Best practice advice for capturing human anatomy

Best practice advice for capturing human anatomy

Key rules to help you draw human anatomy with confidence.

Drawing the human body without some knowledge of anatomy is like playing a board game without the rule book and some key pieces missing: It’s frustrating and confusing. After you learn all the rules and get good at the game, you can change the rules. But that’s because you understand the dynamics of the game and you can change things to improve it. 

Being confident with anatomy makes drawing easier and more fun! In this workshop, I’ll give you some advice to guide your anatomy studies, so you can learn how to draw people accurately, and with confidence.

01. Think first, then draw

Scribbly lines are a sign your brain is still processing the image

Anatomy is very specific and the difference between a drawing that’s 'right' and a drawing that’s 'wrong' can be subtle. If your drawings are scribble-like and you don’t commit to any one line, your brain is busy just processing the image, so it won’t notice anatomical mistakes. If you’re studying anatomy, you should have a good foundation in basic drawing skills already, and you should use it.

02. Ignore gesture at your peril

Gesture is still essential for capturing convincing figures

Gesture lies at the heart of every figure drawing. Anatomy should be a new layer, and a new way to express gesture… not a replacement for it. The anatomical forms should be designed to follow and reveal the gesture. 

03. Memorise the simple forms

Break down the shapes into simple forms

The human body is organic. It’s full of curves, bumps and mushy-looking things. But your drawings shouldn’t look mushy. You can try to copy exactly what you see, but if the understanding and accuracy isn’t there, then it will show. 

A better approach is to learn to break down the body into simple forms. This is why I teach the simple form for all areas of the body. Simple forms are simple enough that you can actually memorise them, and pull them out of your pocket whenever you need to. 

04. Pay attention to the skeleton 

Learn what lies underneath the skin

It’s easy to tell when an artist doesn’t know the skeleton, even if you’re just looking at their fully fleshed figures. The muscles won’t aim to the right place. The skeleton is complicated, but there’s much less variation in the forms of the skeleton than the forms of the muscles and body fat. Knowing the skeleton makes it easier to construct the body, understand how it works, and put the muscles on top of it correctly. Take the time to learn it and your drawings will benefit for the rest of your career. 

05. Review and correct

Assess your work critically after every drawing

After you finish a drawing, take a critical look at it to see where you can improve. You can ask a friend, mentor or online community for help. Then, actually follow through on what you notice, and make corrections to your drawings. It’s not enough for your eyes to see what went wrong – your hands have to fix it. You can do this to yesterday’s homework, or even drawings you made months or years ago. 

06. Don’t just read about it

Lots of drawing is the best way to improve

Reading or listening to an explanation of anatomy may be enough for you to intellectually understand it, but that doesn’t mean you can draw it. We’re artists. We have a bigger job to do than just understand anatomy. You have to learn to draw it so it’s believable and interesting. And the only way to do that is to draw. Draw a lot! 

07. Steer clear of snowmen

Humans aren't perfectly symmetrical

Don’t draw symmetrical bulges everywhere. That makes your drawing look stiff and boring. The contours tend to zigzag down the body, creating a dynamic flow. Furthermore, muscles usually work in pairs: when one side flexes the other is resting. 

08. Don’t include every detail

Learn to simplify what you see

Remember: not every bone, tendon and muscle has to be accented in every drawing. Indeed, anatomical details in the wrong spots can make a drawing look stiff and fake. Pick and choose details that support the overall picture, and let those be enough. In general, you’ll probably choose details that are at or near the focal point, and that flow with the gesture or composition. 

09. Be patient 

The human body is complex – learning it takes time

Learning anatomy is a slow process. Take your time on every drawing and with every area of the body. You can’t learn everything in your first pass. You’ll have to come back to review and add to your understand of all the parts every few years for the rest of your career. Don’t expect to be a master immediately. Never stop learning. 

10. Be goal-oriented in your practice 


Focus on improving different aspects of your work

There’s a lot to anatomy to study and lots of aspects of it to study. For example, if you’re practising gesture, the anatomy needs context. Make the forms work with the pose and focus on making the anatomy dynamic. If you’re studying form, use cross contour lines and shading to add dimension. Focus on constructing the body parts using simple forms and avoid organic forms you don’t understand. Pick a goal and focus on it. Make sure you’re getting the most out of your practice time. 

11. Try different exercises

Taking on different challenges will bring variety to your studies

Anatomy tracings, drawing from life, drawing from photos, drawing from your imagination, drawing from other drawings (master copies), sculpture… Not only is this fun, but it helps your brain process information in different ways, and fills in gaps in your knowledge.

12. Get to grips with the language

Learning the technical names for things can help you think about them more fluently

There’s lots of memorisation with anatomy, and it can be overwhelming if you’re hearing all these terms for the first time. Terms like medial and lateral, abduction and adduction, origin and insertion, subcutaneous and so on. Consider making flashcards or other old-school study methods to help memorise the bulk of the terminology babble. 

When you can speak about anatomy fluently, you can think about anatomy fluently, which means you’re going to have an easier time when you’re drawing. This is the least important part of anatomy for artists, but it sure is helpful. You’ll feel a lot better when you know the terms. And of course, you’ll leave your fellow spellers in the dust on Scrabble nights!


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