Understanding Anatomy: The Skull

Skull Studies
2009, graphite, 3' x 7'. All artwork this article collection the artist.

 

The bones of the skull offer enough information on a person's facial structure that it is possible for forensic artists and scientists to reconstruct the accurate surface appearance of an individual's face. For this reason, it is essential to understand the large bony masses of the skull and how they relate to the proportions of the individual model.

by David Jon Kassan

Skull
2006, graphite on
Bristol board, 91⁄2 x 71⁄8.

The human skull is one of the most interesting parts of the body for an artist to explore. This can be proven by looking at the countless historical works of art in which skulls can be found. In most of these pieces the skull serves as a memento mori—a symbol of life’s fragility and our own mortality.

The skull is pretty much devoid of articulation, being largely made up of bones that are fastened together by sutures that don’t permit movement. The one exception to this rule is the hinging of the mandible (jawbone), the only movable portion of the skull. The skull’s primary functions are to protect the brain from injury and support the foundation of the face. The skull also fixes the locations of the eyes and ears, which provide the brain with sensory information about the body’s environment.

Most of the visible appearance of the human face depends upon the shapes and qualities of viscerocranial bones; many of these bones push on the muscles and skin to dictate the shape of portions of the face and head. When this occurs, it is referred to as a bone point. Examples are the jaw and chin line, as well as the turn of the forehead at the superciliary crest. The bones of the skull offer enough information on a person’s facial structure that it is possible for forensic artists and scientists to reconstruct the accurate surface appearance of an individual’s face. For this reason, it is essential to understand the large bony masses of the skull and how they relate to the proportions of the individual model.

Profile View of the Skull
2006, graphite on
Bristol board, 91⁄2 x 9.

The structure of the skull can be divided into two main parts—the neurocranium (braincase) and the viscerocranium (facial bones). The neurocranium is the part of the skull that holds and protects the brain in a large cavity called the cranial vault. This crash helmet for the brain is made of eight platelike bones that are connected to one another by solid bone, bone sutures, or cartilage joints. The neurocranium includes the frontal, parietal, occipital, sphenoid, temporal, and ethmoid bones—together these bones form a protective vault surrounding the brain.

The most important of the cranial bones for the appearance of the face is the frontal bone, which gives structure to the top of the face above the orbital cavities (eye sockets) and helps define the forehead and brow. This area of the skull acts as the border of the neurocranium and the viscerocranium. This separation starts at the root of the nose and follows along the top edge of the orbital cavities and around to the external auditory canals.

The 14 bones of the viscerocranium form the lower front of the skull. The bones of the face work intricately together to form small cavities, including those for the eyes, the internal ears, the nose, and the mouth. The important facial bones include the mandible (the largest and strongest facial bone), the maxilla (upper jaw), the zygomatic bone (cheek bone), and the nasal bone. The uniqueness of these bones’ shapes provides the main structural framework of the face and thus determines much of its static appearance.

For these illustrations I was able to draw from a real skull that was on hand in a studio where I had previously taught drawing classes; it has an extraordinary uniqueness and personality to it. For those wishing to further their studies in this direction, I highly recommend that they draw from a skull cast or reproduction from all angles of rotation. A great resource for finding accurate and reasonably priced skull reproductions is the Anatomical Chart Company.

Diagram 1
Note the divide between the neurocranium (braincase)
and the viscerocranium (facial bones).

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About BrianRiley

Brian Riley is the managing editor for the American Artist family of titles (American Artist, Watercolor, Drawing & Workshop) and has been part of the AA team since 2003. He first became interested in art as a child, specifically drawing, but drifted away from the visual arts as he grew older, gravitating towards writing while in college. His position at AA has offered him the opportunity to reinvigorate his early passion and continue his education.  

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