The anatomical approach to figure drawing: the basics can be enough

For some, life drawing proficiency is synonymous with a strong knowledge of human anatomy. A good way to understand anything is to understand its component parts. Maybe all you can see is skin, but the shapes and texture the skin is taking on is entirely determined by the skeletal and muscular structure beneath. If you can see how the bones are shaped and fit together, how the muscles and flesh sit on top of them and how they stretch and contort in different positions, that understanding will inform the lines that you put to paper. The impossible subtlety of the body’s contours start to make sense. Also, for those that feel that their drawings look too two dimensional, understanding the 3D shapes underneath the skin can really help achieve that third dimension.

Some artists use anatomical knowledge for figure drawing

Some artists use anatomical knowledge for figure drawing – thanks to Mims Studios Blog for this picture

However, some artists aren’t the least bit interested in anatomical correctness. For example, they may be trying to express the model’s mood or the life and energy of the pose, and do not want to restrict their drawing with concerns around how the thigh bone connects to the shin bone. Many how-to life drawing books seem so focused on anatomy that you may wonder where the space for self-expression comes in. If there is a ‘right’ answer, then there’s no individuality. It all depends on your style and what you are trying to achieve.

Between these two extremes is are a range of approaches that incorporate some anatomical understanding to different degrees. Some artists learn to construct a simplified skeletal structure as the foundation of their drawing and some basic 3D shapes that form the bulk of the body. For example, for drawing a portrait, the great Andrew Loomis showed us the shapes that come together to create a head and face. It can be really useful to train yourself to draw starting with these skeletons and shapes. You don’t have to do it forever, but drilling it will help you to make things three dimensional and place features in the correct position. For example, it will become second nature to place the eyebrows in line with the centre of the ear, to put the bottom of the nose approximately halfway between chin and eyebrows and so on.

Learn drawing of head with Loomis

Andrew Loomis provided great tutorials on constructing heads, faces and bodies with simple 3D shapes

Mayko uses some basic anatomical principles to produce some lively drawings that capture both the energy of the pose and the beauty of the human body. After some practice, these principles can become second nature, and you won’t even think about them. Here are some of the most useful of those anatomical principles.

1. If you take a person’s head as a measurement unit, the whole body should be about 7 to 7.5 of those units in length. This can be quite helpful – especially for a standing pose or a side-on pose. For example, a novice like me that that has not mastered the anatomical approach can end up with a drawing like the one below. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong, but it was clear that something was wrong. A fellow artist pointed out to me that the head was too big and showed me that the body was only 6 head lengths.

2. It’s important to get the angle of the pelvic bone right, since it determines a lot of the shape of the rest of the pose. You can see the edges of this bone on pretty much any model, so that’s useful.

3. the positions of the joints in general are important to see and understand: shoulders, elbows and knees especially. Even when standing, the line from one shoulder to the other can be slanted, and you need to get this right in relation to the pelvic bone. These angles will help to get the contortions and flow of the rest of the pose right.

4. for a standing pose, look at the relationship between the base of the ear and the bone of ankle to get the balance right. You can draw an imaginary vertical line from one ear straight down and see where it hits the ground in relation to the ankles. It’s important to get the balance of the pose right to make the drawing feel natural. In future articles, we will consider this issue of weight and balance in more detail, since it can take your drawings to the next level.

Just using basic anatomical principles can give a natural and life-like image that is not weighed down by anatomical correctness but has good proportions.

For more detail on using beginner anatomy in your drawings, and other essential life drawing skills, have a look at our online course First Steps.

What do you think of the anatomical approach? Post in the comments below!

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