Drawing Basics: How to Put the Human Form Together

In past issues, we explained how to analyze and correctly draw different areas of the body. In this tutorial overview of the figure, we bring it all together.   

by Dan Gheno

Drawing, Weighted Stasis by Dan Gheno
Weighted Stasis
by Dan Gheno, 2006,
colored pencil and white
charcoal on toned paper,
24 x 18.

You wouldn’t build a house without referring to a blueprint or try to take a trip without consulting a map, anymore than you would set up your DVD player without looking at the instruction manual. Would you?

Perhaps you would, as most of us do—resulting in a clock that flashes 12 a.m. in perpetuity and a timer-record function that never seems to find the channel or program you wanted. Many of us approach figure drawing the same way, as if trying to reinvent the wheel each time we sketch the human form. There are a multitude of helpful guidebooks that provide crucial information about the figure and its underlying structure and overlying surface features. Artists have compiled this hard-wrought information over several centuries of looking and analyzing, each generation of artists building upon the previous generation’s discoveries. This knowledge can be found in the many artistic anatomy books on the market, as well as in general books on figure drawing, such as Richard G. Hatton’s Figure Drawing manual (out of print), but most of them go unread by the average art student and many art professionals fearful of squelching their “creativity.”

It’s true, a little bit of anatomical knowledge can be a very dangerous thing. A cursory study of the subject can result in stilted, overworked, muscle-lumpy drawings by an artist infatuated with his newfound knowledge. I learned this the hard way when, at 10 years old, I tentatively began my study of anatomy. The sternocleidomastoid in the neck was my first-found and favorite muscle for weeks. I couldn’t draw a neck that had any cylindrical solidity, but I certainly was proud of my “knowledge”—that is, until I started to read more anatomy books. The key, as many anatomists warn in their handbooks, is to learn anatomy so well that you can forget it. That way, it doesn’t interfere with your creative impulse, allowing your subconscious to quietly and spontaneously provide the technical information when you need it.

Drawing, Sideview of the Muscles of the Body by Jan Wandelaar
Sideview of the Muscles
of the Body

by Jan Wandelaar.

Muscle names: A) serratus anterior,
B) external oblique,
C) pelvic or iliac crest
with the posterior crest to the
right of tag and the
anterior crest to the left,
D) deltoid muscle, and
E) extensor muscle group.

After flailing about for months, memorizing muscles and drawing rubbery, flaccid drawings, I realized that I needed to reboot my studies. I began concentrating on the skeletal underpinnings of the human form as all the anatomy books recommend. Like all contrarian youths, I had a hard time accepting the truth: that the muscles follow the underlying curve of the arm and leg bones as well as the big planar shapes of the rib cage and the pelvis. But soon I could see the results of my study: more rhythm and a sense of volume in my figure drawings.

It would be impossible to present all the art world’s accumulated knowledge of the human form in one book, let alone in this one article. Whether you’re interested in drawing the figure in a traditional or expressive manner, it helps to read as many different anatomy books as you can stomach—every book repeats a certain core of information, but each book presents some surprises and reveals juicy facts missed by others. I hope the following serves as a road map that helps to get you started on your own voyage. In this article I will summarize what I consider some of the more significant lessons that I’ve gained from my study of the human form, its structure, and anatomy. Concentrating primarily on the surface characteristics of the human form, I will explain how to use this knowledge to draw more volumetrically dimensional and gesturally dynamic figures. Although I will need to refer to some anatomical terms now and then, you needn’t worry. You won’t find them at all intimidating if you occasionally refer to the two elegantly simple diagrams by Jan Wandelaar.

The Core Figure
The core figure, as I call it, is the most important part of the human form. Built out of the chest and pelvis, the core figure serves as the hub or the trunk from which all else emanates, including the entire gesture or posture of the figure, not to mention the neck and head, the arms and hands, and the legs and feet. As I’ve mentioned previously in my first article for Drawing (fall 2003), it’s extremely important to note that the chest and pelvis move in opposition to each other; they never sit straight, one above the other. In a standing position, the chest usually tips backward (see In the Distance), while the pelvis tilts forward. Meanwhile, in a seated position, the pelvis usually tips rearward and the chest slumps forward. No amount of detail will save your figure drawing if you don’t grasp this fundamental gesture of opposition.

Drawing, Front View of the Muscles of the Body by Jan Wandelaar
Front View of the Muscles of the Body
by Jan Wandelaar.

Muscle names:
F) flexor muscle group,
L) linea alba,
N) infrasternal notch,
S) suprasternal notch and the
top of the sternum or breast bone,
P) patella, T) inner end of the tibia,
I) area near the midpoint
of the body, close to the
trochanter and slightly below
where the major front leg
muscles (rectus femoris)
enters the pelvis.

It’s sometimes difficult to perceive these relationships while drawing the human figure, especially if you’re not familiar with the supporting skeletal forms. Many of my beginner students exclaim in frustration, “I hear what you say, but I can’t see it—it looks like a jumble of bumps to me!” In response, I point out the visible, bony landmarks or muscle forms that you can use to analyze the tilt of these forms. On a standing figure, notice how the stomach muscle turns dramatically inward under the belly button. In the rear, the posterior pelvic crest (to the rear of C) is often visible on a thin model, tilting forward in an almost parallel thrust to the stomach muscle. Even on a full-sized model, the upper buttocks or gluteus medius tends to follow the tilt of the pelvic crest underneath (see Weighted Stasis). Next I look at the breastbone or the bony surface of the rib cage sitting between the breasts and pectoral muscles. On a standing figure, this bony landmark always shifts backward toward the top. On the back of the torso, you can almost always see at least an echo of the lower rib cage’s structure underneath, even on a heavy model. This slightly curved form tips forward in near unison to the slant of the breastbone on the front of the chest. Although they are only two outside lines, they act like the parallel, vertical planes on a box. And when these two simulated boxes are stacked in opposing angles to each other, they create a dynamic contrapposto, or opposition of forms in the torso.

So far, we have only considered the front and back planes of the torso. Most artists remember to draw in the side planes that run up and down the torso since the big light and dark shapes tend to break at this point. But although many of these artists know that the torso has a top plane, they frequently forget to draw it. The top plane can be envisioned as a sort of sloping tabletop that begins at the top of the shoulder or trapezius. It wraps downward across the top of the arms or deltoids (D), and bordered by the collarbones, or clavicles, continues to descend toward the centerline. Too many artists draw the collarbones horizontally straight across the torso, cutting off the depth of the plane and producing a paper-thin, cut-out version of the torso. Most often on a front view or side view, the collarbones slope downward into the pit of the neck, creating a broad plane that tilts dramatically forward. Along with the neck that sits obliquely upon its slanted form, this top plane acts like a natural cross-section that reveals the full depth and volume of the torso. It’s also crucial to the overall gesture of the figure; it provides another reference point for the tip of the rib cage, just as drawing the top or bottom plane of a box helps to show the form’s tilt in space. About the only time the collarbones look straight or seem to curve upward is when you look at them from a lower angle or when the figure is leaning back away from your point of view (see Sargent’s Nude Man).

Drawing, In the Distance by Dan Gheno
In the Distance
by Dan Gheno, 2005, colored pencil,
11 x 8.

Once you’ve established the overall gesture of the core figure, you need to look deeper into the supporting structure. Find the centerline first, whether you’re drawing a front or back view of the torso. On a back view, you can see the centerline reflected in the central structure of the spine itself. The frontal centerline is a little more difficult to find, but it is implied in the bony space between the breasts (S-N) and runs down the middle of the stomach, or the rectus abdominus. On thin or muscular models, you can often see the centerline running through a vertical line, called the linea alba (L), that divides the stomach muscle. The chest and the pelvis are built upon a bilateral structure, which simply means that one half of the form mirrors the other. But be very careful when drawing in the centerline. We usually see the torso in some sort of perspective recession. That means that the far side of the form, past the centerline, will take up less space. Even many advanced artists forget to consider perspective. Some of them think the centerline is too elementary to worry about, but in their haste, they often make the far side of the core figure too big. Nevertheless, don’t worry if you fall into this trap. Your gut will tell you that something is wrong, and once you run a belated centerline through your torso, you’re more likely to catch and correct your mistake.

Drawing, Nude Man by John Singer Sargent
Nude Man
by John Singer Sargent,
graphite, 9? x 7¾.
Collection Wadsworth Atheneum,
Hartford, Connecticut.

Getting a Likeness
Although this guideline will work on all figures, even still-life objects, there is no such thing as a generic core figure. I’ve explained previously in Drawing how to get a likeness when drawing or painting a face (fall 2006). Simply put, you divide the distances between features into three segments, estimating which distance is longest and which is shortest. If you can’t find the likeness at this broad level, you never will, no matter how many details you throw into the face. The same is true of the torso. Try measuring the front of the torso in a similar manner, dividing it into three sections and comparing each of their relative lengths as you would do with the features. The first segment begins at the pit of the neck, or suprasternal notch (S) and ends below the nipples at the infrasternal notch (N); the second begins at the infrasternal notch and ends at the navel; the final section starts at the navel and finishes at the pubic bone. Once you establish this basic framework, you can go to town on the details, if you want.

But proceed with caution! Some artists get too hung up on the details—especially the breasts and shoulder blades. Most people have a tendency to draw the breast too large or skimp on the rib cage so that the breasts seem to float outside of the torso with no base of support. With equal frequency, artists tend to draw the shoulder blades too small and tight to the torso, not leaving enough room for the rib cage. I usually ignore these details when I first set up a drawing of the core figure. Instead, I concentrate on establishing the underlying curves of the rib cage, drawing through the positions of the breasts and the shoulder blades. Then, with a supporting surface to work with, I add these superficial details on top. On your drawings of the female form, don’t forget to add a little extra bulk for the pects above the breasts. Above all, trust your eyes! Even though the word bilateral implies an absolute symmetrical relationship between each side of the torso, there is always some variation from the norm, with one breast usually a little smaller than the other and one side or segment of the “six-pack” abs larger or more defined than the other.

Drawing, Studies for Haman by Michelangelo
Studies for Haman
by Michelangelo, ca. 1511,
red and black chalk, 10 x 8.
Collection the Teylers Museum,
Haarlem, the Netherlands.

When drawing a seated figure,
it’s helpful to compare
the length of the upper and
lower legs, then compare each
individual leg segment to
the length of the torso.

The ribs are a particularly enticing—and baffling—detail. Many confused artists look at the ribs and see a mind-boggling webbing of details that seem to break into long and short shapes, sometimes angular, sometimes curvaceous, going in all different directions. You will find it easier to analyze them if you remember that the rib cage is basically barrellike in structure, and that the individual ribs follow this form, starting high in the back at the spine and then curving downward toward the front (see Michelangelo’s Studies for Haman). The pesky complications start when you try to add two very elegant muscles to this simple mass: The serratus anterior (A), which grabs the ribs from above and the external oblique (B), which grabs from below. Luckily, these seemingly complicated muscles have their own logic to guide your eye and pencil. The serratus is literally a serrated muscle, with short fingerlike segments that individually dig into the ribs. The overall muscle follows a dependable arc that runs from underneath the bottom of the shoulder blade and aims for the nipple in front, before finally disappearing under the pectoralis. The external oblique is the form that sits so gracefully above the hips in athletic people and Greek and Roman statues; unfortunately, most of us experience this on our own bodies as “love handles.” As its name suggests, this muscle rises upward toward the ribs at an oblique angle, and on well-developed individuals, this muscle is also fingerlike at the top. The external oblique muscle intersects the serratus above, as if they were two clasped hands, folding into the same dependable, curving arc that guides the upper muscle.

The Extremities
As you may recall from previous installments of this series, you know that I like to begin my drawings of the figure with a “line of action.” Coined by Thomas Eakins, this term refers to a line, either imagined or actually drawn on your paper, that indicates the overall thrust and action of the figure. The primary line of action usually runs through the entire length of the figure, from head to toe, buttressed by more specific, tributary lines of thrust that run through the individual extremities. As I move deeper into the drawing process, I concentrate on the core figure and then later move into the extremities that radiate off of it. I usually shift into the supporting limb or limbs—for instance, the legs in a standing pose or an arm if the model is leaning back in a seated position. I discussed the head and neck in one of my previous Drawing articles, so now I will concentrate on the structure and gestural rhythms found in the arms and legs.

Drawing, Standing Nude by Pierre-Paul Prudhon
Standing Nude
by Pierre-Paul Prudhon, charcoal
heightened with white chalk on blue
paper, 24 x 13¾.
Collection Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, Boston, Massachusetts.

A faint flexion line occurs
on the back of the knee
where the femur and tibia meet,
usually at the midpoint of
the overall length of the leg.

Arms and Legs
Many artists have a difficult time attaching the arms and legs onto the core figure so that the limbs seem to grow naturally out of the torso in a secure, believable manner. There is an easy solution that will sound so elementary you may not want to accept it—give it a try anyway. In your mind’s eye, visualize the core figure as if it were a doll with its arms and legs removed, leaving empty, ovallike crosssections where the limbs should attach. Then imagine the arms and legs attaching into the empty slots. This will help you visualize the relationship of the limbs to the torso’s big planes. In the arm’s case, it is firmly rooted into the torso’s side plane, not hovering outside the chest as some people like to draw the upper limbs. The arm slides deep into the core figure and is embraced by “the shoulder girdle,” with the pectorals in the front; the shoulder plane, collarbones, and deltoids above; and the muscles of the shoulder blade, or scapula, behind. The arm can’t move without taking portions of the torso with it. When the arm swings forward, upward, or backward, it takes the shoulder girdle with it. Notice how the shoulder blades almost touch when both arms swing back, or how the pects and the scapula move upward when the arm does. It’s interesting to note that the scapula is unaffected by an upwardly moving arm until just before the limb begins to move above the line of the shoulder.

The arm has a great deal of mobility thanks to this shoulder girdle, but when the arm hangs parallel to the body, the limb participates in the same light patterns that govern the torso, as you can see in Indian Beggar by Georges Seurat. And when the torso’s side plane is totally in shadow, the entire arm often falls into darkness too. It’s vital to remember that arms and legs are basically cylindrical in nature, regardless of their position or the lighting situation. However, the arm and legs are not simple, smooth tubular forms. Like the torso, the arms and legs are composed of many hard, sharply turning muscles and bones that cause the limbs to corner into decisive front, side, and back planes, and split into equally decisive light and dark shapes.

You also need to be very careful when connecting the leg to the pelvis. Don’t cement the leg to the top of the hip or pelvic crest like so many artists habitually do. This high placement of the leg doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for movement in the limb. Some transitional muscles connect to the pelvic crest, but the greatest mass of the leg enters the pelvis much lower, near the halfway point of the body (I), where it has more flexibility and can pivot more freely. Like the arm, the leg is constructed on a similar cylindrical basis, subject to all the same planar and lighting effects—with one frequent exception: most often we place the light source above the model, so on a simple, standing leg, the intensity of light usually dissipates radically as it cascades down over the long length of the limb. You will find the light much brighter where the fuller mass of the upper leg turns toward the light than on the lower leg. The foot, on the other hand, often rebounds into a little more light than the lower leg because the horizontally inclined top plane of the instep faces the light more directly than any form on the vertically oriented legs. Even if you place the light low on the ground, you will usually encounter the same effect of dissipating illumination, only reversed.

Drawing, Indian Beggar by Georges Seurat
Indian Beggar
by Georges Seurat,
ca. 1878, graphite,
19 x 111/4. Private collection.

Note the shadow patterns
on the arms compared to those
of the torso.

There is nothing rigid or straight about these cylindrical arms and legs. Even so, it’s sometimes hard to see the subtle, curving line of action that runs through the limbs even when they are bent upon themselves. Look closely: the underlying bones of the extremities curve subtly, taking the muscles on a ride with them. It can take a long time for some artists to give up their preconceptions and see these slight bends that run through the limbs. In fact, when told to look for the bowing, many artists inexplicably curve the limbs in the opposite direction. Then, when they finally grasp the concept, they frequently overdo it. For instance, when drawing the lower arm suspended in midair, they will look at the muscle mass that droops below the ulna and often exaggerate its appearance, drawing the overall forearm like a piece of overcooked pasta. If this is you, and you want to avoid this effect, try visualizing the bony structure underneath the skin and muscle casing. Remember that in architectural terms, these bones of the limbs are essentially weight-bearing posts or columns. Built out of delicately refined twists and turns, the bones coil just enough to deflect the stressful effects of the body’s weight and actions outwardly away from the core of their long forms. They can’t curve too much beyond their basic columnar structure, or they will snap like a twig. Another important architectural point: Avoid the equally annoying problem of drawing the lower arms and legs too thin, leaving barely enough room for one bone, let alone the two bones that support each of the forelimbs.

If you’re having a hard time seeing any of this, put some tracing paper over one of your drawings and draw the bones underneath. See if your drawing makes sense and see if the subtly curving bones will fit your drawing without “breaking the bones” to make them fit a faulty shell. Many artists loathe this exercise—until they look at the anatomical sketches by Michelangelo, Leonardo, and the studies for The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault. They were Old Masters, not rank amateurs. That’s why they understood the need to return to the bones when necessary. They knew that you sometimes have to build from the inside structure and work your way outward to find a better understanding of the surface forms and rhythms.

Drawing, Harry Seated, Hands Clasped by Dan Gheno

Harry Seated, Hands Clasped
by Dan Gheno, 2006, colored pencil
and white chalk on
toned paper, 24 x 18.

As you can see from the
example of Michelangelo’s Studies for Haman,
it’s helpful to compare
one body part to another to gauge
the proportions of the figure.
But don’t become an unthinking
abuser of proportional guidelines,
particularly when observing the
figure from a foreshortened point of view.
Trust your eyes—measure each body
part against the head. Then
measure each limb section freshly
against each other as they appear
at the moment to your eye, not
according to a preconceived canon.

Action and Movement
There are a lot of muscular and skeletal parallels between the arms and legs. But the legs present a much more dynamic and rhythmic silhouette, especially when viewed from a side view. The leg bones don’t curve any more than the arm bones. In fact, one of the lower leg bones, the fibula, is straighter and doesn’t swivel like its counterpart in the arm, the radius. But due to the massive, overlying muscles, the legs display a more dramatic back-and-forth visual relationship. On the upper leg, the larger muscles sit on the front, while in the lower leg, the more massive muscles sit on the backside, creating alternating swellings that gracefully shift from the front to the back. Even the bones participate in this setback of forms. When looking at the leg from the front, notice how the upper leg bone, the femur, angles inward, while the lower leg bones, the tibia and fibula, shoot downward in a more vertical manner. With the muscles fuller at the outside of the lower leg, this gives the impression that the lower aspect of the leg is set back, slightly to one side of the upper leg. The result is a springlike structure that acts as a shock absorber when we walk. Visually, this canted effect between the upper and lower leg becomes highly accentuated in an action pose when the figure is off balance or running. There are a lot of helpful analogies between the human form and our four-legged friends to guide our understanding. Since animals depend more on the speed of their legs for flight or fight, the zigzag shock absorber aspect of their limbs is much more extreme and extends all the way through their toes. It is not as dramatic as in an animal, but the springlike action of the human leg likewise continues down into our feet, through the arch of the foot and the toes, which swing upward and then downward as if they are grabbing the ground for dear life.

In your pursuit of anatomical and structural knowledge, don’t ignore the dynamic effects of movement on the human form. This means, if you decide to change the position or gesture of the hand or foot, you must alter the entire arm or leg as well. Stand in front of a mirror and try to move your foot inward without at least slightly bowing your leg outward. You will even feel the twist pulling all the way up on your hip.

Putting It All Together
As the previous examples demonstrate, you cannot study the parts of the figure without looking at its totality. How do we arrange everything into an organized, proportionate, fluid whole? First, I begin my sketch in an improvisational manner, trusting my gut and eyes as I rough it in. Then, like many artists, I usually employ the head as my unit of measurement, judging it against the entire body and each major body part. After I’ve established that the parts work with the head, I countermeasure on a larger level by evaluating the major body parts against one another. To keep the confusion to a minimum, I look for body parts that are, on average, nearly equal in their measurements. I usually follow a checklist, first comparing the upper arm against the lower arm, then the upper leg against the lower leg and eventually each separate leg section against the torso. Don’t be surprised if you have a hard time isolating the limbs into easily measurable, equal upper and lower segments. For the arm, try to visualize it beginning at the shoulder and ending at the knuckles of the hand. On the back of the arm, you will generally find the midpoint at the elbow. On the front side of the arm, you will usually find the midpoint at that large protrusion on the inner side of the arm, called the epicondyle of the humerus (the culprit that causes the funny tingling feeling after you’ve hit it). For the leg, think of it beginning at the hipbone and ending at the base of the heel. You will usually find the halfway point of the leg just below the kneecap or patella (P) on a front view; and on the back, located behind at the faint flexion line (see Prud'hon's Standing Nude) on the back of the knee. Both of these leg segments are very similar in length to the vertical distance that spans between the iliac crest and the collarbone—a particularly useful set of measurements when drawing a seated pose (see Prud'hon's Female Nude Study. All of these body parts are well balanced with one another, as you’ve probably already noticed if you practice yoga. Many of its parts are capable of folding neatly into one another, with the arms and legs able to evenly tuck into themselves and the torso into the limbs (see Michelangelo's Studies for Haman). As always—and I can’t emphasize it enough—this canon of measurements is only a jumping-off point, giving you a place to start and something specific to base your judgments against. While looking at the model, ask yourself where the figure and its parts deviate from the so-called norm.

Drawing, Female Nude Study by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon
Female Nude Study
by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, 1809,
chalk on blue paper, 23¼ x 12½.
Collection Pierpont Morgan Library,
New York, New York.

Trust Your Eyes
I can only offer the briefest of overviews in this article and perhaps provide you with the incentive to continue your studies on your own. But even with all the many great anatomy books that you can turn to, it’s not enough to just work mindlessly from charts and texts—do your own research from life and make the anatomical charts real to your eyes and mind. Carry a small anatomy book with you when you go to a sketch class or when you work in your own studio from the model. Refer to the book as soon as you discover a lump on the body that you don’t recognize and can’t identify from your previous studies.

However, remember the most important lesson you can learn from this series as you draw: Trust your eyes! Don’t fall into the trap that tripped up many lecturers who mindlessly recited Roman-era texts on anatomy as they dissected human cadavers for their students in the pre- and early-Renaissance era. Researched by the great anatomist Galen of Pergamum when it was illegal to dissect humans, these texts were based on the dissection of animals, mostly pigs and sometimes chimps. Everyone in the lecture hall, including the lecturer, could see that the words didn’t always match what their eyes saw. Unfortunately, for too many years, they trusted the text instead. How many people died in these early times because doctors didn’t trust their eyes? Don’t let one of your drawings perish because you trusted a book, instead of your own sight.

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