Project Structure: Research Point Anatomy

I have realized that the best way for me to tackle drawing people is to try and forget they are people, and just concentrate on blocking in the simple shapes initially. And thinking about the negative space around them and trying to concentrate on the shapes of the areas surrounding the figure often helps me make more rapid decisions on where the initial line should be (see examples of the ideas which informed me in Maslen & Southern 2011, pp. 42, 168-169, 191; Kaupelis 2010, pp. 86-89).

I have a copy of Anatomy for the Artist by Jeno Barcsay, which I have owned for some years, full of beautiful, carefully-observed scientific drawings of the human body that were used as illustrations for his lectures at the Budapest Academy of Fine Arts in the 1950s.

Barcsay states in his introduction: “Anatomy, so far as it is concerned with a knowledge of the bones and muscles of the human body, is an indispensable foundation for any artistic portrayal of human beings. Without such knowledge, it is impossible to observe with understanding the various attitudes, positions and movements of which the human body is capable, up to and including those which reflect emotion…..Even with the assistance of a trained model, one cannot paint these facial and bodily appearances if one lacks any knowledge of anatomy.”

It is certainly true that if you have a better understanding of how something is constructed, it is much easier to replicate its movements. But I haven’t yet spent dedicated study on his tome, just skimmed through the drawings and notes, as I suspect most people do. Clearly I am going to have to sit down and read it properly at some point. It is a very useful reference though, especially if you can’t quite work out why something looks wrong, as a quick check on the relevant part of Barcsay often makes it easier for me to sort this out mentally.

I really like anatomical drawings, and also similar botanical and palaeontological (my old speciality) work. They are disciplined. Last month, I finally managed to join a local art class (I’ve been applying, but only made the wait list for the last two years), and, this week, we began by drawing an imaginary window frame in pastels and, within the frame, had to insert a watercolour of our emotional impression of the St Jude’s storm (which hit the Lowlands pretty hard last week). It was to be an “abstract landscape” derived solely from our mind. I discovered that personally I found this an extremely challenging exercise, which amused the teacher (who illustrates children’s books when not teaching, so most of her work comes from within). It seems I am very much the scientist in my approach to art, I observe and draw. This is not the Dutch way, I am discovering, as they greatly value abstracts, but my teacher had lots of ideas that I could try to help me loosen up, which I hope will help improve my work as I progress. It is lovely having a real teacher to talk to again, even if my Dutch is limited.

I read that the bible for anatomy for the artist is Paul Richter’s Victorian era work, updated by Hale; this I haven’t seen, except as clips online. I read somewhere long ago that Richter worked with the mentally ill, and that there was a line of thought at the time that if a doctor confronted these patients with pictures or photographs of them in the throes of their illness, then viewing themself was medicinal and might effect a cure. So, Richter was first interested in art from the medical side, but later came to lecture on anatomy for artists.

As well as a range of beautiful drawings, especially the gestural pictures at the end, there are a lot of useful tips summarized inside the Bracsay book, as it explains how Leonardo Da Vinci suggested the rules for body proportions (via his Vitruvian man, see URL, including using the length of the face as a unit of measure for the body, and later, Durer (in his Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion; four books on human proportions) measured the body in terms of the length of the whole head.  It then proceeds to explain that Richter made masses of measurements to quantify these rules more accurately, and thus stated that the body length was equivalent to 7.5 head lengths; there are some useful diagrams in Barcsay for setting the basic proportions of a standing figure, which I believe were originally published by Richter. There is also a great Youtube video summarizing all these body proportion rules, which is well worth a look.

Of course, rules are made to be broken, and other artists have certainly deliberately messed around with these scientific principals to achieve their desired effects. For example, Van Eyck made the heads of his sitters disproportionately large, thus conveying their importance (the famous Arnolfini portrait being an example, Michaelangelo, El Greco, Raphael, and many of the sculptors of antiquity used 8 or 9 head lengths to calculate body proportions, so their figures became taller and more heroic than average. This style is called Mannerism. Medieval painters might make important figures, like Mary and Jesus, much larger than less important figures (such as a row of small angels or shepherds) in their bible story paintings, to indicate hierarchy in heaven. The blog posting is very interesting, because it shows samples of the work of artist and photographer Flora Borsi, who used Photoshop to modify real people into the proportions of the subjects of some famous paintings, inspired by a photograph of the models for American Gothic by Grant Wood standing next to the painting. Thus, the elongated elegance of Modigliani produces a rather scary woman in Borsi’s work.

For a long time, the rules of classical European painting were largely set in stone by Da Vinci and Richter. But, with the 20th century, exciting compositions layering movements into one drawing to suggest movement were introduced as artists were entranced by the moving picture photography studies of the scientists Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard James Muybridge, which they tried to copy in their art. Notable examples include Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (,_No._2) and Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash ( and Girl Running on a Balcony ( I find these particularly arresting and wonder if it is something I could attempt once I have a better fluency in figure drawing.

I also found an interesting article on physiognomy and art at Basically, this is an ancient Greek idea, that you could determine character and intelligence from the facial proportions; a Dutch artist called Camper “measured” and quantified facial angles for different types of people, which he supposedly meant as an aid to artists, but, people being people, Camper’s notes became a tool for racial discrimination. How sad, but nonetheless, another example of attempting to impose rules on body proportions that can be usefully used to inform drawing practice for beginners.

What have I learned from all this? That I need to practice first using the “rules” set out on body proportions. That I need to study anatomy in much more detail. Only once I have reached a certain level, should I try and “bend the rules”, because everything has to be grounded in some sort of reality to be believeable, even if the viewer understands the distortion. But, most importantly, I need to try and gain some sort of mastery of gesture and the negative space around the figure, as time and again it is these two aspects that primarily create the drawing.



Barcsay, J. (2008) Anatomy for the Artist. Translated edition published by Little, Brown Book Group, London, UK.

Kaupelis, R. (2010) Experimental Drawing. Thirtieth Anniversary Edition. Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, NY, USA.

Maslen, M. & Southern, J. (2011) Drawing Projects. An Exploration of the Language of Drawing. Black Dog Publishing, London, UK.


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