How to learn anatomy for art

Last Updated on August 28, 2023

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How to learn anatomy for art

The human body is one of the most complex subjects for artists to illustrate. If you are looking to improve your figure drawing or portraiture skills, you have probably come across suggestions that you master anatomy to improve your illustrations. Fortunately, artists don’t need to weigh themselves down with the details of human organs or tissues. The most important components of anatomy for drawing are the skeletal and muscular systems, the building blocks of the body and its motions. You can master this complex subject by learning the major bone and muscle structures and studying the body in various poses.

Method1Starting with the Skeleton and PosesDownload Article

  1. 1Work with an anatomy book or video series as you practice. One of the best ways to learn anatomy is to read a book or watch videos on the topic, focusing on the parts that are relevant to drawing. If the book is designed for artists, then it will be even more helpful.[1][2]
    • One of the most popular books on the topic is “Artistic Anatomy” by Paul Richer.
    • As you read or watch, it’s important to make your own sketches of the different body parts along with the book or instructor.
  2. 2Study skeletal landmarks where the bone structure is visible on the surface. Some bones are often visible through the skin, and familiarizing yourself with these bones can help you draw them when you’re sketching a figure. They’re also helpful for getting acquainted with the overall shape of the body and can give you a framework for figure drawing. Some of these easily-identifiable spots include:[3]
    • The collarbone, which is located where the neck and chest meet.
    • The elbows, located where the upper and lower arms meet.
    • The spine, which runs down the middle of the back.
    • The kneecaps, which are found between the upper and lower legs.
    • The ribs, located at the front of the torso below the chest.
  3. 3Focus on the major parts of the skeleton before studying the smaller details. There’s no need to memorize the names and locations of every bone in the body. However, getting a sense of what fits where in the body is the key to successfully learning anatomy and applying it to your art. Learn the shapes of major bones like the skull, femur, and pelvis before stepping back and learning the overall shape of the feet, hands, and other smaller bone structures.[4]
    • Once you have a sense of how the skeleton is built, you can practice drawing it on its own in different poses.
  4. 4Move around a skeleton model to observe how the bones and joints function. In order to see how the joints connect bones, you may want to manipulate a model skeleton into different poses to see how the bones move around as the body changes position.[5]
    • Since you will rarely draw a person standing perfectly straight, it’s important to get a sense of how the skeletal system will be shaped in other cases.

Method2Looking Closely at Muscles and MovementsDownload Article

  1. 1Memorize the major masses of the body. As with the skeleton, there are landmark muscles that form masses visible through the skin. The muscles that contour the torso form the largest of these masses and the thigh muscles wrap around the leg bones. The glutes and the muscles on the arms are also typically pronounced.
    • Start learning with the largest of these and move on to smaller ones as you get more confident about the shapes of the large ones.
  2. 2Study the different muscle groups. Rather than learning the name and location of each individual muscle, focus on major muscle groups. Learning the function of each muscle group and where it’s located will make it easier to draw a realistic human figure. The major muscle groups you should focus on include:[6]
    • The quadriceps, which are located at the front of the thighs.
    • The hamstrings, which are located on the back of the thighs.
    • The calves, which are found on the back of the lower legs.
    • The chest muscles, located directly over the chest.
    • The back muscles, which stretch across both the upper and lower back.
    • The shoulder muscles, which are found on the front, side, and back of the shoulders.
    • The triceps, located on the back of the upper arms.
    • The biceps, which are found on the front of the upper arms.
    • The forearms, which are located on the lower half of the arms.
    • The abdominal muscles, which are found over the lower half of the torso.
  3. 3Learn about the visible tendons alongside the muscle groups. Like bones, muscles have connections between them that dictate how they move. Some tendons in the body are visible above the skin, and it’s helpful to study them so you can recognize them when you’re drawing a figure. Keep in mind that the appearance of the tendons can change depending on how a person is positioned.[7]
    • For example, the Achilles tendon, which connects the calf muscles to the heel bone, is visible on the back of the leg.[8]

Method3Applying Anatomy to DrawingDownload Article

  1. 1Look closely at the anatomy of figures in your favorite works. In order to see how other artists have applied their knowledge of anatomy, look at the way the body is depicted in your favorite pieces. No matter if you are a comic book artist or an aspiring oil painter, learning the anatomical styles that you want to emulate will give you a goal to strive for.
    • It’s important to find a balance between accurate representation and your own drawing style.
  2. 2Focus on bodily proportions. In contrast to medical anatomy, anatomy in art must pay close attention to the proportions between different body parts. Trace a figure with proportional anatomy from a book and use the measurements of the head, torso, arms, legs, as well as the hands and feet as a guide for how much bigger or smaller one part or another should be.[9]
    • Proportions are often measured in terms of “heads.” For instance, the center of the chest is typically the same distance from the bottom of the head as the length of the head itself, a distance called “2 heads,” while the navel is considered to be “3 heads” down.
    • Other head-based proportions include the crotch, which is 4 heads down, the knees, which are 2 heads below the crotch, and the feet, which are 2 more heads lower than the knees.
    • For arms, some example proportions are the shoulders, which are around 1/4 of a head below the chin, the elbows, which are level with the bellybutton, the wrists, which will line up with the hips, and the fingertips, which fall just above the mid-thigh.
  3. 3Draw simple forms to establish shape and dimension, then add the details. Every human body is different, but they all share some common simple forms, like spheres, cylinders, and ovals, that you can use to create a basic outline for your drawing. Don’t try to draw exactly what you see at first or your drawing could look stiff and inorganic. Instead, start with the basic shapes and gestures you see, then fill in the details around them.[10]
    • For example, you might start with cylinders for the thighs and lower legs, spheres for the knee caps, and a square for the upper torso. Drawing these simple forms first will make it easier to capture the figure’s movement and overall shape.
  4. 4Sketch in layers, starting with the skeleton before moving to the muscles and skin. Start by drawing figures as skeletons, and then add the musculature to the sketch. Once you have added muscles, draw the skin on top and reduce the muscular and skeletal detail to see how the anatomy looks as a standard figure drawing.[11]
    • Be sure to start with the skeletal and mass landmarks you learned and try different poses to get a sense for where they will be in those positions.
    • Try drawing people of different shapes and sizes to see how the anatomy changes, especially the muscle and skin layers.
    • Artists beginning to use anatomy as a guide for their figures often start by drawing the body in anatomical layers. As you improve, start to abstract the skeleton and muscles into chunks so that you can draw the layers much more quickly.
  5. 5Practice drawing from pictures, sculptures, dummies, and live models. The more types of figures you draw from, the more familiar you’ll get with human anatomy.[12] Sketching figures from photographs is a great place to start, but don’t stop there. Use human dummies or mannequins to practice drawing from three-dimensional figures. You can also take an art class so you can practice drawing from live models.[13]

Understanding the structure of the human body is key to improving your character illustrations! With this illustrated tutorial by Eridey, learn more about bones, muscles and discover how the different parts of the body are connected to each other.

  • Eridey
  • Manga Art
  • Illustration
  • Art Theory

The key to improving is to do our best and put our heart into what we do. Anatomy is not an easy subject, but I hope that this article can be a quick guide for you and get you in the mood to keep learning. Let’s start with the building blocks of the human figure:

The spine is the body’s support, also allowing motion in the torso. Its vertical shape differentiates humans from other species. It is not a straight line, but a curve. Its shape makes the pelvis and the rib cage tilt slightly. Let’s divide it up into three parts to see it better:

  1. Cervical spine — supports and provides mobility to the head
  2. Dorsal or thoracic spine — supports the ribs.
  3. Lumbar spine — a little before the pelvis, connected to the sacrum.

In the neck, the cervical spine (1) is located just behind the jaw (2). There are a variety of muscles that operate the movement of the head. The most visible one has a very, very long name (sternocleidomastoid!), but you can easily recognize it by its V shape, parting from the ear to the center of the clavicles (3). In the center of these muscles is the Adam’s apple, which is more prominent in men (4).

The dorsal spine is the part that connects to the arms. You can draw it in many ways, I like to give it an ovoid shape that resembles the shape of the ribs (1).

The sternum (2) closes this structure in the front, creating, with the spine, an imaginary line that divides the body into two. Use them as a guide!

The clavicles (3) are like a bicycle handlebar, you can think of them as a shoulder support. Every time the arms move, they will change direction.

In the back, you will find the scapulae or shoulder blades. They are triangle shaped and help move the arms. The shape of the back changes following the movements of these bones.

The pelvis is located at the end of the torso, connected to the lumbar spine from the sacrum (1). On both sides you can see the ilium (2); and in the front, the pubis (3).

As these are somewhat irregular bones, I like to simplify them by drawing a pair of discs for the ilium, and the sacrum as an inverted triangle.

The ilium (1) will guide you to draw the angles of the hip. On the back, these two dimples at the end of the spine, before reaching the buttocks, will help us identify the sacrum (2).

Note that female hips are generally wider than male hips — one of the main differences.


Limbs can move in many ways, but knowing their limitations will save us from drawing unrealistic poses (or bone-breaking poses, ouch!).


In the upper part of the arm (A) there is the humerus, a long and strong bone that connects to the elbow and articulates the forearm (B).

In the forearm you will find the radius (1) and the ulna (2). These bones cross to allow the rotation of the wrist. Some artists draw part of the forearm as a box to define its volume (3).

Can you see a tiny lump just behind your wrist?  (4) It is part of the ulna. You can use it as a reference point to locate the orientation of the arm.


In Fig. A we have the leg bones:
The femur (1) in the thigh; the knee (2) in the middle of the leg; the fibula (3) and the tibia (4) in the calf area.

The legs should support the body and give it the balance it needs, but there is a detail that sometimes escapes us: the legs do not have completely vertical line. In order to achieve balance, there must be rhythm. Notice the slight inclination in the femur from the hip to the knee, and the curves (fig. B) that create the contour of the leg (side view).

Other interesting details about the leg:

Between the hip bone and the femur, there is a space that can be seen as an indentation in the skin, mainly in men who have less muscle mass in that area.

In figure C, we have the ankle. Its bones are placed at different heights, with the fibula on the outer side (*) being lower.

Figure D is a back view of the knee. On the outer side (*) the muscles do not generate too much change in the contour, but on the inner side a small lump is created (I have also pointed this out in figure A).


According to some academic standards, 7 or 8 heads is the ideal height of an adult. However, each person has different proportions according to their physical characteristics. If you compare people of different heights you will notice that individually they maintain proportions according to their own body.

To prove this, let us look at the following example: two adults, a man and a woman.  Although the female figure is shorter, her body is divided into 7 heads (which fits within the standard) and the male figure is only a third of a head taller

In the example I have also included the figure of a child. Take into account that, at early ages, the body has not developed completely, so their measures are a little undefined. This one is about 5 heads high.

Aside from this, artists do change their characters’ proportions totally out of these “ideal” ones, to emphasize their unique characteristics or to enhance their drawing styles. (But this is not an excuse to ignore the fundamentals!)

A trick! I like comparing elements of the same length, just to make sure that everything is well proportioned as I draw. For example, the hands are about the size of the face; the feet are as long as the forearm.

Another piece of data that I find fascinating is the fact that, if you extend your arms, they are side to side the same length as your height!

Finally, four points which will help us to get better at drawing day by day.

  • Observation: Study how people walk, their poses, the different types of bodies… Create a reference gallery in your mind and, if possible, take pictures!
  • Think in 3D: To understand a figure/shape, the best thing is to analyze it from different perspectives.
  • Research: Read about body parts, bones, muscles, functions, etc. From an artist’s point of view is fine, you do not need to become a doctor! We are interested in those anatomy parts which affect the shapes and movements of the body.
  • Draw, draw, draw! Practice drawing the whole figure and detailed studies of some especially difficult parts.

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