all look amazing. Anatomy is part of a bigger machine of skills. There’s gesture, there’s simplifying your values into interesting shapes, there’s form, and many other other skills – and anatomy feeds into that.

When you’re just starting out, you only need basic anatomy. So, instead of learning all the complexity of the pelvis for example, look at the simple idea of the pelvis,  a very simple idea of the egg-shaped rib cage, a very simple idea of the head. It’s enough to figure out where those are and what their angles are. Now, anatomy is feeding into all your other skills.

To get started with these highly simplified anatomical ideas, I would highly recommend checking out the Fresh Eyes challenge. We’ve designed the challenge to really boil things down to just the things that you need. Plus there’s now a very cool web-based app which we’ve designed so that you can play around with our 2D model (like the figure below on the left). It’s a simple exercise that transforms how you see the figure.

The Fresh Eyes Challenge, a free ten-day drawing challenge all about transforming the way that you see the figure

The next stage after this is to start to learn about muscle groups. But again, at this stage, you might not need to know all the different extensor muscles of the forearm or the details of each quadricep muscle! Instead you can start to look at the bigger groups and identify them. Take the example below of the thighs, which I’ve illustrated using one of Scott Breton’s 3D models. You might start to see the bigger group of the quadriceps separated from the inner thigh by the sartorius. This is the level of anatomy that will really benefit an artist moving from beginner to intermediate.

Then, once you’ve got that foundational knowledge, you can start to move on to more advanced anatomy. You can start to learn about the different extensor muscles, the details of the different quadriceps – you can get into more a more detailed understanding of the musculature. Which leads me to my first DON’T…

DON’T #1: Don’t just try to memorise a load of anatomy

I’m speaking from experience! It’s like trying to learn a language by opening a dictionary and just reading all the words. You learn a language by learning the grammar, the grammar of figure drawing is the stuff that unifies what we’re seeing: the gesture, the simplification of the values. Try to focus your anatomy study onto the ideas that will inform those other skills you are working on.

DO #2: DO use resources to learn anatomy from

It’s good to have some anatomy books if you can get some. I like the Valerie Winslow book – I think it’s really practical and down to earth. Also really practical is the Anatomy for Sculptors book. But there’s loads of really good anatomy books out there.

Also useful is to see some anatomy videos. On Youtube, Proko has good videos, and we’re going to be coming out with more anatomy videos too.

And then it’s good to have some 3D models. Books have flat diagrams and so it can be tempting to start thinking about anatomy in this flat way because of that. But a 3D model is cool because you’re going to be able to turn it around and see the 3D form.  I really like this 3D model from Scott Breton.

His pose is really designed for artists. It’s a very gestural pose, it’s got a weight-bearing leg which pushes up the pelvis a little bit on one side. There’s a little bit of squash and stretch in the torso, a raised leg, a bent leg. There’s some pronation of an arm, there’s some supination of an arm, there’s a bent arm, there’s a raised arm – everything we’re going to want to see. How do the muscles stretch up when the arm is raised? How do the forearms turn over when pronated? These things are brought out in this 3D model – and that is really thoughtful of him and really cool.

Another type of resource is the physical model. You can get them from a few places, such as 3D Total. I especially like the Scott Bretton model 3D printed by him as well But just being able to look at the shoulder blade and the arm and see how the pronation works, right here in my hands, is very interesting and useful. If you can get one, it’s a nice addition. (You can use the code LOVELIFE for a 15% discount on the model).

3D anatomy model with accompanying online course and coloured plasticine to build up different muscle groups
Here’s a picture of the full 3D model kit from Scott’s website

DON’T #2: Don’t rely on only one resource

So, I like anatomy books, but I don’t just study from books. I’ve talked about the 3D models – there’s also other resources you could check out. Medical recources is one.  These can be little bit tricky because their purpose is different, and they can sometimes be too comprehensive – but I’ve learned a lot from watching doctors on youtube (e.g. try looking up Sam Webster – a doctor that teaches about anatomy). I also have learned a lot from certain bodybuilding videos because bodybuilders are interested in the surface forms just like we artists are.  The downsides of bodybuilding resources about anatomy are: 1) it’s one body type, – disproportionately large muscles and unusually little amount of fat and 2) weirdly sometimes the anatomy info is good but the actual fitness tips are really bad – so be careful with that!

DO #3: Do train to construct the anatomy

Try doing an exercise where you start from drawing the bone then add each muscle, drawing it on top. For example, quite a lot of anatomy books will show you an arm stripped back to just the bone, and then show the same arm with individual muscles added on top. You can use these diagrams to construct the anatomy of the arm yourself.  If you can sculpt them, that is also really good exercise. Again the Scott Breton’s kit is great for this.

the scott breton 3D figure model being built up to help students learn anatomy
Here’s me and my mum working through Scott Breton’s course, slowly building up the layers of anatomy onto a 3D printed model

DON’T #3: Don’t ignore fat

A lot of the resources we’ve talked about really focus on muscle and bone, and then just have maybe one page about fat or don’t talk about fat at all – but fat is a huge part of what we’re seeing! It smooths the surface obviously, but it does so to a different extent in different parts of the figure. For example, there’s more fat on the upper arm than the forearm, more on the forearm than the hand. It also creates its own forms on the surface of the figure.

Morpho's fat and skin folds book is a useful resources for learning anatomy for different body types

It’s very important and useful to draw people with different body types to get used to that. In terms of resources, there aren’t that many about fat, but Jake Spicer’s book ‘Figure Drawing’ has a bit about it, Gottfried Bamme’s book has something about it, but the book that’s probably most comprehensive is from a series of anatomy books called Morpho. It’s a tiny little book, picture above. It’s mostly example drawings but it shows you the forms that fat can create on the figure, so if you are interested in that, that’s a useful resource.

DO #4: Do trace the anatomy onto models.

This is a pretty hard exercise but once you start to get used to the anatomy, next you’re going to want to try and see it in actual people. One way to do that is to get a reference photo and try and draw the anatomy you’ve learned onto it. You can draw onto references either with tracing paper or digitally. You’ll need to figure out where the bones are and then start to build the musculature on top of that.

Anatomical tracing - drawing the bone and muscles onto a reference image
Anatomical tracing – drawing the bone and muscles onto a reference image

When you do this exercise for the first time, you’re going to need you feel like you need x-ray vision. But one thing that can help is, let’s say you’re doing an arm, you can physically make the same pose as that person with your own arm, and then you can just feel what’s happening on your own arm. You can check how the elbow is oriented by feeling it with your other hand and so on.

DON’T Number Four: Don’t quit

This is not going to be something that you just learn in one month. It’s something that you slowly build alongside your other skills, so in total it might take a couple of years to really get a good understanding of anatomy. But you don’t have to think about it as this huge project that you only succeed with after two years. Break it down into smaller chunks. Chip away at it by going into more depth as and when you need to – start with the basics first and slowly build up.

DO Number Five: Do bring your anatomy into your figure drawing practice

Alongside your anatomy specific study, it’s important to do general figure drawing practice and try to bring in your anatomical skills to the drawings, alongside your other skills like gesture and values. Let the anatomy you’ve studied help inform what you’re doing. That brings me on to the final DON’T, which is:

DON’T Number Five: Don’t let anatomy ruin your figure drawings

This is more subjective, but for me sometimes I see artists who do very impressive drawings because they bring out so much anatomical nuance and detail all over the figure, but the design of the shapes and even the gesture has suffered because of it. Maybe the artist just has worked so hard on their anatomy, they can’t help but want to show off all that know-how and ability. They end up emphasising too much detail and losing the broader design and gesture. Let anatomy support those other skills rather than detracting from them.

Final Thoughts – putting it into practice

One of the best ways to learn just the essential anatomy that will give you a big push forward with your drawings is our Fresh Eyes challenge. Learn more about it here.


How to Draw Any Pose from IMAGINATION During your journey of learning to draw the figure, you’ll probably have pivotal, memorable moments. Maybe it’s a drawing that felt like a turning