Human anatomy for artists: where to start?

Plastic Anatomy class at Int. St. Petersburg Art Academy in Florence

‘I’m an artist, struggling with figure drawing and trying to get the understanding of human anatomy!’ 

Does it sound familiar to you? You don’t have an idea where to start and how? So, this article is for you!

How it started? 

The first attempts to depict a human figure are found in the countries of the Ancient East, especially in Egypt. The mystery of human body structure contributed to the creation of art works with the wrong body proportions, where the static non-natural poses were used. Lack of understanding of anatomical polymorphism has lead to creation of the identical human figures without individual characteristics. But it was only by the 5th century BC that the human body began to have an anatomically accurate structure, largely due to the fact that the study of body plasticity in motion began. Understanding of the body structure and the basics of plastic anatomy made a big progress in the image of the human figure in both statics and dynamics, helped the artist’s self-expression and came up with the image of the model’s character features through the accentuation of his/her anatomy.

Antonio Pollaiuolo (1429-1498) can be called one of the first researchers of plastic anatomy, ‘he was the first to study the play of muscles in the figure’ (A. Verrocchio). However, Leonardo da Vinci is considered to be the founder of plastic anatomy. He created 13 folders with anatomical drawings, in which every bone, muscle, and then every part of the body were depicted from different angles. Unfortunately, only 234 sheets with 779 drawings remained for contemporaries. Since the 18th century, plastic anatomy has been taught in art academies as an independent science.

Why is it important?

  • Human figure has its specific form, structure and proportions. External shape and appearance of the human body is directly dependent on its internal structure and function;
  • Knowledge of the human body structure raises the artist’s skills to a higher level. All the great masters began the image of a person with the drawing of skeleton, main joints, muscles, etc. 
  • Ability to analyze the human body from the anatomical point of view allows you to see the individuality of the model and convey your attitude to a viewer. The artist is only limited by the barriers of visual perception that requires him to have a deep knowledge of anatomy.
  • Knowledge of anatomy helps the artists to create works with pronounced accents, hypertrophy of individual features, enables the ability to generalize muscle groups in order to emphasize the idea that was put by the artist in his/her work. 

Where to start?

  • It is necessary to focus on plastic anatomy, not medical. Plastic anatomy is aimed to study the logic and plasticity of forms in drawing. As a general recommendation, we would advise you to start studying anatomy in the following sequence: 

1. bones (osteology);

2. connective bones (syndesmology);

3. muscles (myology)

4. statics and dynamics of the human body;

 5. skin.

  • Currently, studying plastic anatomy turns into an exciting process, which is facilitated by the presence of multiple applications for gadgets, anatomical atlases with visualization of how the muscle groups move, etc.

Ex: ‘The Complete Guide to Anatomy for Artists & Illustrators’ by G. Bammes, ‘Constructive Anatomy’ by George B. Bridgman, ‘Anatomy For Sculptors, Understanding the Human Figure’ by U. Zarins and S. Kondrats, Anatomy 3D app, Mara3D app and others.

  • Pay attention that plastic anatomy, in contrast to medical, studies gender characteristics, as well as age, ethnicity, mimics, emotions and partly the physiology of movement. Great importance is also given to the location of fat packages in men, women and children and the way they change with aging.
  • Sketch as much as you can on an everyday basis! Short sketches accelerate the process of mastering the drawing skills by allowing to catch the unique characteristic of nature and by developing compositional thinking with attention to details. You can start with drawing plaster casts and gypsum sculptures or busts that can be found in any museum. To depict a human figure you need to understand how the muscles are attached to the bones. With this knowledge you will be able to draw a human figure in any position and angle. 
  • Look at any picture of a human figure even in a magazine and learn to see muscles, tissues, tendons and bones under the skin. Your eyes and vision should be trained as well. 
Skull Study, made by our Student

These are the initial tips, we will keep you posted. Be patient, you should better invest your time and put much effort on studying plastic anatomy profoundly. This will allow you to make a constructive analysis of a form and to do a convincing and accurate drawing and not just copying the external similarity. If you have any questions, please comment below!

This article is prepared by M. Rubitel – MD, Plastic Anatomy Professor at Int. St. Petersburg Art Academy in Florence

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