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Human Anatomy Fundamentals: Learning to See and Draw Energy

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This post is part of a series called Human Anatomy Fundamentals.
Human Anatomy Fundamentals: Basic Body Proportions

This is the first of a number of articles teaching everything you need to draw the human body at its most lively. But before embarking on a study of anatomy, we're going to work on an essential preparation: learning to see, and to capture the energy of a body in motion or at rest.


A Preliminary to More Technical Studies

The technical study of the body, while necessary to the artist, can result in stiff figures that look put together. This is typical of anatomy study that is not supported by real life study: the student ends up literally putting the body together from what they learned, rather than recreating it from what they observed. Yet what brings a human figure to life cannot be taught or put down in a chart. It is the energy in that figure – happy, rushed, sorrowful, still, childish, uncertain, comfy, exhausted – you can only "learn" it from life. I put "learn" in quotation marks because you must not expect to learn it with the mind (the way you might learn that the average distance between two eyes is equal to an eye). You learn to internalize it, to feel it in your body. If you can feel it in your body, it will make its way into your drawing and you don't have to think of how to do it. This is the key to expressive, lively drawing and it goes for non-human or even non-living subjects, too.

In the image below, the two characters essentially hold the same posture. The subtle difference is due to their different mindset, and expressing this in drawing – when the facial expressions are not even visible – came naturally from being able to feel each mindset and how it would influence the posture.

Example of feeling used in drawing

In the below image, there are things you just won't find references for! In these cases your ability to internalize is a key asset.

Feel replacing references

Please don't feel this is hard! It's only tricky because we are always taught to learn with our minds, and this is an obstacle to drawing freely and well. The task this month is about relaxing and letting something instinctive take over.

What we're going to do is observe living people and capture their energy on paper.


Phase One: Quick, Permanent Sketches From Real Life

You will need to have is a cheap sketchbook (not too small or only your hand will work: give yourself a chance to engage your whole arm) and a bold, permanent drawing instrument such as a ballpoint, marker or a chunky crayon.

Then, all you need to do is look at people and very quickly, in a few seconds, sketch the impression their posture makes on you, the emotions they give you. I filled the following page while in a coffee shop, watching people outside hurry through the rain.

Crowd quick sketches

As you can see, there is no art to this, no attempt to get proportions right or fill in details beyond that first burst. Sometimes limbs are shown, sometimes not, depending on what has struck me in their posture. Yet as basic as these scribbles are, they still convey something: you can tell these show different people in different states. They have something in common, the look of people in a hurry to get somewhere, but not identical. They have different energies. This is what I mean by capturing energy, and this is your practice for the time being!

The reason we're doing this before learning anatomy is that this skill serves as a base to draw lively bodies; while if the habit of technical drawing sets in first, it can be very hard to change and breathe life into that. People can get stuck in the "wooden manikin" syndrome and we don't want that. In the drawings below, you can just see the energy sketch under the final lines, and how it allowed the proper anatomy built over it to retain the dynamism of the quick loose sketch.

Energy underlying finished drawing

Another desirable result of this practice: we learn a lot from observation, but even more from actively observing (e.g. sketching). While sketching my crowd above, I was noticing how someone bends to compensate for a heavy load, how rare it is to find someone walking upright in this tired society, how many people held a phone to their ear, etc. Merely observing is good and never a waste of time, but sketching these observations is even better: it's like clicking "save" so they get stored in your system. The more you observe and sketch, the more you know in your body, instinctively, how to draw things. This will come in handy for phase two (and your drawing career, of course).

A Few Tips:

  • Do this a lot, make sure to fill at least two pages per day. Take it from someone who started life as a limited artist: learning to draw is about practice, talent is not a requirement. You can never draw too much, and the more you draw, the more and the faster you'll improve. So practice diligently and you'll reap your rewards accordingly. Professional artists draw constantly and never stop sketching from life.
  • Don't use a pencil for this. It's too prudent a tool. Get used to making bold sweeping lines that can't be undone.
  • Don't be tempted to do this from pictures. We're sketching life energy! A static photo will not help you with that, and it will give you too much time to think. Working from movies is OK if necessary, or if you're growing comfortable with the exercise and want to try your hand at more dynamic motion (such as in sports or action movies).
  • In case you're that kind of person (many of us are): don't judge yourself. You will never learn anything if you don't embrace the fact you, like everyone else, are going to produce a lot of mediocrity while you learn your craft. Besides, the point here is not to "get it right", as there is nothing to get right and nobody's going to grade you. The point is to develop this skill, and that only happens with practice. Rather than striking out sketches that feel off, circle those where you feel you captured something and give yourself a pat on the back!
  • If you feel frustrated and like you're getting nowhere, that's fine. Just keep doing it. Think of the guys who first decided to fly and spent years tumbling down hillsides with wooden wings strapped to their arms.

Phase Two: Quick, Permanent Sketch Without Reference

When you become comfortable doing quick captures (and I can never repeat enough, the more you've practiced, the better), you can move on to the next phase, which is the same exercise, but without looking at any reference.

This is where "feeling it in your body" kicks in. It's not about visualizing your subject in your mind's eye – not that this is excluded, but that comes as a consequence. In the following sketches, which took three minutes altogether, I wasn't trying to capture their image, but the impression they gave me, even though they only existed in my head. Some are not so evocative, but among those who are, you can probably spot the fat man at a table, the forehead slap, the determined small person with his sword, the toddler and the coy girl...

Sketches without reference

Now fill your two pages a day with imaginary people doing imaginary things, but instead of observing them with your eyes, take a moment to sense what you're about to draw. Some things may be harder to sense than others, and that's normal: in some ways an artist is very much like an actor! If you've ever caught yourself mirroring the facial expression you were drawing (as I do all the time) then you know exactly what I mean. Just like an actor, an artist may specialize in niche "roles" or broaden his or her range to a variety of characters... and things, as shown in phase three.


Phase Three (Optional): Consider Non Human Figures and Objects

Both phases one and two can perfectly be applied to animals, nature and inanimate objects! Everything has an energy, everything has a character. Even lack of character is a character. Even though we're only going to learn human anatomy for the time being, feel free to practice with anything else that catches your fancy.

Non-human sketches

Points to Consider

A Note on Accuracy

Notice how an expressive sketch can (and indeed often must take) liberties with its subject:

Difference between sketch and subject

This is important. This is because I am drawing the feeling I get from the man playing, rather than reproducing what I see mechanically, which would only capture shapes. Your sketch of the same subject would look different but still clearly be the same subject. This is why tracing is not a good learning tool and why some highly realistic art, while impressive, feels dull and non-dynamic: Tracing life can never actually convey life itself. When we're trapping life as lines on a flat surface, we need to compensate for it by putting something extra feeling of our own in the drawing. That's why it's almost more important to learn to feel and capture energy, than to learn anatomy with medical accuracy. A lively drawing is always more attractive than a lifeless trace (of course, it still needs to look right – it just doesn't have to be a perfect copy).

We could put this in terms of drawing subjectively vs. objectively. An architect or engineer drawing plans, a medical illustrator, a naturalist need to draw objectively. An artist is usually only concerned with drawing subjectively (which is why this is our first lesson), especially if there is a question of developing style.

A Note About Style

Many young and aspiring artists are concerned about developing their style. Style is nothing but reality rendered through the filter of what is uniquely you. It's not something you decide to develop. It is this kind of practice – drawing and drawing and drawing a lot, without thinking about it, that allows your hand to start drawing from the place in you that is unique. Your own unique style appears gradually over years of drawing as long as you're not forcing yourself to copy someone else's style. I say years, but the scale is not so much one of time as it is one of practice, so draw and trust that it will happen. In the same way, you can't decide to make your body grow; it does that on its own as long as you give it proper food. The same happens with personal style. Don't try to force it: just allow it to flower.


Share Your Sketches With Us

For this month, try out at least two of the three phases. Share with us what you've captured from people on the street, TV and more. By sharing each others impressions we can learn and perhaps recognize new poses. And if you want some inspiration, check out the fantastic work of the drawing and sketching artists on Envato Studio.

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