Thursday, June 2, 2011

Anatomy once and for all

We see the human body every day, it's completely familiar, but when it comes to recalling it accurately, we're usually lost. So we spend months and years in anatomy and life drawing classes, making tons of drawings, and still our knowledge and recall is relatively limited. This is because we do not remember things the way we think we do, in fact, we don't even see them the way we think we do.  If you want to really know human anatomy (for artistic purposes) try this - it worked for me.

The program involves working entirely from memory, then correcting your drawings by consulting reference. You draw the different parts of the body in all poses, from all angles. The body is divided into six areas (with some overlap), and we focus on each area for a week (the torso gets two weeks).

Week one: Head and neck, partial shoulder girdle, (no facial muscles or facial expression)
Week two: Shoulder girdle, some head and neck, some chest and back
Week three: Torso (back) including some hips, some shoulder
Week four: Torso (front & back) including some hips, some shoulder & neck
Week five: Arms and hands, some shoulder
Week six: Legs and feet, some hips

You start each week by reviewing some reference material for the current area, then you put the reference material aside and draw from memory. Depending on your experience you might want to dive straight in just drawing from memory. All drawing is done from memory, except when you correct your work.

Your reference material should ideally be 3d - a skeleton and an ecorche type figure, plus a variety of pictures. The ecorche figure is great, it doesn't show you what happens when things move. There are some great books and websites out there for this. You need whatever reference material allows you to understand the forms clearly, especially as things bend and twist. Use a variety of different sources - you don't want to end up drawing forms just like Bridgman, for example - you want your own understanding and your own way of remembering and your own way of drawing these forms. 

During the week the only thing you will draw is the part of the body you are working on, for example, in week one, the neck. Focus, focus, focus. That's all there is in the world - the neck. That's all you're ever going to draw for the rest of your life. That's all you need to know, but you need to know it as if your life depended on it. Forget everything else. All you need to be able to draw is the neck - any pose, any viewpoint. Don't avoid the tough angles or poses. Test yourself, "do I really know what the underside of the chin looks like?" Sniff out your knowledge gaps and hit them head on.
A variety of poses and viewpoints
When you're not actually drawing - study necks wherever you encounter them. Don't think about any other part of the body. Watching videos, eating at a restaurant - necks, necks, necks. As you see figures in life, on TV, in photos, etc., make mental notes of what is happening (try to identify what you are seeing in terms of anatomy), and recreate this later in drawings done from memory. You quickly identify the areas where you have been making the same mistakes for years, or avoiding entirely. In a mere week you will advance to noticing subtleties you were blind to before, as you build on your basic knowledge.
Draw the neck whenever you can - don't wait until you have a solid hour or whatever to dedicate to drawing.  Thirty seconds is enough to test yourself. Think of it like giving yourself a pop-quiz at all hours of the day. Doodle on the napkin at the diner, doodle in your math notebook, do as many drawings as you can.

Avoid simple anterior (front) or posterior (back) views. These are easier to draw, but convey less information about form. Don't strive to create beautiful drawings. Do whatever it takes, using drawing as a tool, to analyze, to test and prove your understanding. It's fine if your drawings look "mechanical."

Cross-contour drawing to understand neck muscles

Try your hardest to get it right. Try, try, try, to remember and draw those bones and muscles, and how they look under the skin. At the end of each day, when you have a few drawings done, compare them to your reference materials to see where you went wrong, or where you can improve, then correct your drawings. Corrections can be made while looking at a reference but this happens only after thoroughly exhausting the attempt to draw and fix from memory. This is critical - once you have tried everything you can think of and still can’t get it to look right, the correct answer, once you look it up, will be seared into your brain forever - oh, that's what it's like! When you simply copy from reference right from the start you barely remember anything.
From week two: movement of the shoulder blades

I started each area/week by drawing the relevant areas of the skeleton. The skeleton is relatively simple, and once you get it, you have a framework on which to add muscles. Start by thinking of each muscle as a line or rubber band - all you need to know is where each end attaches to the skeleton (some facial muscles attach to skin and other muscles, but we're not doing those in this program). Once you know where they belong, work on their forms.

Each week ends with a test, where you draw the part of the body you're working on from memory of course, drawing what it really looks like (i.e. with skin, fat, etc.), in as many angles and poses as necessary to cover every possible consideration. You will probably be blown away by what you can do at the end of the week. Here's one of my final neck tests - I wish I had a "before" version:

The final test

Stay flexible and target your problem areas. I tended to spend a couple of days on the skeleton, a couple on muscles, and a couple on surface stuff (what it really looks like all put together). But I had a lot of trouble with the form of the pelvis, for example, so I spent a day on that by itself. In fact, the torso as a whole was my biggest challenge:

From weeks 3 & 4 - the torso

Stick with it! When you're done you'll be free to employ the figure in whatever angle of view and whatever pose you want with ease and confidence. Six weeks may seem like a long time, but how long have you already spent trying to master anatomy? You can take a 12 week anatomy class, and another, and another, and still be lost in most human body drawing situations - but if you spend one week drawing nothing but the neck you will never forget it. Just do that six times and you're done, once and for all.


  1. I just stumbled upon this blog yesterday and I am very impressed so far. I agree that copying anatomy diagrams is fairly ineffective. This is a good method for studying anatomy. I did something similar spending a week with the arms, then a week with the legs, then a week with the torso. I feel I have them down pretty well. However, I didn't do many drawings with skin from memory. Seeing this post makes me think I should do more. The problem for me is finding a three dimensional reference. For the arms and legs this wasn't much of a problem since I just used my own arm or legs in the mirror. I am blessed with a low body fat percentage so I was able to identify the muscles. This method doesn't really work for the torso since I can't a pose at many angles and draw it at the same time.

  2. I have an old French anatomy book called, "Artistic Anatomy" by Dr. Paul Richer. If you search Amazon for that title it's the first one that comes up (red cover with silver lettering). Another is called, "An Atlas of Anatomy for Artists" by Fritz Schider. It's also on Amazon. Both are more than adequate for this program. Memorization is the real challenge here.

  3. Would you reccomend this to someone who has just started drawing, or should I stay away from anatomy altogether until I have better control over the pencil?