Understanding Anatomy Leads to Artistic Accuracy

8 Sep 2013

When I look at Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, I always focus on Judith’s clenched fist in the foreground; to me, it reinforces the physical violence of the scene. Viewing Auguste Rodin’s Burghers of Callais I gain a heightened awareness of my own body, as if I too were experiencing physical fatigue and despair depicted in the hunched shoulders and weary stances of the figures. The sensation is like looking in a mirror, even though I share no resemblance to the subject. This is, in part, because of the rendering of the human form—in both works the artists display such anatomical accuracy and virtuosity that one can’t help but identify with the physicality of the images.

During a figure-drawing demonstration, artist Robert Liberace showed that an attuned focus on and knowledge of anatomy can lead to strong depictions of the human body. During a figure-drawing demonstration, artist Robert Liberace showed that an attuned focus on and knowledge of anatomy can lead to strong depictions of the human body. During a figure-drawing demonstration, artist Robert Liberace showed that an attuned focus on and knowledge of anatomy can lead to strong depictions of the human body.

During a figure-drawing demonstration, artist Robert Liberace showed that an attuned
focus on and knowledge of anatomy can lead to strong depictions of the human body.

Know how to draw people in states of rest and repose as well as physical exertion takes a great deal of understanding of how the body functions. Recently, I was looking at the work of artist Robert Liberace and I was struck at how he presents the human figure in various stages of action—pulling, sprinting, climbing, perching, and pushing. Liberace has even pared down the classic mythological tale of Sisyphus to its most basic element—a male figure struggling, with his adversary (the stone) nowhere in sight. He had depicted loose-limbed reclining figures and those standing contrapposto, with their weight on one foot and hips and shoulders tilted in counterpoint. Some of the paintings and drawings also show multiple images of the same figure performing sequential movements, echoing Eadweard Muybridge’s photos of human beings in motion—playing lawn tennis, climbing stairs, and doing back flips.

I have been lucky enough to see Liberace give a figure-drawing demonstration. When he drew the torso of the model, he discussed the anatomy of the figure, explaining it as though it were a guiding force in the development of his drawing. As he honed in on the shoulder muscles, he called each by its Latin name: terres major, terres minor, clavicle, scapula. Likewise when he was rounding out the figure’s abdomen, he drew attention to each muscle’s anatomical structure. All the while, the artist positioned and repositioned his pencil and the direction of his line to mimic the way the muscles that he was drawing actually fit together, building up layers of hatching lines to create the illusion of shape.

“Did you see that?” one onlooker asked her companion as she watched Liberace work.  “Poof! It just appeared!” Although the artist made it appear effortless, it wasn’t quite a magical “poof” that created Liberace’s drawing. His sound knowledge of the body strengthens his ability to create convincing depictions of the human form. Indeed, artists of all levels can gain much from studying human anatomy and the gestures of the body. Figure Drawing: Anatomy of the Head and Figure Drawing: The Gesture are DVD seminars that are part of the Dan Thompson Featured Artist Bundle now available that can give you a wide-ranging understanding of the skeletal system, musculature, body mechanics, and proportions, all of which can help you create effective drawings and paintings of the human body. Get these plus more great resources related to figure drawing for 50% off during the North Light Shop Fall Sale!


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Comments

dmaidman wrote
on 16 Apr 2010 8:24 AM

Courtney - I think you're dead on with this post. When I started to get serious about figurative drawing and painting, I signed up for gross anatomy and spent two years dissecting cadavers and drawing an anatomical atlas for myself, and it made a huge difference for me, especially in depicting the complex layers of muscle in the back and neck. If you haven't read it, Rodin has a fascinating explanation of his thinking on each of the figures in the Burgers of Callais in the interview book "Rodin on Art."

Sounds like it was a great opening!

Blush Pink wrote
on 18 May 2010 6:22 PM

I'll never forget the mandatory session in art class where we HAD to draw nude models.  Cal me a prude, but I felt...embarrassed...for them, anyway.

Surely there is some other way to learn anatomy? (comments anyone?)

Jules29 wrote
on 5 Jan 2011 10:13 PM

Yeah. that's right. I also agree with you. if you know about the anatomy of the human body, you can draw it perfectly with the accuracy of the details..

mtyokawonis wrote
on 14 Sep 2013 6:49 PM

Drawing anything from life even still life objects trains your eyes and mind to deal with the reality in front of you and not an intellectual concept of the thing. When drawing people it is important to be observant of how people move, how the masses of the body inhabit space and the lighting on the forms. Clothed or nude, it is always best to draw from live people rather than a book or dvd model. Many people are predjudiced against live nude drawing as they find nudity difficult to handle but if you can't do live nude drawing then just sit in a coffee shop and draw people.