Drawing Basics: How to Make Sense of All Those Bumps and Ridges

27 Oct 2014
Drawing anatomy allowed Leonardo to truly understand how the human body works.
Drawing anatomy allowed Leonardo to understand
how the human body works in relation
to its appearance.

Back when I was struggling to pull my drawing abilities together, I realized that it didn't matter how good my line got if I couldn't tell what I was looking at. This came to a head when I was faced with the task of a figure drawing of the human body, specifically, the back.

If you've gone through life drawing, perhaps you know the problem: you're sitting in your workshop, a reasonably muscular man is posing, his back is turned to you, and...what is going on? What are all those bumps and ridges? How are you supposed to make sense of that complicated mess? You know there's an order, an underlying structure to it, but you simply cannot make it out.

Fortunately for me, I knew how Da Vinci would solve this problem: he would draw from anatomical dissections. So that's exactly what I did. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and Santa Monica Community College offered a gross anatomy course, with cadavers. I applied to take it as an artist, a first for them. They talked it over and allowed me to enroll. My professor was Dr. Margarita Dell, an incredibly generous teacher.

Life drawing by Daniel Maidman, anatomical drawing of the thorax muscles
This was how I tackled the muscles
of the thorax in 2001.
My initial plan was to draw only structures relevant to life drawing and to basically skip the organs. But the program was so fascinating that my one-semester course expanded into a two-year, 100-drawing project covering every part of the body I could think of.

When I began, my drawings were clumsy and crude. I worked largely in line alone and wasn't sure how to visually recreate the look and feel of the skin, muscles, and bones that I was seeing.

By the end of my body drawing project, I had not only developed an idiom for drawing muscles, but a deeper understanding of their nature: how they connected to bone, how they lay over each other, and how their fascia coverings affected their shapes.

Life drawing by Daniel Maidman, anatomical drawing of the muscles of the face and neck
This was how I was able to portray the muscles
of the face and neck in 2003.
Apart from the delight and learning I had throughout this project, I got the benefit I wanted—the musculature of the living human body became comprehensible to me. When I went into life drawing, I did not depend on my eye alone to comprehend what I saw. I had a broad view of the internal structures of the body in mind as well. I could finally see through the skin, to the underlying fat and muscle and bone, and how the interactions of these parts with mechanical and gravitational forces determined the body's visual appearance.

If you are engaged in a serious way with strictly representational life drawing, I cannot recommend gross anatomy highly enough. The simpler alternatives—textbooks, photographs, écorché courses, the "Body Works" exhibits—work as well. The key is to spend enough time in studying and copying these anatomical parts that the knowledge sinks in at a deep level and informs your eye without your command.


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kristinsande wrote
on 28 Oct 2014 10:33 AM

Great post! I don’t draw people anymore (maybe somedayI will), I do horses, and it applies to them as well. Knowing the anatomy and what the bumps and ridges are definitely helps.

Topics wrote
on 5 Nov 2014 4:41 PM

Drawing Anatomy Learn how to draw anatomy with Artists Network's free tutorial. The study of human