Do You Need to Study Anatomy in Order to Draw the Human Figure?

by David Clayton on June 8, 2012

Or…do you need to see people in the nude in order to paint them with their clothes on?

In commenting on recent article someone based what they were saying on an assumption that in order to paint the human figure well, the artist needs to understand anatomy. He was referring to a naturalistic drawing method in which the artist painted a portrait by going through a process, in his mind if not directly on paper, of establishing first the positions of the skeleton, then  the muscle groups on the skeleton, then the skin is placed  over this and finally, if the figure was to be clothed, put clothes on him. There is a drawing method that is based on a process something like this. I have not studied it deeply, but was told that this is descended from the methods of Michelangelo. However, it is not necessary to do this. There is a method that is based solely upon training the eye to see well and the artist to represent what he sees. This is the method that can be traced back, some say, to Leonardo and Alberti. In this second method there is not need to understand how the human figure is made up anatomically, one simply paints what one sees. Great exponents of this method from the past have been to name just a few Velazquez, Van Dyck, Joshua Reynolds, John Singer Sargent. This is the method that is taught in the atelier that I attended in Florence, Charles H Cecil Studios and the one that Paul Ingbretson teaches at his Ingbretson Studio in Manchester, New Hampshire. Students from Thomas More College of Liberal Arts learn to draw at Ingbretson Studio.

So, to answer the question above, if one learns the Leonardo method and trains one’s eye, if you the end goal is to paint someone clothed, there is no need to paint or even imagine them in the nude in the process…thank goodness.

There is an excellent essay about the history of this method, as it was taught at the Cecil Studios in Florence, written by Nick Beer, who used to teach there (perhaps he still does?) an has his own teaching studio in Salisbury, England called Sarum Studio. His essay is here. In it he describes the method, called’ sight-size’ and traces the history of it from the 15th century through to the present day.

All paintings shown are by the English artist Sir Thomas Lawrence.

 

 

 

 

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Lawrence June 8, 2012 at 9:28 am

I think the difference is that if you have a model you are painting from, and have properly trained your eye and hand, then no you do not need to have studied anatomy. However; if do not have a model and are trying to create a believable human figure, a study of anatomy is quite useful.
I had a teacher who claimed you cannot depict a believable figure without a model. I am still not sure I agree with this but I suppose it depends on what you mean by “believable.”

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David Clayton June 12, 2012 at 5:50 am

This is an interesting point, thank you.
I suppose that I see it as follows, in the end good artists are always modifiying what is seen in order to produced a unified image and also to paint scenes that cannot be set up with models – and there are many. I feel that experience at drawing and painting will allow the artist to do this well. The artist will not be able to make this jump to painting beyond what is seen if he is bound completely to painting the visual form and totally detached in his mind from what it is he is painting – in order to show an arm he must remember lots of arms that he has drawn in the past and relate that to what an arm is. The question in my mind is whether or not this needs an in depth study of anatomy and in particular the nude in order to be able to do this. I think not.

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William O'Connor June 8, 2012 at 11:14 am

David,
There are two questions posed at the beginning of your blog. It would seem that the answer to the first is “yes” and the answer to the second is “no”.
While different schools emphasize different approaches, both Sargent and Leonardo had great understanding of anatomy, gained not only through direct observation, but also specific study (Sargent wrote of his anatomy and figure drawing classes as a student in Paris, and Leonardo, it is reported, dissected cadavers). Van Dyck also must have had an understanding of anatomy, so as to paint horses as he did (they certainly couldn’t have held their pose).
I guess it does depend on your end goal, as you point out in the article. All of the artists you mention demonstrate both an understanding of anatomy and a keen eye. The approaches complement one another, and even make possible a painting whose human subjects are in poses that a model would be hard pressed to maintain.
-Bill

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David Clayton June 12, 2012 at 6:12 am

You’re right William. The two aren’t absolutely identical. there are ways of considering anatomy that don’t need nude modelling. Thanks.
In a blog, hurriedly written (I’m afraid) I didn’t distinguish clearly enough. I think I would say rather than Yes and No, its ‘possibly sometimes’ and ‘no’. Even in icon painting, we do not do any formal study of anatomy but by feeling, for example, our noses just by feeling the bone and the cartelidge. However, when I studied sight-size, we were never asked to consider the subject at all in our critiques.

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Lisa Andrews June 8, 2012 at 11:46 am

Hello, David.

Fundamentally, I agree with your statement that one does not NEED to study anatomy to paint the clothed human figure. I have studied the sight-size method as taught at the Florence Academy of Art, as well as drawing and form painting as taught by Anthony Ryder. But I can tell you that after completing Andrew Ameral’s Ecorche class in which we studied and sculpted a clay ecorche figure from skeleton to muscle, I now have an understanding of the human form that has changed the way I see it. You mentioned a method traced back to Leonardo and Alberti whereby “one simply paints what one sees”. If you don’t understand what you are looking at, or don’t see it at all, how can you paint it truthfully? In “Della Pittura” (1435), Leon Battista Alberti promoted the comprehensive study of anatomy to convey the truthful depiction of the human figure as it exists in nature. And we all are familiar with the detailed anatomical studies of Leonardo.

Maybe we don’t NEED to study anatomy to convey a realistic image. But it is worth doing if it will enhance our artistic abilities. Just as architects and musicians (and writers) benefit from knowledge of underlying structures, representational visual artists should not cut corners on this important component of their craft. It is better for me to have the freedom to consciously enhance or eliminate elements to accomplish my artistic goal than to be satisfied with ignorance of the structure of form.

Which brings me to a final thought: why would I want to “thank goodness” that I would not have to imagine the human form in all its natural beauty? As an artist, I do not fear contemplating the Incarnation; I am elevated by it.

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David Clayton June 12, 2012 at 6:08 am

Hi Lisa
THere are two points here; is it necessary in the training? And is it desirable even if not necessary? You agree with the article on the first point. As regards the second, I think this is a debatable point that needs more complex discussion. I realise that it’s my fault for opening up the subject without fully discussing it in the first place so I understand your reacting to my throw away comment:
One the one hand the Church has taught that mankind is the most beautiful of God’s creatures in the material world. And in his Theology of the Body as I understand it (I have only read the Christopher West summarisation) John Paul II did ask artists to reveal human sexuality as gift by focussing particularly on the ideal of Original Man.
However, if it were as simple as this it would condone general nudity in everday life. We live in a fallen world and we are not Orginal Man, but Historical, or fallen, Man. As a general rule wearing clothes is desirable because they tend to restore the dignity of Original Man lost by Historical Man at the Fall (there is a good article by Erik Petersen called a Theology of Clothes published by Communio on this). In this sense they do not hide something, but reveal something. This is why we wear clothes in everyday life. The passions are involuntary reactions and the artist is not a special person who is less subject to the passions than others so we should take care; also, I do not accept for a moment that you need to see a nude model in order to contemplate the Incarnation.
These are some the things that need to be considered inorder to arrive at the best solution to this point, I feel.
David

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David Marcoe June 14, 2012 at 6:36 am

But what of physicians, or other professions that come into close contact with the human body? There will be situations, through accident or necessity, where we will have to confront our appetites and passions, along with temptations. To respond correctly to those situations and avoid falling into temptation, we train our passions and appetites. We learn to respond with not only with the correct behavior, but also with the correct attitude.

In a manner similar to a physician examining a patient, so I suspect that an artist must also study anatomy and form, though the concern be aesthetic and not clinical. Of course, the susceptibility of individuals varies. Each of us must examine ourselves. But consider this: It is commonly acknowledged that Michelangelo was vulnerable to the temptation of homosexuality, and yet pious man that he was, he gave us works like his statue of David. He must have considered his vocation of artist important enough to master so that he could accomplish his work.

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David Marcoe June 14, 2012 at 6:37 am

correction: master himself

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David Clayton June 14, 2012 at 9:23 am

thank you for this. On what basis are you able to say that the artist is in the same situation as the physician? I can see that in some situations it is necessary for the physician to examine the patient and then we could consider what enables the physician, with God’s grace, to perform his task; but in order to draw the parallel I would say you would have to demonstrate more than you have that it is necessary for the artist to examine, so to speak, the model. That is precisely what is being debated here, and in order to assert you point you would have to contribute more that discussion, I feel. Also, the High Renaissance (including Michelangelo) is not a model I would promote for a standard of reference here. I follow Pope Benedict who gave us three authentic liturgical traditions of sacred art. The baroque was the one he cited in the naturalistic form. The High Renaissance had not achieved the integration of form and theology that came 100 years later and some cases is, in my opinion, problematic. Secondly, how widely acknowledged is it that he was homosexual? Do we really know or is this speculation?

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David Marcoe June 15, 2012 at 3:42 am

On what basis are you able to say that the artist is in the same situation as the physician?

Both may lay claim to a legitimate study anatomy, both may come into contact with the human form more intimately than in normal circumstances, both may face temptation in those circumstances, and both, theoretically, may face down that temptation successfully and make a chaste study of the human body. Necessity, then, is not the parallel. I merely used a physician as the strongest example of someone overcoming the moral hazards of their labor to do the work.

In the same vein, I used Michelangelo as an example of one who faced temptation, so a discussion of theology and form doesn’t enter into my point. But extending the example, one might make the case that the creative demands of his work would’ve necessitated study, and that retreat would’ve compromise the integrity of vision in his work, but that is a problematical argument.

I guess what it boils down to is that, while the necessity of anatomical study is being debated, I’m questioning the assumption that it need be avoided. Some simply don’t face the temptation; they aren’t “wired” that way. I worked with a self-taught illustrator–himself a Christian–who had learned anatomy from studying adult magazines (he hadn’t had access to other sources at the time) and in his case, there was nothing erotic in it for him. Others may be tempted, but successfully face it. And some simply aren’t up to the task. For them, avoiding study is better. It is an issue where self-examination, prayer, and counsel are necessary.

Finally, going back to the issue of Michelangelo, I don’t say he was homosexual, but that he was vulnerable to temptation. Besides, labeling someone categorically as “gay” or “straight” (as opposed to engaging in a certain behavior) is a modern construction anyway. As for historical evidence of all this, from what I understand, it is widely acknowledged as probable and taken as a matter of course. That being said, I haven’t done an in-depth study of the subject.

In any case, we might have a chance to discuss it later this year. I’m an incoming student to TMC. I’m looking forward to training in the St. Luke Art guild.

Dan June 14, 2012 at 9:06 am

It does take a somewhat “detached” attitude to be able to paint the nude figure, and if one has the will to concentrate on the art of the matter it is possible to keep one’s balance. Granted, our fallen nature does not necessarily make that easy.

On another point I hardly think we need to refer to a very troubled Pope’s “theology of the body” in discussing such matters. This outre “theology” is one that will, surely, be eventually condemned by the Church. It’s deleterious effects can already be seen among us.

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David Clayton June 14, 2012 at 9:19 am

I do not share your view on the future of the Theology of the Body. However, I do think that many of his interpreters who are currently doing the rounds talking about nudity in art, and using it to promote it, have got it wrong. Time will tell I gues

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jeanette April 24, 2014 at 4:57 am

An interesting discussion, I used to think Botticelli’s Venus was tops, but then I saw that her neck is too serpentine, and the arms dislocated. It became kind of ugly in my eyes after spotting the strange anatomy. I could not understand (until now) why some painters so masterful in their rendering, “spoiled” the image by distorting the anatomy of their subjects. For me, unrealistic anatomy jars the eye, and yet I can accept it in Iconographic forms, and find the simplifications sophisitcated and measured. I can honestly say that I never had sexual thoughts about the nude life models I drew or sculpted at art school, and accepted it at that time as the way art has always been studied. (not knowing there were alternatives!) I did sometimes question in my mind if it degraded the dignity of the model though. (Archbishop Fulton Sheen makes some interesting comments on nudity in his homily on the Devil.) While I understand spiritual significance implicit in the Biblical fig-leaf, (Re -Eric Peterson’s article) I agree that we live in a fallen world; Sin is in the eye of the beholder, whether the subject is clothed or no, and so for Christian artists, perhaps the virtue of Prudence in study according to his or her unique weaknesses and failings is advisable?

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David Clayton April 24, 2014 at 9:37 am

I think that especially today we should err on the side of caution

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sahar July 1, 2014 at 3:11 am

anatomy is very crucial for drawing

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David Clayton June 15, 2012 at 6:05 am

We may find someone who can provide some hard historical evidence about Michelangelo’s behaviour/tendencies (however you wish to assign them – it reads as though you are retreating into semantics somewhat). I haven’t seen any evidence myself and this always struck me that it was wishful thinking on the part of some modern comentators who would like to think that he had the modern flaws and was indulging himself by only using male models – an alternative is that as a third order Franciscan he was doing the opposite and, quite sensibly, trying to avoid temptation by avoiding the female form (which incidentally is one way of approaching the situation if we conclude that drawing the nude figure is necessary).

Re physicians/artists, the passions are involuntary and it is a dangerous road to go down to assume that anyone is not affected by what they see and not vulnerable to temptation (I have heard artists claim that their vocation means that they are not susceptible to temptation when engrossed in the process of drawing, my reaction to that is, who are you trying to kidd?). People wear clothes for a reason and we really do have to examine whether or not it is necessary to remove them. If it is not necessary for an artist to paint a nude, and we haven’t resolved that yet in this discussion, then I would say that it is preferable that he does not. It is only since the High Renaissance that the nude has been part of the training of artists and the cannon of imagery. With the influence of Christianity, it ceased in the classical world. (We devote a class to this discussion so you can have your say next year!).

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David Clayton June 16, 2012 at 5:13 am

We may find someone who can provide some hard historical evidence about Michelangelo’s behaviour/tendencies (however you wish to assign them – it reads as though you are retreating into semantics somewhat). I haven’t seen any evidence myself, but I admit I haven’t been interested enough in him to do much research. This assertion about his being homosexual always struck me as wishful thinking on the part of some modern comentators who would like to think that he had the modern flaws and was indulging himself by only using male models – an alternative is that as a third order Franciscan he was doing the opposite and, quite sensibly, trying to avoid temptation by avoiding the female form (which incidentally is one way of approaching the situation if we conclude that drawing the nude figure is necessary).

Re physicians/artists, the passions are involuntary and it has always seemed to me a dangerous road to go down to assume that anyone is not affected by what they see and not vulnerable to temptation (I have heard artists claim that their vocation means that they are not susceptible to temptation when engrossed in the process of drawing, my reaction to that is, who are you trying to kid?). People wear clothes for a reason and we really do have to examine whether or not it is necessary to remove them. If it is not necessary for an artist to paint a nude, and we haven’t resolved that yet in this discussion, then I would say that it is preferable that he does not. It is only since the High Renaissance that the nude has been part of the training of artists and the cannon of imagery. A thousand years earlier, under the influence of Christianity, it ceased in the classical world. (We devote a class to this discussion so you can have your say next year!).

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