Drawing Anatomy: Human Landmarks

It is a truism that you cannot draw something unless you know what it looks like.

It is also true that just because you know something very well, it does not mean that you can draw it. I have taught many medical personnel, including doctors, nurses, and various specialists, with much more understanding of anatomy than myself.

In fact, it took a while for me to realize that although I already knew this truism, that knowing anatomy would still not make me draw better.

What I needed was a method of understanding anatomical facts, so that I could use these landmarks as tools of communication and expression, without violating basic anatomical reality and thereby detracting from what the drawing was trying to communicate.

Drawing Anatomy 101
Let us first start with some basic landmarks and simple facts about the figure. One of the most basic and useful facts about the figure is its symmetry. The symmetry of the figure is an obvious tool that is too often overlooked.

In Drawing Anatomy Image No. 1, drawings “A” and “B” give us the basic landmarks that we need to understand and use.

Drawing Anatomy 1
Drawing Anatomy 1
  • From the front we have the line created by the pit of the neck, sternum, naval, and pubic arch, giving us a center line.
  • In the back, we have the spine itself as a center line.
  • The ends of the shoulders are basic landmarks from both front and back.
  • Moving down the front, we have the corners of the rib cage at the bottom of the thoracic arch,
  • and the corners of the pelvis at the end of the iliac crest.
  • Going down the back, we have the lines of the scapulas,
  • and the ends of the iliac crest where it meets the sacrum.

Now let us see how we use these basic landmarks. Thinking of the center of the form is the key to using symmetry. In most cases, (with the exception of the shoulders which have considerable independent movement but which generally conform to the basic concept), the landmarks are at right angles to the central axis of the form.

When the central axis of the form changes, the landmarks move with it, and generally exaggerate the change. Study the image of the torso in Drawing Anatomy Image No. 2 and notice how the landmarks move with the change of the form.

Drawing Anatomy 2
Drawing Anatomy 2

Notice the compression and stretching that takes place when the fixed landmarks move with the changing central axis.

While achieving a clear understanding of the action by amplification of the shift in the central axis, we bring into play fundamental dynamics of reality as well as basic design elements.

By simply shifting the weight to one leg, we automatically create a curve in the torso, as we generally shift the rest of the torso to compensate. This shifting doesn’t stop there, but extends up to the neck and head, which tends to move in the opposite direction again.

In this simple shifting, your composition has the basic elements of a classical rhythmic arrangement of forms combined with the twist that was the hallmark of Renaissance aesthetics.

Take these poses yourself so you can feel and experience what I am referring to. Try standing with your weight equally balanced and then slowly shift your weight from one side to the other and see what happens. If you try to maintain a basic vertical position rather than leaning to one side or the other, you will look like the stiff man on the left. In the second figure, notice how one side of the body is stretching and the other side is compressing.

The basic compositional element involved here is the fundamental concept of opposites, the most basic of design principles. The use of opposites is a tool that not only creates visual interest, but each helps to clarify the other. The Italians called this pose “Contra Posto.”

By Glenn Vilppu

This lesson first appeared in Animation World Magazine June 01, 1999. This is taken from the seventh in a series of articles on drawing for animation. The lessons are based upon the Vilppu Drawing Manual and will in general follow the basic plan outlined in the manual. This is the same material that I base my seminars and lectures on at the American Animation Institute, UCLA, and my lectures at Disney, Warner Bros. and other major studios in the animation industry, both in the U.S. and their affiliates overseas. If you have not seen the previous lessons starting in the June 1998 issue of Animation World Magazine, it is recommended that you do. The lessons are progressive and expand on basic ideas. It is suggested that you start from the beginning for a better understanding of my approach.

Glenn Vilppu teaches life drawing at the American Animation Institute, the Masters program of the UCLA Animation Dept., Walt Disney Feature Animation, Warner Bros. Feature Animation, Dreamworks and Rhythm & Hues Studios. Vilppu has also worked in the Animation industry for 18 years as a layout, storyboard and presentation artist, most of this time was spent working at Disney. His drawing manual and video tapes are being used worldwide as course materials for animation students. Glenn Vilppu has, in effect, either through teaching them directly or teaching their teachers, trained an entire generation of professional animators.