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Top 5 Dos and Don’ts of Drawing Anatomy

Drawing Anatomy for Beginners, Learning the Ins and Outs

When it comes to learning how to draw people successfully, knowing human anatomy is key. Jeff Mellem, artist and author of How to Draw People, shares the top dos and don’ts of drawing anatomy for beginners so you can start drawing more realistic figures in no time. Enjoy!

How to Draw People | Drawing Anatomy for Beginners: Top 5 Dos and Don’ts by Jeff Mellem | Artists Network

Figure Drawings excerpted from “How to Draw People” by Jeff Mellem

1. Don’t think like an anatomy book

Drawing anatomy for beginners can feel overwhelming at first because there are so many muscles on the body. When you’re looking at a model and you see a lot on bumps, you might be tempted to pull out an anatomy book to decipher what’s going on under the skin.

An anatomy book is great at telling you what you’re looking at but it’s not very helpful at telling you the three-dimensional shape of the muscles.

Do think in simple volumes

When you first approach figure drawing, you need to start out with establishing the basic volumes of the figure using spheres, boxes and cylinders. By simply beginning with these basic shapes and then building up the complexity as you go along, you will be able to make your drawing maintain it’s sense of dimension.

If you copy contours before you build in the structure, I guarantee you’ll end up with a flat-looking drawing.

Muscles | Drawing Anatomy for Beginners: Top 5 Dos and Don’ts by Jeff Mellem | Artists Network

The drawing on the left overemphasizes the model’s muscles and it looks more like an anatomy book than a figure. An artist needs to think about the 3D shape of the muscles to give the figure an illusion of volume.

The Takeaway:

Use an anatomy book to understand what’s below the surface but think about each muscle in 3D. Don’t draw the muscles as a series of lines. Draw them as sculpted spheres, boxes and cylinders.

With that being said, you don’t always have to actually draw spheres and boxes on the page. If you look at an artist like Harry Carmean you can see that while he sometimes is only drawing counters of the body, he is clearly thinking about the 3D qualities of what he’s drawing.

2. Don’t make muscles the focus

When artists first start paying closer attention to adding anatomy to their drawings they often have a tendency to overemphasize the anatomy. The figures often end up looking like they have no skin. The muscles are there to add more realism to the figure, but they shouldn’t be the focal point of the drawing.

Do use muscles to reinforce the action

The focus of a drawing should convey an action, an emotion or the subject’s personality. You don’t want a viewer to stop and look at the parts of your drawing; you want the viewer to see the whole figure and be interested in what that figure is doing and who he or she is.

In order to maintain focus on the action it’s always a great practice to start all your drawings with a gesture drawing. A gesture drawing serves as a blueprint for the action. Everything that comes after is to help clarify and enhance that action.

The muscles should be drawn to amplify the movement of the figure and shouldn’t draw attention to themselves. A good example of this is comic book characters that have exaggerated anatomy to convey their strength.

A successful comic book page isn’t about the character’s muscles but about how that character’s power is being expressed in the story. The volumes of the muscles are designed to lead the eye through the body toward a point of action. The reader isn’t stopping to look at the character’s well-developed musculature.

Gesture Drawing | Drawing Anatomy for Beginners: Top 5 Dos and Don’ts by Jeff Mellem | Artists Network

Notice how the muscles in the figure on the right reflect the gesture drawing on the left. The muscles are used to reinforce the figure’s action, they aren’t the focus of the drawing.

The Takeaway:

Anatomy is there to add realism but it’s less important then conveying the action and attitude of the whole figure.

3. DON’T draw every figure with the same shapes

When artists start using basic shapes to develop figures they often start to fall into a pattern of using the same shapes to build every figure.

DO observe and adapt to your figures unique build

When you’re building your figure you have to look and adapt your shapes to the specific subject you’re drawing. You’re not going to use the same shapes for a bodybuilder that you would a sumo wrestler or a long distance runner.

You have to look at your subject and figure out what simple shapes are the best tools to develop your figure. For example, some people have very squarish heads which needs to be constructed from box shapes while others have a more roundish appearance that should be built from spheres.

Shapes in Figure Drawing | Drawing Anatomy for Beginners: Top 5 Dos and Don’ts by Jeff Mellem | Artists Network

These two figures are in the same pose but are built from different shapes. The figure on the right is built from more block shapes and it gives the figure a sturdier feeling.

The Takeaway:

Don’t approach every figure with a formula. Instead, observe and adapt your shapes to fit your subject.

4. DON’T copy what you see

If you only copy what you see you will never create what you imagine. I never saw the point of replicating a photo in a drawing beyond being an exercise to build observational skills. Why duplicate what already exists when you can interpret and adapt as you see fit?

DO recreate what you see on the page

Observational skills are important but not just for copying what you see. Use your observational skills to analyze your subject’s unique shapes so you can reinterpret it on the page. That means you aren’t copying counters of the body. Instead you’re recreating a figure on the page from the ground up.

You start by capturing its movement in a gesture, rebuild the figure three-dimensionally using basic spheres, boxes and cylinders, and then sculpt those simple shapes into anatomical forms. This is a very different process than just replicating what you see.

You’re combining what you see with your 3D knowledge of anatomy to recreate the figure on the page. This will not only help you to develop drawing that have a sense of mass but also will allow you to adapt and modify the figure to create something new.

3D Shapes | Drawing Anatomy for Beginners: Top 5 Dos and Don’ts by Jeff Mellem | Artists Network

This is just a fun drawing to help illustrate that you need to understand the 3D shapes of a figure and then you can reassemble them on the page. This is a different way of thinking than just copying the contours you see.

The Takeaway:

The job of an artist isn’t to replicate what he or she sees. It is to interpret what he or she understands. When drawing a figure, you bring in your knowledge of anatomy and volume to draw a figure rather than just copying contours and values.

5. DO pay attention to proportions and anatomy

To draw a realistic figure, you need to pay attention to accurately capture the figure’s proportions and anatomy. This comes from both studying anatomy and having good observational skills.

DON’T be overly rigid.

Anatomy and proportion are important. But alone, they don’t make for an interesting drawing. A figure drawing that feels like it has personality or appears dynamic is going to be more interesting than one that it technically correct.

Let the anatomy and proportion take a supporting role to the underlying gesture drawing. Every step of your drawing should be to create a unified figure that has energy and attitude even if that means altering the figure’s proportions or anatomy to better emphasize that action.

Proportions | Drawing Anatomy for Beginners: Top 5 Dos and Don’ts by Jeff Mellem | Artists Network

This figure has exaggerated proportions – similar to those used in fashion drawing. It doesn’t matter that it’s not correctly proportioned if the decision to exaggerate is purposeful. You can find many examples of artists who distort and exaggerate proportions for stylistic reasons.

The Takeaway:

Drawing great anatomy helps artists create realistic-looking figures that appear to have actual mass and volume. However, the anatomy needs to add to the sense of movement of the figure and not distract from it. You must have the skill to be able to draw the muscles in 3D in order to modify and adapt the shapes and emphasize the movement and personality of your subjects.

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