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Endless Anatomy Quest: Let’s Get Muscular

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I have a name for my anatomy post series! I’ve decided to call it “Endless Anatomy Quest.” (EAQ for short) The more I keep learning about anatomy, the more there is to know. It’s like cracking open a book, only to find 10 more books nested inside, but that’s part of what makes it so intriguing 🙂

I’ve been keeping a regular practice of an hour of anatomy studies every morning. There is no better way that I’ve found to start internalizing this stuff seriously, especially when it comes to musculature – the real meat of the subject!

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As I’ve been learning the major muscle groups, one thing I’ve found very helpful is a technique called “muscular translation.” Basically, it’s a drawing that utilizes a muscle overlay to see what the muscles are doing and how they build up and wrap around form.

I refer to a lot of different books while I’m doing this, but the really heavy hitter has been “Atlas of Anatomy”  by Stephen Rogers Peck. My copy is so dog-eared the pages are falling out of the binding – that’s how often I use it.

Another tool that has been incredibly useful is the iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil using the app Procreate. The iPad pro makes these muscular studies so much easier, allowing me to draw on the tablet with a couple of books nearby on my desk. I can use the layers feature to quickly toggle back and forth between the regular drawing and the muscular overlay. I remember back in art school that we had to use tracing paper to get this result and it was flimsy, fragile and painstaking. Not so with digital media!

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Another practice I’ve been keeping up with are my internalization studies in which I draw anatomy from memory. These drawings are inherently less sexy – they’re done in around 20 minutes each and I really focus on trying to get large pieces of information correctly placed with them. After I’ve finished, I compare my drawing to an accurate version to “spellcheck” and see if I remembered details correctly. This spellchecking process is so valuable that I have started to apply it to any anatomical element that I have trouble with.

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A troublesome piece of anatomy for me happened to be the forearm. The thing about the forearm is that it has the ability to twist almost 360 degrees from its axis at the elbow, a range of motion unique to this limb. Imagine your arm is bent 90 degrees at the elbow. The anatomical term “supine” describes the arm with the hand facing upwards as though you are holding a cup of water in it. The anatomical term “prone” describes the arm with the hand facing downwards as though you are going to pat something on a horizontal surface. The range of motion between these two positions is the twisting action.

The fact that it can twist like this means that if you want to study the arm fully, there are not just four views of the arm (front, back, left, right). There are actually eight possible views of the arm! (front – supine, front – prone, back – supine, back – prone, left -supine, left – prone, right – supine, right – prone).

This aspect is what makes arms and forearms one of the most complex moving parts of the human body, second only to hands. How the heck do you go about internalizing that kind of complexity?

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Something that I found helpful was to make studies of the arm in every position with an accompanying outline of the figure. One position that is really tricky is the “interior” view. If we were looking at the right arm, this angle is from the left side.

The best way to visualize this is to think of the body as though we have X-rayed through it, but stopped just where the arm starts to branch off of the torso at the deltoid muscle. Once I thought about the X-ray analogy some more, it really started to make sense

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From this point, I go back to drawing the arm anatomy from memory, thinking deeply about how the arm twists in every position. I’m pretty satisfied with front view, so I will be turning to others shortly 🙂

Visualizing in three-dimensional space and really thinking about the interior of forms is a big part of what makes anatomy so useful for artists. Most beginners focus on outlines – the outline of a nose, the outline of the eye, etc. But the only way those outlines work is if the interior – the anatomy – is correct and believable!