The MOST useful anatomy idea is also super simple

So, here we have our two artists, Harry and Sally. They both want to learn to draw figures and they spend some time doing a bit of anatomy studying rib cages. Then later, they spend 10 minutes drawing some figures.


Sally comes up with the drawing below on the left, and Harry comes up with the drawing on the right

Harry feels disappointed in his drawing and decides to watch some videos about gesture. He thinks that all he has to do is make more big swoopy lines and draw quicker. But then he ends up with drawings like this and is again disappointed.

So what’s the issue here? The difference between Harry and Sally is in fact nothing to do with talent – the difference actually is in how they approached their ribcage study.


Simplifying the ribcage – an overview

While Harry went really in depth, learning the form and name of each rib and the muscles attached to them, Sally just learned a few super basic ideas about the ribcage, and then did a bunch of drills to get good at them.

She learned that the sternum is on the front middle of the ribcage, and it’s also the middle of the chest, so it’s visible on the figure.

Below that is the ribcage arch. And to get to the bottom of that, you can just double the length of the sternum. The bottom of the ribcage roughly perpendicular to that sternum.

Overall, the ribcage is a kind of egg shape. It comes up a little bit higher in the back of the neck than the front. And it kind of fills out the top of the torso – you can probably feel it on your sides. And above this, the shoulder structure takes over.

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So now we have an overview of what Sally was looking out for in her drawings, I’m going to give you five tips on how simple ribcage anatomy can inform our life drawings.


Tip 1: Visualise the ribcage

If you want some help with visualising the ribcage, there’s a really cool 3D model by Scott Breton hereIt’s really handy to view the model from different angles and draw from it.

Once you’re feeling good with that, you need to start visualising the ribcage form in actual models.

So, you’re ging to start with the sternum – hold up your pencil to the middle of the chest to get the overall angle of the ribcage. Your line starts at the middle of the collarbones and comes straight down to the bottom of the chest.

Now double the length of that line. That’s going to tell you how far down the ribcage goes.

Next, you go perpendicular to roughly get the bottom edge of the ribcage.

And finally, you know the ribcage is going to fill out the torso. It’s also going to come up to the back of the neck.

Looking out for these things is going to help you see this idea in lots of different poses. But just like learning a sport, it’s all about repetition. You don’t need to necessarily understand all the physics and the formulas behind shooting a basketball. You just need to know the basic ideas of the technique, and then do a bunch of practice to get good at it.


Tip 2 – Where the ribcage ends

I’ve taught these ideas to a lot of people and it’s usually the same ideas that trip people up. So one thing is that the bottom of the ribcage is not the narrow bit of the waist.

Below, you can see that the indent is marked out on the image on the left and the image on the right shows where the ribcage actually is. That bulging out bit of the torso is partly created by the obliques, those muscles that attach on to the sides of the ribcage. The ribcage itself is going to come down further than that indent.


Tip 3 – The ribcage is a solid shape

The next thing to look out for is the shape of the ribcage. The torso seems to create some really nice big swoopy curves as you see int he image on the left below. And that makes people feel like the ribcage seem very rubbery and the torso like a big smooth curve. But importantly, even though the abs might be creating a nice curve, the basic rigid egg shape of the ribcage is always there.

That angle across the ribcage stays perpendicular to the sternum – it doesn’t start to bend back with the torso. And although there is a little bit of flexibility in the ribcage, really for our purposes it’s way easier and better just to think of it as rigid and unchanging. So instead of seeing the torso like a big flexible bit of rubber, it’s way more useful to see the rigid masses of the ribcage versus pelvis and then have just the mid-section be the flexible part.


Tip 4 – Squash and stretch

The next thing to do is really emphasise that squashing and stretching. In the image below, you can see things getting pulled in by the ribcage and then the midsection having to bulge out to get back to the pelvis.

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Even just with this ribcage egg idea, you should be able to start to notice the squashing and stretching of the midsection as it comes back for the pelvis. And you can emphasise that in your drawing.


Tip 5 – Check the sternum, not
the shoulders

When you’re thinking about what he ribcage is doing, focus on the sternum as shown above. Don’t be tempted to think about the shoulders, because the shoulders can move up and down independently of each other and independently of the ribcage. A person can completely change their shoulder angle while their ribcage isn’t moving.

The sternum is your anchor that will tell you what the rib cage is doing even as the shoulders do all kinds of things around it. As you develop, you may even start noticing an interesting squash and stretch created by the movement of the shoulder versus the ribcage.


Bringing it all together

Figure drawing is about bringing together a few different ideas including anatomy, gesture, simplifying forms and simplifying shapes of light and dark. A successful drawing can be really simple ideas from each of those skills brought together in a meaningful way.

The key is to keep touching on the simple sides of these ideas, doing exercises and drills for them and then bringing them back into your figure drawing. That is what we do in our study group. I’d like to share a case study of one of our past students Scott to round up my final thoughts on this.

On the left is a couple of drawing by Scott about 18 months ago. Scott then studied with us on our course and kept practising, getting to the point that you can see in the middle figure below. He worked really hard and has made such a great improvement. In October, we focused on simplified and foreshortened forms in our study group, doing exercises together to build those simple skills. As you can see from the final drawing on the right. Scott has started to conquer that aspect of figure drawing.

Focusing down on individual skill sets and doing it together with other people is a powerful combo. And that’s what we do in our study group. If you’d like to know more about our study group and how to join, you can find out more 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