Drawing Basics: Mixed Bag of Anatomy Inspiration

Peter Kelsey ecorche figure drawing
Peter Kelsey's cast drawing of the male torso.

Hey fellow artists! Drawing anatomy seems overwhelming to me sometimes, but if I focus on strategies for HOW to learn it, it starts to seem doable.

Here are a few tips I learned from a recent article written by Dan Gheno in Drawing magazine:

Peter Kelsey's ecorche drawing of the leg.
Peter Kelsey's ecorche drawing of the leg.

-Learn the derivation of the words used to name the muscles and bones. The example that comes to mind is the muscle groups called the brachii, referring to “arm” in Latin. In a way knowing theses words can open your mind to visual implications. Arms aren't just arms–they are limbs, branches, cylindrical shapes.

-Don't try to absorb everything at once. Start with learning where the muscles attach to the bones. That makes it easier to learn the relationship of a particular bone to a particular muscle. After all, it is the muscles that move bones. Specific bones move when specific muscles contract.

For me, another good tool for me is a physical therapy book The Anatomy of Movement, by Blandine Calais-Germain. It discusses both muscles and bones as they relate to movement, and is used by my physical therapist (and now me!). It's helpful to keep motion in mind when drawing the figure because you can make the drawing more dynamic if you incorporate hints of motion as opposed to something completely still.

Jason Espey's figure drawing of the male back.
Jason Espey's figure drawing of the male back.

Another essential way that I've learned anatomy is to actually draw the form (over and over again!). And there are different ways to do this. In Peter Kelsey's ecorche drawings, he shows the musculature of the torso and leg. The drawings were done from white plaster casts using charcoal and red and white chalk. He took time to light the casts so that the light clearly revealed the form of the muscles. In executing the drawings, he constantly walked around the casts to see how the muscles overlay each other and how they related to each other in space.

Jason Espey went a different route when drawing figures and making a body drawing by sketching the back torso of a live model. Done in vine charcoal, he finished this in less than an hour and drew it for students during an anatomy class. He focused on the torso, with emphasis on the muscles–much like Jason did–to reinforce their shape and position.

Not that I “know” anatomy at this point, but I do find these sorts of tools so helpful to learning it. What about you? Do you have thoughts or examples about ways to learn anatomy that you would like to share?


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5 thoughts on “Drawing Basics: Mixed Bag of Anatomy Inspiration

  1. In the life drawing classes I had we started with many gesture drawings and indications of main action lines before ever moving on to any fully modeled renderings of the figure. Everyone has a slightly different way of approaching life drawing, but if memory serves, the next step was indicating the planes of the form, as the Epsey drawing above seems to be doing. I think observing the movement of people in daily activities is as helpful as rote learning of the terminology of the anatomy. The Latin is good to know, but just really seeing how people move and how the form behaves in movement and at rest is the key.

  2. Hi, wonderful article! Thank you so much for publishing it! I really like the idea of using a physical therapy book to study the muscular system. I’d like to make note of a minor edit in the spelling of Jason’s name. The artists’ last name is Espey (a common error). I look forward to reading more of you articles.

  3. Dear Tiny Abode: Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed the anatomy discussion, and that Jason’s name was spelled incorrectly. If you are interested in looking at anatomy from an artists perspective, anther good book is Anatomy Trains, by Thomas M. Myers. It comes with a DVD. I find the discussion part particularly interesting., although admittedly there are some chapters that I don’t find helpful from an artist’s perspective. It spends a good deal of time on muscle function, and shows how the bones move when the muscles move in drawings. There are also cadaver muscle photos if that is something you are interested in. I
    hope to have more of Jason’s and Peter’s work in the future so stay tuned.
    Thanks again for reviewing the article and adding your insights.

  4. Dear Kisu:

    It sounds like you have a great deal of experience drawing in various medium, so you probably know from experience that the names of the muscles may not help you. Anatomy is after all only one means to an end. You are of course right that the ultimate need is to be able to see the motion of the body. Do you happen to have a drawing you might want to share with me at judithslr@cox.net? I would love to see one.
    For me, on the other hand, I find it quite useful. Just last week, I was struggling with two protrusions on the neck of a Master cast. My instructor Robin Dawn Frey suggested I look at an anatomy book. I did and discovered that the two protrusions were part of the same muscle, at opposite ends. Only then did what I was seeing make sense.
    There is the risk of becoming an anatomist rather than an artist, I suppose, but for me that’s a risk I’m willing to take!!
    Best, Judith St.Ledger-Roty
    Thanks for reading the blog and taking the time to comment.