Every few years or so I like to spend a few months reviewing my knowledge of anatomy which forms the basis of my figure drawing. Starting from the head down to the feet I test my knowledge by sketching all the bones and muscles in the human body.
I think it is imperative to be able to draw any human figure from imagination if need be. If you can find good reference so much the better but you cannot be reliant on it. These days of course reference is abundant and free…you search the big G for “man bending over to kiss woman’s heel” and there is the photo or even video, with or without the original creator’s permission. Previously the model for such a subject was simply not available so you’d draw from imagination. A reference though will only provide an indication to work from. Unless you thoroughly understand what you are drawing you might slavishly copy the outlines but it will fail to look convincing, distortions that the camera might make will not be understood and the drawing will look inexplicably wrong .
So how do you learn to draw human figures? By studying human anatomy -there is no way round it. The books that were published when I started learning many years ago were and are still of varying degrees of usefulness. My all-time favourite is “Figure Drawing” by Richard G. Hatton (1904). I foolishly lent and never got back my original hardback but still have a now well-thumbed paperback Dover reprint.
Other books will teach you basic proportions but I found most rather lightweight and insufficiently detailed. There is a recent vogue for books teaching you how to draw figures in Anime style or superheroes. I am no fan of either but I think it is necessary to be able to draw figures as they are first, then modify the features afterwards to a style rather than pursuing the style first.
On no account attempt to learn artistic anatomy from a medical textbook. This will not distinguish which parts of the body are relevant to figure drawing. You’ll only get distracted by features that have no relation to what an artist needs to know, and may even imagine you have “every ailment except Housemaid’s knee”.
Figure drawing at art college often involved a human skeleton with an amusing name like Harry. We mused whose bones he might have been in life before he was hung up for our benefit. It was useful to examine his bones to understand their form so he may be reassured his bequest to us was not in vain.
One development I recently discovered, which would have been very useful when I was first studying, are apps that allow you to see muscle insertions and skeletons at any angle by rotating a 3D model. One in particular -Visible Body -is highly commendable.
I recommend these however as adjuncts to an explanatory book or website to further elucidate what is not so readily understandable in print.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourite figure artists – Watteau, 1684 – 1721. A consummate French draughtsman equal to many of the Renaissance artists but a greater lover of female beauty and more delicate.