It’s sometimes difficult for non-artists to understand why the study of anatomy and figure drawing is so central to learning to draw and paint. The human form is the visual subject matter which, above all else, we are most familiar with. It is the scaffold which contains everything that we are. There is something innate in our knowledge of it. Facial recognition, in particular, is something which scientists think is hardwired at an evolutionary level.
Since we know our bodies so well, the human figure is one of the most unforgiving of subject matters. It is relatively easy to draw a tree or a vase and make it “believable”. Depicting the articulation of a head on the shoulders, the bones of the ankle or a figure foreshortened or in a twisting contraposto is a different matter. Our deep familiarity with how the parts of the body “work” mechanically means it is instantly obvious if something isn’t right with the depiction of the various interlocking shapes that make up a figure drawing. With something so well known to us there’s nowhere to hide!
Anatomical knowledge enables the artist to draw the body with more confidence. Here are my four favourite anatomy books.
Each book approaches the subject from a different angle. In a sense, that is what makes them particularly useful as set. The Richer book is the most purely factual of the four – focusing simply on the names, locations and functions of the bones and muscles of the body. This makes it rather a dry read, but a good studio reference manual. The Hogarth book tackles the subject from the perspective of depicting movement in the context of illustrating graphic novels. Bridgman, on the other hand, offers a constructive approach which focuses on the main structures and masses of the body. The most recently published of the four is the Simblet book, “Anatomy for the Artist”, which is the only one illustrated with colour photographs. This one is particularly useful as it has translucent pages allowing depictions of the bones and muscles to be overlaid on top of photographs of the surface form of the body.
with the sole intention of improving my eye and my hand. It’s all about the lessons I can learn from the things I tackle; the subject matter and, to a point, the aesthetic appeal of the finished product are of secondary importance. After all, few people would want a sea of moodily-lit cast drawings on their walls.
Here, though, I feel I’ve managed to get that “on the wall factor”. I can’t quite formulate into words why that is; I think probably a number of things. First is the pose itself - which has something statuesque and graceful about it. Secondly, there is a lightness of touch in the rendering, which communicates just enough without becoming “stodgy” or visually oppressive. Finally, there is a warm luminous atmosphere to it, which is so easily lost by endless reworking and adjustment.
espoused this approach over the licked finish was Sweden’s Anders Zorn. I love the energy and freedom of his brushwork and the brilliant luminosity it gives his canvases. Here are some examples:
To do either sort of painting well takes remarkable dexterity and razor-sharp observation and there are artists I admire in both camps (although Bouguereau’s subject matter is normally a bit chocolate-boxy for my tastes). As an incorrigible tinkerer with a rather lazy approach to searching out key shapes I don’t yet feel have the ability to get the immediate grasp on the subject necessary to do bravura successfully – but maybe I’ll get there some day!
Ben Laughton Smith
Contemporary works of art in the classical tradition.