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Saturday, September 18, 2010


When I went to college, there were 2 teachers charged with teaching anatomy to freshmen, and they had very different schools of thought about it. One teacher had a textbook approach to making students memorize body parts. I'm glad I had Mr. Larrabee instead. We drew from models, then located the bones and muscles in our drawings. I found this extremely helpful because prior to this I had only thought about the outside skin of the people I drew. This technique did a lot to flatten my ego about how well I thought I could draw at that time, but it also made me a much better artist.

Anatomy class gave me heart palpitations at first. I stopped in my tracks and did the "uh, uh, uh" the first time I saw a naked woman smoking outside of class. My suburban/rural upbringing must've been obvious because she rather casually put on her robe while I tried to scrape my jaw off the ground. She didn't bother to tie it though. My 17-year-old self will never forget her sagging breasts, stretch marks, and C-section scar. At that age I didn't really understand gravity, and I'm pretty sure the stretch marks and scar promoted my feelings about proper use of contraceptives. Later on, I laughed when I saw new crops of freshmen staggering in shock of their first naked models. I wonder if teachers ever get tired of seeing freshmen at their first anatomy class?

I think a lot of people never get to live that memorable moment or learn basic anatomy. Here are some basic rules to live by, and I think they apply no matter what style an artist is working in...

1. Arms and legs have straight bones inside of them. Okay, if you really want to get into it, there's 2 major bones in the forearm, and 2 in the calf, but let's stick with the basic principle. If you're trying to draw something that looks vaguely human, you should be able to draw straight lines from shoulder to elbow, elbow to wrist, hip to knee, and knee to ankle. In other words, avoid breaking bones in your subjects.

2. We've gotten used to distortions in photos, but viewers are less forgiving when they look at art. If a leg looks small in a reference photo, does it look like a deformity in your drawing? If you're going to make a hand huge, do it on purpose because it's aimed at the viewer. In general, body parts should look like they belong on the same body.

3. Avoid cutting off hands, feet, arms, and legs with the edge of the picture. Doing so makes your subject look like they've had an amputation. It makes people uncomfortable, even if that discomfort is on a subliminal level. Especially avoid blunt crops at joints, and show both arms and/or legs when it makes sense to show them. Otherwise the absence of a limb can also look like an amputation.

4. Muscles are convex, meaning they bulge out. They never curve in. Think of a bicep. Every muscle acts the same way, just on a lesser scale. And remember, the muscles attach to the bones inside. Imagine beginning and ending points for those muscles.

5. Practice makes perfect. Find people and pictures to study. Get an anatomy book for artists, but avoid fashion photography. That has been highly distorted in PhotoShop.

Rules were made to be broken, but if you break the rules, know what you're breaking and why. 5 rules seemed like enough for this posting, but I'd be happy to hear any other suggestions people have.

And how this ties to "acrobat"? Because basic anatomy is essential to trapeze artists, sports figures, and dodging whatever is coming your way. Both pictures are from college days. The painting is oil on canvas.


  1. Very good write up--it brought back memories of when I first started art classes; and how I would always get a second lesson from you when I was struggling with something. You were well into the field by the time I started taking art. I always considered myself lucky to have instruction in college, and to have you a "working artist" that I was able to intern for!

    I really like the oil painting, and the block of color behind the women that emphasizes her.

  2. Great post! You might not guess it from my rubber-limbed characters, but I'm a big anatomy junkie too. I love drawing from life, & I'm especially crazy about the old engravings by Vesalius & the like... I love to copy bits of them in my ink sketchbooks. Have you seen the Abrams book, Human Anatomy? It's a visual feast.

  3. @ Mary Lou, thanks! I think "your" lessons were good for me too because I got to hear about what your teachers said and remind myself of the stuff I learned in classes.

    @ Curious, thanks to you too! I love looking at the old masters and have copied some of them in my sketchbook too. I thought I had the Abrams book, but it's not on the bookshelf. I may prowl my house for the rest of the day looking for it while trying to decide if I am delusional. I also like looking at Eadweard Muybridge's photographs because they show stop action of bodies in motion.


  4. Wonderful pointers for this non-schooled girl.
    It will make me think before I put pencil to paper. I often wonder how good I might have been had I had the chance for an art education.

    I guess it's never too late ;)

  5. It's never too late! I'm glad I got to go to college, but I learned a lot on my own, at work, or out of books too. I love that we can all learn from each other with blogging.

  6. thank you for this post. is great that we can learn so much from others. i`m waiting the book anatomy for the artist/ Jeno Barcsay. i`m so happy that finally I`ll get it. Hope to learn to draw much better.

  7. Thanks Chrysallidis. Barcsay is a great book.

    Thanks for the follow Elizabeth!

  8. Hey Linda, the anatomy drawing is very delicate, very flowere like in its tones. Your story has me making big smiles on my poor cracked face :)

    I once painted a man on three separate occasions before he came in for our fourth session undraped.

    It turned out he was a woman.
    My jaw too fell to the floor - so hard it had splinters from the floor boards.

  9. Oh I forot to say I just saw your favorite movies list and thought I was seeing you 'interests' list. That was jaw dropping for a moment as well!

  10. LOL Andrew! Lots of jaws with splinters in them at anatomy class! I should probably update my favorite movies, interests, and such. I didn't put very much thought into those things. Just wrote whatever crossed my mind first.

  11. Beautifully done Linda! I find drawing people quite challenging, to say the least, and while i had some good classes in college, I wish I had a prof with the approach you experienced. Perhaps I'd be a lot more skilled and confident in my work.

  12. Thanks Steve, though as already said, it's never too late!

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