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Mastering Artistic Anatomy: Some Wonderful Books

Updated on June 24, 2013
"The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp" by Rembrandt van Rijn
"The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp" by Rembrandt van Rijn
Skeletal study by Leonardo da Vinci
Skeletal study by Leonardo da Vinci

Striving to Become a "Figure Authority"? My Quest began with a Book.

This Hub is the first of several dedicated to helping you in your quest to draw the human figure.

When I look back upon earlier parts of my own quest, I can recall some very good experiences. Particularly, my first couple of life drawing classes in college were happy times, and exciting. As I recall, my focus back then was entirely on training my eye to observe and my hand to respond quickly and faithfully. I was also much preoccupied with energy and expressiveness. All of this was a very absorbing and rewarding type of discipline and training. I'm glad I started my quest that way--it gave me irreplaceable knowledge and experience.

Yet, something was lacking, although I did not know it at the time. I really was making no effort to systematically develop an internalized knowledge of underlying anatomical structure to support and sharpen my ability to observe. In fact, I never even gave much thought to such a thing. Indeed, I never even thought about the fact that I was not thinking about it. I was in a state of some ignorance.

All that changed one fateful day, when I encountered a book (more on that soon). Now, I realize that books are only one part of an artistic education. There are doubtless some artists who learn without recourse to books. Nevertheless, since a book was very important in my own artistic development, I feel justified in devoting this first of my hubs on Artistic Anatomy to some books which I think you may find extremely helpful.

In fact, you may find these books more than helpful--- that is, if you are one who has heard the call--the ancient call, the immemorial call--the quiet but imperious summons to walk along life's path side by side with that muse of the ages-- the human figure. If you are one of those supremely lucky individuals who has heard the call-- and has answered it, and are following--- then you may find one or more of these books to be inspiring, and like the proverbial thing of beauty, to be "a joy forever": a wise friend upon whom you can lean and in whom you can trust and confide your deepest hopes and aspirations as an artist.

Now before I wax overly metaphorical, let me add-- and emphasize-- that the following selection of books has a highly practical aspect. All of them are great bargains. This is to be considered, for keeping body and soul together is of great practical consideration to the artist, who perhaps more than any other type of person, has great need for body and great need for soul and frequently places heavy demands upon both---hence the need for teamwork between those two venerable entities, and hence the need for togetherness. But in addition to mere economical attractiveness, the following books are quite simply some of the best references available in the field. And even if you have no ambition for becoming an "Authority Figure", yet I think these books will quicken your interest in-- and open your eyes to the possibility of-- becoming a "Figure Authority".

In other hubs I'll talk more about other resources besides books that can help you to learn and improve your art by studying artistic anatomy and life drawing. Lots of practical "notes" and bolts. But first, the books.



Works on the Human Figure by Robert Beverly Hale

Robert Beverly Hale

A renowned teacher of Artistic Anatomy, Hale is a wonderful resource for many reasons. He delivers his amazing fund of knowledge with supreme storytelling skill, providing highly practical suggestions at each step of the way. Better yet, there are several books available by Hale, any one of which by itself would provide material for lengthy study. Taken all together, they provide the basis for a lifetime of study.

That is not to say that you would not or should not need to consult references by other authors and artists. But Hale's books, I think, can serve as a sort of benchmark and standard to which you can return periodically. If someday you find yourself fluently, fluidly following, and even anticipating, the course of one of his lectures, then you can feel you have "arrived", and have truly incorporated a portion of Hale's corpus on the humani corporis into your caput hominis.

Also, Hale introduces two complete works on artistic anatomy by two other anatomical authorities: Dr. Paul Richer and Bernhard Seigfried Albinus (the bottom two books shown at left). As a bonus, your vocabulary and writing skills should automatically improve after exposure to Hale's lively presentation of interesting and often startling ideas. Further detail about Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters is included below.

So, what makes Hale's approach to anatomy so unique? Well, for starters, there are Hale's unique skills as a teacher, his peculiar ability to communicate ideas clearly and forcefully. But another very important feature that makes Hale's anatomical works unique is his choice of illustrators. More typical anatomical books are illustrated by the authors themselves. But Hale does not go this route. Why? Well, it certainly was not for lack of ability on his part. The following quote from an interview with Hale is most illuminating in terms of his personal dedication and abilities as a self-illustrator:

"Anatomy is a very difficult memory job, you see. And you have to keepthe memory alive and fresh if you're teaching because students ask somany questions. And also because as I teach it I draw on the greatboard full scale all the muscles and all the bones and all theligaments. And I have to be exact. So I have to give some time to that.And always have. It's something like the you have to practice." (--Robert Beverly Hale, Oct. 4, 1968. For a complete transcript of the interview please see the links section below)

The illustrators that Hale chose for Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters were the Great Masters themselves-- including very familiar names like Leonard, Michelangelo, Raphael, Durer, Rubens, Rembrandt, as well as some perhaps less familiar, such as Cambiaso and Pontormo. Looking at even the most familiar, overexposed artists, such as Leonardo, through Hale's eyes, restores a freshness and appreciation of their genius and crafsmanship. And as Hale's acutely observed remarks gradually reveal the wealth of anatomical knowledge contained in each master drawing, we come to understand more and more why the selected illustrators are considered great masters.  For a sampling of the Albinus Anatomy, see the link below. 

Atlas of Human Anatomy by Stephen Rogers Peck

Peck's Artistic Anatomy

Soon after my exposure to Hale's Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters, I took a drawing class taught by Professor George Sample at Central Missouri State University. In much the same way that Hale's book opened my eyes to the importance of artistic anatomy, Professor Sample himself opened my eyes to the importance of perspective.  That however, is a story for another day.  Professor Sample also had a very positive impact on my studies in artistic anatomy and figure drawing. The textbook that George assigned for the drawing class was the Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist by Stephen Rogers Peck. 

Peck's Atlas makes a very good counterbalance to Hale's work, allowing you to see how two different, very talented and knowledgeable individuals approach a common topic.  The Atlas is very thorough and systematic, with numerous illustrations by Peck and with tables of information about the bones and muscles, providing precise details about origin, insertion and actions of muscles.  Peck also has a genius for creating easy to remember analogies to everyday objects in order to help you fix the structure and relationship of various anatomical regions in your memory.

Musculoskeletal Anatomy by Joseph E. Muscolino

The Musculoskeletal Anatomy Coloring Book belongs to a somewhat different type of book than the artistic anatomy books by Peck and Hale. Muscolino's anatomical book was actually designed for the needs of medical students or physical therapists. However, it makes an excellent resource to supplement the books by Peck and Hale. The coloring book presents many detailed illustrations, which are simple, accurate line drawings. Some illustrations show large portions of the body, some zoom in one or more aspects of a single bone or muscle. The various layerings (deep, intermediate, and superficial) of muscles is clearly presented. Also, whereas many medical anatomical works, such as Grey's Anatomy, include much information that is not directly relevant for the artist, Muscolino's Musculoskeletal Anatomy focuses on material that is directly relevant for the visual artist, and presented without the visual distortions and potential confusion often found in the illustrations of other medical anatomies.  A nice bonus is the inclusion, for each muscle, bone, and landmark, of a PRONUNCIATION GUIDE that makes it a little bit easier to get beyond the layman's abbreviations of "lats", "glutes", etc., and clear up any vaguaries in pronuncing things like "quadratus lumboris". 

The flashcards make it easier to carry a few cards with you and practice your knowledge building on the fly.


Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters


was Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters, a book that greatly expanded my artistic horizons. Special thanks go to Professor Frank Stack for introducing it to me. I was enrolled at the time in a life drawing class at the University of Missouri-Columbia (MU) taught by Professor Stack, and he had assigned the book as the text for the class. I accordingly went to the University Bookstore and got a used copy for about ten dollars. Never was ten bucks better invested.

I quickly saw why this book had been chosen as a textbook for the class, although it really seemed to transcend mere textbook-ness. It was not just worthy of attention-- it was actually inspiring. And it changed the way I thought as an artist.

Within the pages is presented a series of lectures by Robert Beverly Hale--- but do NOT let the term "lectures" mislead you, for nothing could be more precisely opposite the usual dry and dull pedanticism we tend to associate with that word, "lecture", than the spirited voice which speaks to us from the pages of Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters. There is nothing dry about these "lectures" that sparkle with wit and liveliness. Each is told with the instict of a born storyteller and most are seasoned with generous dashes of humor.

Yet each lesson is also straightforward, briskly paced, and highly to the point. We find ourselves on each page being presented with highly practical, economically stated observations and recommendations. Time actually flies when you are reading these lessons, and you are hardly aware of what tremendous stretches of ground you have travelled in Hale's company--- wearing veritable "7 league anatomical boots", as it were. Indeed, Hale seems to be one of those people that empower you to raise your own IQ by a few points by simply hanging around with them--- or, as in this case, merely hanging around with a book they have written.

Throughout, Hale masterfully weaves in all kinds of fascinating comparisons and unusual connections and associations that arrest the attention and stand vividly in memory even after the passage of much time. Yet, rather than being distracting, these deftly inserted sidebars and footnotes serve to reinforce and illuminate and amplify each point. Thus the drawing illustrations are accompanied by extremely lucid verbal illustrations, conveying penetrating insights. Reading, you feel aware as never before of artistic anatomy in the present linked to a living past. And you may suddenly feel yourself to be a pioneer on an eternal frontier.




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    • watcher by night profile imageAUTHOR

      watcher by night 

      9 years ago

      KelciC, yeah, Grey's includes way too much information for a visual artist to really need. I'm not that familiar with Hamm's books...but took a quick peek at one on Amazon. Looks like he kind of stylizes things in an illustrational way... sometimes it's hard to separate the lesson from the style though. One thing I like about Hale's books is that he uses OTHER artists, and a lot of different ones, to illustrate his lessons. That way you don't get stuck with only the teacher's own style. You can use the "look inside" feature at Amazon to get a brief look in Hale's books, although not really enough to get a feel for what the books are really like.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I DEFINITELY need to check those books out. I've been looking into working at and (near) perfecting my figure drawing skills, but Grey's Anatomy always scared me.

      P.S. for all you other artists out there, try and avoid Jack Hamm. He goes into a lot of detail that doesn't really help. I know: I have two of his books, and neither of them helped. They make pretty pictures, though.

    • profile image

      Mario Mora 

      9 years ago

      George Sample was one of the most profound influences for me when I was attending CMSU. I had the pleasure of learning from two of his previous students, John Willard (my high school art teacher), and John Lynch (for Illustration) as well, both phenomenal artisans in their own right.

      I can still remember seeing George for the first time and wondering why this "custodian" had wandered into our classroom and was talking to all of us. LOL! :D He just came in, rearranged some some chairs and acted somewhat surprised to see us (he was joking around). George then sat down and was talking and talking and asking random people why they were there. "Why are you here?" again and again.

      Finally, after most of us were annoyed and wishing the instructor would show up, he introduced himself as George Sample. I think not one person in there expected that. It was our "Yoda moment" when Luke realizes who he is in the presence of.

      As long as I live, I will never forget George Sample's views on perspective, or the countless hours I spent with him in figure class. Truly one of the best artists I have ever known. :)

    • Amez profile image


      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      well, I'm almost 1/3 of the way through your Hubs and I'm rapidly learning new skills, and this one even brought resolve to why I take such notice to the way you captivate ones interest by seemly walking alongside us with words that pictorially bring forth a vision of what your explaining as your teaching, I'd truly enjoy being able to attend a few of your courses. So these Hubs you have so kindly created are the next best thing. Thank You.

    • watcher by night profile imageAUTHOR

      watcher by night 

      10 years ago

      Stacey Wubbenhorst, I am not actually George Sample, rather a former student of his. I think George is retired now, but it's very nice to hear from someone else who enjoyed his classes as much as I did. You could probably contact the art department at CMSU or maybe their alumni office and see if they could help you get in touch with him.

    • profile image

      stacey wubbenhorst 

      10 years ago

      george sample, are you still teaching figure construction and life drawing? I went to cmsu years and years ago and those were the best ever classes and i so wish i could take some more. and you were the absolute best teacher. are you still teaching?


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