Last fall, I started studying human anatomy seriously for the first time since I was in art school. I had a strong start, with about a month and a half of very rigorous training every morning. It was promising!
I had recently discovered the theory of “deliberate practice” from the book “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise” by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. I had decided that I wanted to ingrain the form of the human skeleton in my mind by practicing drawing it from memory every day. Essentially, the theory of deliberate practice is the idea that you can slowly gain expertise in a skill by setting up a specific goal with instant feedback for your mistakes. This instant feedback creates a loop in which you build expertise.
To my surprise, it actually worked. I practiced drawing the skeleton from memory from the front, side and back views and used trace over images to find my mistakes. Slowly but surely they were corrected and I got better at remembering the forms. And then, I went on vacation…
It happens to us all – we get a good routine going but something disrupts it, whether that’s a life event, other obligations, or laziness. My vacation disrupted my morning routine and I was unable to keep it going. But, one day I had a discovery!
It happened one day when I was working on a new painting inspired by an old reference photo. I liked the pose the model was taking but wanted her to be wearing a different outfit. This type of thing used to really fluster me because it means understanding the underlying forms of the model and using those with the new clothing.
This time though, things went much easier. I found that I was thinking about the skeletal structure behind the pose itself and that really helped me break down structurally what was going on in the figure. And it was all thanks to skeleton training!
Now I have a new appreciation for the human skeleton. One thing that makes it so incredibly useful is that the skeleton does not change all that much between individuals. Muscle tissue and fat deposits create the surface differences we see. What we see on the exterior is largely independent from that core structure of the skeleton.
Why is this so cool? Well, it means that if I understand the skeleton in a comprehensive manner, I can use it as an armature to imagine any kind of figure. It’s the foundation that everything else rests upon.
One thing that intimidated me in early on about anatomy is the sheer complexity of it all. Muscles intertwine and attach at complicated points. Different bumps on the surface can be misleading especially because they mean different things on different individuals in regards to their body type. And there’ s a ton of complicated latin names for EVERYTHING. The enormity of it all almost makes you feel like you can never know enough to do a decent job… but the truth is, we’re all learning, all the time. No one knows everything and in this case, I just want to be able to imagine poses better.
It’s one reason artists often refer to “landmarks”, or places where the skeleton’s structure is visible on the surface. We can understand certain features as “landmarks” but there is actually only a handful of them. Stan Proko breaks them down pretty efficiently in a post on his drawing blog here.
So, here I am back to my daily skeleton drawing practice. It is pretty much the same: draw the skeleton from memory, then analyze and correct mistakes.
Now, though I have a new goal: to understand the skeletal structure from a large variety of viewpoints in order to better imagine poses.
The problem with a lot of anatomy books is that they cover very basic views: front, back, side. But what about all the other ways the skeleton can look? I want to eventually be able to draw it in any position, from any angle in order to create better poses for my illustrations. I want to be able to recall it so that I can use it as a springboard for any figure doing anything.
I realized a needed a skeleton I could turn around and then work on memorizing those states. I found this great website, https://human.biodigital.com/explore , for medical students learning anatomy that features a turn around human for free. What an amazing resource!
With this 3D model, I am able to get really unusual viewpoints of the skeleton and I can use them as instant feedback for memorization studies. I eventually want to work up to skeletons doing other things: walking, jumping, sitting. I haven’t found 3D models for those yet, but I am on the hunt. I can’t wait to share further discoveries with you!