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Human Anatomy Fundamentals: Advanced Body Proportions

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In our last session we learned the basic, generic proportions and joint alignments of the human figure, and if you've been practicing you should be ready for some diversity. The most obvious differentiation may be between men and women, but an illustrator must also be familiar with the ways the body also changes according to age (while it is still growing) and type.


Male vs. Female Proportions

Male and female proportions are so different that even a skeleton (or certain parts of it) betrays its sex. Bear in mind, however, that on a vertical axis there is no real difference: the joints don't move up or down. The variations are almost entirely on the horizontal axis, i.e. in the width of certain parts of the body. So how do we feminize or masculinize our basic figure? On the structural level we're still working on, there's actually just one big difference to master, and the rest are small helpful details.

The Shoulders/Hips Ratio

The primary difference is the relationship of shoulder width to hips. Women have a much broader pelvic bone than men, since they need to be able to bear and give birth to a child. This one, central fact has consequences throughout the body. It means that in women the hip line is the broadest part of the body, and a narrower waist appears by contrast, while in men the broadest part is the shoulder line, and the waist is hardly different from the hips. The overall female silhouette, then, is an hourglass as opposed to the male trapeze shown below.

Female vs male figure

To give an idea of measurement (take these with a grain of salt because the impression of the overall silhouette trumps accurate measurements every time), on our basic figure below (middle) I have dropped down guidelines from the sides of the head, and then again from a distance equivalent to one head from the central axis. These lines define two yellow zones where the figure's shoulder and hip bones are contained.

Hips and shoulder width

To make this neutral figure female, the pelvic bone is broadened so that the hip joints are closer to the outer side of the yellow area. The shoulders may vary but always within this zone. (Notice what this does to the legs: the thighs taper in much more from the hips to join the knees, which haven't changed position. Men's legs look more vertical relative to women's).

To make the neutral figure male, the pelvic bone remains narrow while the shoulders joints are actually just outside the yellow area. Here again they can vary but they'll always tend to the outer side of the yellow area. This again translates in the way the two sexes hold their arms, which you can glimpse in the previous image and observe in daily life: women's elbows tend to be held close to the body, and the arms at rest naturally follow the body's contours. A woman has to deliberately hold her arms away from her body. Meanwhile, men's shoulders being "further out", the arm at rest dangles away from the body and is not naturally held close.


Smaller Differences

Waist Line and Elbows

A woman's waist line is level with the belly button but a man's appears much lower. This makes the torso on a male look longer. This is worth remembering, as in my early years I drew equal-length torsos and same-level trouser lines for both sexes and wondered for a long time why the men didn't look right. Also, be careful not to align the elbows with this apparently lower waist! The reference for the elbow joint remains the belly button, so that unlike the female figure, if the impression we have of a man's waist is where his trousers start, the elbows will look much higher.

The waist

Rounded vs Angular

In anticipation of the fleshed-out body we'll eventually be drawing, it can be useful to sketch women with rounded shapes and men with more angular trapeze shapes as this reflects the general impression of each body type.

Generally speaking, a woman's body is made up of soft rounded shapes: breasts and buttocks but also the fact that when not modified, the female body stocks more fat under the skin. Men's bodies are more angular and have harsher lines when they are muscular. This of course is subject to great variation, and this device is eminently adaptable—using angular shapes for a skinny woman, for instance, and soft ones for a fleshy man. Still, note that in reasonably slim bodies, a woman's stomach is gently curved and her buttocks are rounded. A man tends to flatness both in the stomach and buttocks.

Rounded vs angular

The Hip Joints

A small detail, but significant: draw a woman's hip joints outside the pelvic bone. They jut out visibly in the body and this helps to capture this feature. In contrast, keep a man's hip joints inside the pelvic bone.

The hip joints

Other Details

  • In both sexes, the palm of the hand and sole of the foot are about half as wide as the face. But they are longer, relative to the face, in men than they are in women.
  • A woman's spine tends to be more flexible, and is visibly more arched, than a man's.
  • And finally, on average, men are taller than women!
Other details

How Important is All of This?

To illustrate this point, this is what happens when a man is drawn with female proportions and vice-versa.

Reversed proportions

Even with the addition of gender stereotypes of hair and breasts, due to the proportions and hip/shoulder ratio, the bodies look different to the norm.

Men and women's bodies can range all the way from the marked characters we have just seen, to an androgynous figure, meaning one that does not strongly display them in either direction. But it is a poor artist who draws solely androgynous bodies and relies entirely on surface details for gendering. In a future session we will look more closely at the basic body types (somatotypes) which result from the combination of structure and musculature.


Proportions and Age

This section details the way proportions change from birth till the end of physical growth which marks the end of adolescence and start of adulthood. There is wiggle room, as people don't grow at the same speed even within the same family, let alone around the world. Still, an average model is very useful to anyone who has trouble showing a character's intended age, and we will revisit this for other details of the body and face in due time.

Newborn (0 to 1 Month)

Notice how short the legs are at this point: in adults, the knee would reach the shoulder in this position, but here the legs and arms are nearly the same length, and the knee and elbow just meet. As babies, at this age we are still in fetal position most of the time, the legs are not counted when I say that the total length is about 2.5 heads. Indeed a newborn's head looks disproportionately large compared to everything else in their body.

Newborn

Baby (1 Month to 1 Year)

By three months the proportions may not have changed much but the body is noticeably chubbier, and as the legs unfold they increase the feel of dramatic growth. If held up (it may be too early to stand alone), a 10-month-old would look close enough to a toddler, but with definite baby features such as the lack of neck.

Baby

Toddler (1 to 4 Years)

Apparently, someone's adult height can be roughly predicted by doubling their height at age 2. In any case, toddlers are the littlest people that can stand upright like the rest of us. The head is still very large for the body (already close to its adult size), the legs are short (a little over a third of the total height, as opposed to a half for an adult), and there is the beginning of a neck.

3-toddler

Child (5 to 11 Years)

Growth is of course continuous during childhood, and this image only illustrates someone that could be between 7 and 9. Children this age can look skinny because the baby fat is gone (even in cases where puberty later brings a lot of weight gain). Note that the slim neck grows out of a nearly horizontal shoulder line because the trapezius and neck muscles are not developed. I mention this detail because unwittingly drawing a child with a fully developed shoulder line can look very odd!

Child

Adolescent (12 to 17 Years)

Up till this stage, we didn't differentiate between boys and girls because sexual dimorphism doesn't really appear until then. If you think about it, we only know the sex of younger children because of the way we dress them and cut their hair, but it's very easy at that age to confuse the observer. Puberty is by definition the time of life when hormones kick in and make the body mature. Women start puberty earlier, between 8 and 13. Men start between 9.5 and 14. On a structural level:

  • The difference between waist and hip size increases. As fat may increase in the stomach, buttocks and legs, there is an increased volume in this whole block that is the sign of a fully grown woman.
  • A boy's shoulders broaden.

In both sexes, the head is still larger than in adult age, and the extremities (hands, feet, even arms and legs) may grow faster than the rest of the body, causing a gangly look and clumsy feel. This also happens with animals, by the way!

The next stage of growth is early adulthood, where the final proportions set in as they were explained in the section on men and women. There's no need to go into other age groups at the moment because the structure no longer changes. I'll just mention that in very old age the bones start losing mass, so there is a loss of height, and the body may slump, making the neck look shorter and the arms fall lower.

Adolescence

Again, How Important is All of This?

Here's a lineup of four people...

Adult vs child proportions

The first two figures are accurately proportioned for their size. The third shows what you get if you draw a child using adult proportions: a tiny grown-up! This works if you're drawing a fairy or Ant Man, but it definitely doesn't evoke a child.

The reverse is also true: the fourth figure shows a supposedly fully grown adult drawn with childish proportions. An adult shaped this way would look out of place, if it were even possible for their cranium to grow this large.

Despite the inevitable wiggle room due to human diversity, there is a certain minimum height below which generic adult proportions just look different from the norm. Petite women are only "scaled-down" women down to a point; if extremely short, their proportions would have some childish characteristics. The reverse is also true: extremely tall people look elongated and not just scaled up.

How proportions convey info

Despite the rough stage of this sketch, we can make out a strongly built, tall man, an adult woman of small stature, and a teenage boy (or possibly girl). How can we tell when there are no outer features and the teenager is about as tall as the woman? Proportions carry a lot of information. The aspiring artist who has to study all the above diagrams to know them consciously may find it hard work, but unconsciously, we all carry a full catalogue of proportional clues and what they mean. In this image, your unconscious can't miss the tell-tale clues of the woman's wide hips (sign of adulthood) and the undeveloped body of the teenager (neither shoulders nor hips have broadened). This is not to say that you can't draw adults with deliberately underdeveloped features (like narrow shoulders), but when used in the wrong way it can create ambiguity. You might notice that your drawing of an adult doesn't look right, but can't put your finger on why.


Ethnic Origin

The catalogue of proportional clues I've mentioned above is quite culture-based. It grows if we travel or are otherwise exposed to more ethnic diversity, but until we do, it's inevitably centered on what we're familiar with. This is why in Western societies we often have the impression Japanese women look younger than they are: in the majority of depictions that we’re exposed to their hips remain narrower even into adulthood than those of European women, thus confusing an important visual clue. If we draw a Japanese woman with the same body type as our "generic" European woman (including wider hips), we will wonder why she looks more European than Asian.

Average body types really do vary around the world and if you spend enough time with a certain group, or watch them consciously in movies, you become able to internalize their body type as well. This is a large study for which I have made charts elsewhere, but let me illustrate here in a very broad way, a fundamental skeletal difference between types.

3-ethnotypes

There are dozens of ethnotypes and each has its very own characteristics, but on the most basic level of the skeleton, we can observe this general difference between the three largest ethnicity groups of humanity. As the study this deserves is well beyond the scope of these sessions, I'm posting this to create awareness: awareness of the extreme diversity of the human figure, and paradoxically of the need to have a generic figure as a starting point so as not to lose the central structure that we all share.


Practice Time

Until next time, put some of these theories into practice. Here's some ways you can apply them so you're prepared for your next Human Anatomy Fundamentals session:

  • Observe, observe, observe! Look at people around you, men and women, this time with an eye for what in their build makes them different. Look at children of different ages, at people of different ethnic backgrounds, online or in person.
  • Dig out photos of your childhood (or your children) at different ages, and sketch their basic figure. Don't trace—use a combination of impression and skeleton as we've been doing so far. It may be particularly interesting if you can find photos in a similar pose at different points in time, as you'll be able to see how the proportions change.
  • Draw a crowd of figures with varying proportions without reference. Do any look wrong? If so, can you identify what is off?
Exercise
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