Review of Gottfried Bammes’ The Complete Guide to Anatomy for Artists and Illustrators
This book has been through nine editions over many decades in its native Germany, and has now finally been translated into English.
The book aims to cover everything a figure drawing artist would need to know to understand anatomy, and to guide teachers to properly give anatomical instruction to their students.
We’re reviewing this book from the perspective of a learner hoping to use it to advance their ability to draw figures, since we assume that reflects you, our dear reader, best. The book was sent to us by the publisher to review, but we will be absolutely honest about it.
Learning about anatomy in order to better draw figures went out of fashion somehow towards the end of the last century, and many art schools neglect to teach the subject properly. With a revival in realism in figurative art, there’s a growing need for good anatomy books.
This anatomy book has two huge strengths and one weakness.
The two huge strengths
- The diagrams. This is an absolutely fantastic collection of diagrams. Even if all you do with this book is study and copy these, you will learn enough to get your money’s worth.
Bammes is not above providing useful simplifications of bones, muscles and other body parts. While some other teachers provide oversimplifications that stray so far from the truth that they confuse more than they simplify, Bammes’ diagrams give you new insight. This really is anatomy for artists. Here’s an example of his simplified ribcage:
The photos of models in the book look quite dated now in terms of their quality, but they are cleverly posed and selected to illustrate important points in combination with the diagrams. Similarly the example drawings from various artists are carefully selected and add both insight and enjoyment.
- The practical information beyond individual body parts. Bammes doesn’t only cover bones and muscles – something some other anatomy for artists books are guilty of. For an artist, a figure should be more than the sum of its parts – it’s an organic whole, a system of living mechanisms, and Bammes does not neglect this.
He gives examples of where and how fat deposits develop on a figure. He tells us how the centre of gravity shifts during various actions like picking objects up. He helps us understand where to put our attention during observations of figures. He also explains which muscles are used and tensed during those actions.
The text. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the text is unreadable, but in parts it’s a real struggle. It’s not clear whether this is how the original was written or that things were muddied during the translation (or some combination of the two).
The writing style is very academic, and often needlessly so. Instead of nice easy phrase like ‘there’s more than meets the eye’, we are told that ‘there is more … than the optical perception level’.
Things become a little more accessible in more practical passages that accompany the diagrams to explain the body’s composition and movements. However, even here the text is not as kind as it could be to the reader. This is particularly important since learning anatomy this way already requires the addition of a load of Latin medical names to your vocabulary.
Bammes also criticises others that have created books about anatomy for artists such as Andrew Loomis, claiming that his approach was ‘facile’. This tone could easily cause some stress to a beginner artist, as it implies that there is a right and wrong way to draw figures and that even someone like Loomis gets it wrong. It seems especially unfair to criticise Loomis when Loomis’ books are so much more successful in ensuring their information is accessible and easy to follow.
Should I buy this book?
If you have decided to go deep into anatomy – for example you may like to make anatomical knowledge the foundation of your life drawing style – this book will be especially useful to you as it goes into so much detail. And it’s not just medical detail about body parts, it’s insightful detail designed specifically for artists.
If you are a budding artist interested in learning about various aspects of figure drawing including anatomy, this book may be a little intimidating. The quantity of information on offer here could easily put you off, especially when combined with the tone and style of the writing.
This book goes beyond the essentials that an artist needs to know. If you don’t learn the names (or even existence of) every bone and muscle covered in this book, it does not mean you won’t be good at drawing figures.
Once you’ve learned the basics, it is up to you how deep you would like to go into anatomy. You can dip in and out of this book, continuously using it when needed to learn about body parts that you are currently struggling with.
The text is no fun which is a shame, but when the diagrams are so useful and insightful, it doesn’t really matter. This is a useful book for artists of any level, but if you are a beginner be careful not to allow the inaccessible text or the sheer quantity of information to overwhelm you.