Ask the Art Prof: How Would I Go About Studying the Human Figure to Improve My Drawing Skills?


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“How would I go about studying the human body in order to improve my figure drawings? I am attempting to get a better idea of how to draw poses and I think I need to learn the body from the inside out. I’m just not sure how to go about doing this.”

The human figure is likely the most complex form studied by visual artists. One of the reasons why it’s so challenging to study is because the human figure is essentially a single form that can be continually subdivided into many smaller forms, making for an extraordinarily complex system.  Depending on the person, the variations in form are infinite even though the basic structure is the same from person to person. Studying the human figure is one of the ultimate challenges of being an artist, and is an undertaking that lasts for many years.

Be sure that when you decide to study the human figure that you don’t mistake anatomical information for artistic application.  I know artists who studied anatomy down to the absolute tiniest detail, but whose figure drawings were awful because they didn’t know how to apply their knowledge to their drawings.  You could possess all of the information in the world about anatomy and still not know a thing about how to apply that knowledge in an artistic context.  Understand that it’s the combination of knowledge and application together that will lead to an artistic comprehension of the human figure.

Since the skeleton is the most deeply embedded structure of the human figure, it makes sense to start there. The most ideal situation is to have a life size, plastic skeleton model that you can directly observe.  However, if that is not an option, I recommend buying Dr. Paul Richer’s “Artistic Anatomy” book, which has good, simple drawings of the skeleton that you can draw from. There are many anatomy books out there for artists, but I have found that most of them make things more complicated than necessary and therefore make many artists overwhelmed with unnecessary information.

Artistic Anatomy, by Dr. Paul Richer

Start out by doing very simple, basic drawings that approximate the major forms of the skeleton.  Don’t let yourself fuss over every single rib or vertebrae, the larger concern is that you develop a thorough understanding of how all of the forms in the skeleton relate to each other. By doing many drawing studies of the skeleton, you’ll start to understand how all of the forms work together.

Once you have a grasp of the skeleton, it’s time to move onto other key concepts, working from a live model the whole time.  I break this up into three steps:


1) Major Masses
Major masses are essentially the largest forms on the human figure.  I recommend beginning a figure drawing by first addressing the torso, by far the largest form. The torso is where all of the limbs and the head intersect, so it’s critical to knock in the torso immediately when starting a figure drawing. The torso can then be subdivided into a rib cage and pelvis, which provides a sense of structure within the torso itself. From there, the head and thighs can be quickly added to provide more mass to the form. The limbs and the hands and feet should come in last.

2) Center line
There is an imaginary center line down the front of the torso and down the back of the torso.  On the back of the torso, the center line is easy to spot because it is basically the spine.  On the front of the torso, the center line starts at the pit of the neck, (the point in between the collarbones, aka clavicles) moves down the center of the rib cage, through the belly button down to the pubic bone on the pelvis. A center line is highly descriptive of the type of pose that is being struck by a figure.  Look at the center line when a model is posing and ask yourself what the center line is doing:  is the center line perfectly straight?  Is it twisted, is it leaning to the right or left?  If you quickly establish how the center line is behaving in your figure drawing, you’ve won half the battle.

3) Bony Landmarks
Bony landmarks are areas on the human figure where the bone is directly under the surface of the skin. These landmarks are significant because they are consistent with every single person, regardless of how large or thin they may be. When you’re looking at a model, search for these bony landmarks and indicate them in your drawing. Some bony landmarks include:  collar bones, elbows, kneecaps, ankle bones, shoulder blades, etc. Bony landmarks are considered to be details, so they should not be drawn in until the major masses and center line are well established.

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Drawing by Michelangelo depicting muscles in the shoulder area


The final stage is to seek out key muscles on the human figure that are visible on the surface.  Many muscles are hidden under other muscles, so it’s not necessary to learn every single muscle that there is on the human figure. Some examples of muscles that are visible on the surface would be the deltoids, the trapezius, the pectoralis major, the sartorius, and more. These muscles can all be seen in Dr. Paul Richer’s “Artistic Anatomy” book.  Like the skeletons, do drawings of these major muscle groups from Richer’s book to get a sense for the forms.

Between the major masses, the center line, the bony landmarks, the skeleton, and the muscles, you should be able to develop a comprehensive understanding of the human figure and it’s various forms and structures. You should be able to discern between muscle, bones, and skin in any area of the figure.

Remember, drawing the human figure is not a skill that will happen overnight. It takes years and years of disciplined practice, tons of bad drawings, and rigorous focus.  In this way, you will be able to accomplish a masterful understanding of the human figure.


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Portfolio Video Critiques for Art Students & Artists
Prof Clara Lieu offers 30 minute video critiques on 8-20 artworks for students working on a portfolio for art school admission, and for artists of any age working on their artwork. Watch a sample below, and get more info here.


ART DARES
Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories, and post select submissions on our Instagram  and other sites throughout the month. Use #artprofwip and Prof Clara Lieu might just stop by and give you some feedback! We have a special prize for art teachers who assign the Art Dare to one of their classes. More info is here.


Ask the Art Prof Live was a weekly live video broadcast on our Facebook page where Prof Clara Lieu provided professional advice for art students and professional artists. Ask the Art Prof began as a written column in 2013 and was featured in the Huffington Post from 2013-2015.  See the full archive of columns here. Prof Lieu discussed being an artist today, art technique & materials, work strategies for artists, career advice, teaching art, and more.


Related Videos
Youtube Playlist: Video Critiques on Art School Admissions Portfolios
Youtube Playlist:  How to Draw a Portrait with Charcoal and Cross-Hatching
Youtube Playlist:  Crit Quickies, 1 min. critiques on artworks


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3 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: How Would I Go About Studying the Human Figure to Improve My Drawing Skills?

  1. “One of the reasons why it’s so challenging to study is because the human figure is essentially a single form that can be continually subdivided into many smaller forms, making for an extraordinarily complex system”

    oH, I often find mysel thinking about that. I can subdivide anything and see basic forms in any thing I watch except for mountains and humans. The trick is probably include head and torso in cubes to be able to draw them correctly in 3D and focusing more in flowing gesture

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