The vast majority of painters who work in a realistic, life-like style work from reference of some sort, be it the live model or a photo of one. The human body is an incredibly complex structure, and reference is immensely helpful (if not essential), when trying to create a truly believable illusion of reality.
As an artist that works quite realistically myself, I’ve always had the luxury of reference when creating a book cover. As such, I’ve never HAD to rely solely on my imagination for a LOT of things. As a result, my ability to draw certain things convincingly without reference is lacking in lots of areas… Anatomy, Vehicles, Architecture, Drapery, Animals… the list goes on. Lately I’ve been focusing on getting better at my grasp of human anatomy, with the goal of being able to create more believable figures from imagination. Thankfully, there is no shortage of resources available for artists wanting to learn anatomy! In fact, if anything, there are too many, making it difficult to find good information.
Personally, I feel the real key to drawing from imagination lies in UNDERSTANDING the object you’re drawing. That’s much different than simply being able to DRAW that object. But ‘understanding’ is a difficult thing to convey in a book or video. As such, many art-centric anatomy tutorials use some sort of ‘system’ to help convey the concept of the figure. “It should be 8 heads tall”, “Start with a curve”, “Imagine a cube”, “Draw a mannequin”… etc. Some of these systems are really simple, and some super complex. A system that works well for one artist might not work well for another as we all have different ways of ‘rationalizing’ things in our head, and ultimately you need to find a system that makes sense to you.
Personally, I have a hard time finding good anatomy tutorials that make sense to me, and focus on the specific aspects I want to work on. I always found most resources to be either too academic (and lacked drama), or too cartoonish (and lacked realism and detail). Even some of the greatest figure drawing books out there, Loomis, Bridgeman, Bargue, never quite clicked for me or expounded enough on the things I wanted to know.
The following is a list of resources that I’m personally finding helpful on my educational journey, really deepening my understanding of the human body. If you’ve been looking to get better at drawing the human figure from imagination too, check these out, maybe they’ll click for you as well!
David Finch’s You Tube Channel :
Comic book artists have to draw a LOT of panels. You simply can’t shoot reference for everything. It’s too time consuming. As such, comic artists tend to draw most things from imagination. The result is they usually have a fantastic grasp of the human figure, and are able to draw it from nearly any angle from imagination. There are lots of videos with a comic focus available on YouTube, but many can be too stylized for my tastes. One of my favorites are those of acclaimed comic artist, David Finch. I find his believable, yet idealized style, works really well for my sensibilities. Check out his channel right HERE.
Morpho Series by Michel Lauricella:
These books might be my favorite anatomy books of all time. Michel Lauricella was classically trained at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but his approach to the figure feels anything but ‘classical’ to me. His figures have a very physical quality to them, exuding realism not from their detail, but from their depth of comprehension. They just FEEL real. You can tell Michel truly understands what he’s drawing inside and out. You can get them HERE.
Anatomy for Aritsts from 3D Total:
This book is great for understanding the inner workings of the human figure in a very believable and applicable fashion. The entire book consists of a photos of a REAL model, which are drawn over, accentuating the underlying anatomy, as well as abstracting the figure into simplified geometric forms. This type of system basically gives you a ‘detail’ gradation of the human figure. If you’re struggling to draw a specific part of the body, it’s easy to find a pose or body type that suits your needs, and then have it broken down for you. You can get it HERE.
For a long time this book was only available in it’s native Korean, which I had bought anyways to glean what info from it that I could. It’s a testament to the skill of Seok Jung Hyun (aka Stonehouse), that his teachings come across despite the language barrier. This book is a favorite amongst concept and videogame artists, but has been difficult to get until recently. Now you can easily find this massive 600+ page book in English language on Superani’s website
Ron Lemen’s Anatomy Series:
Ron Lemen produced an incredibly comprehensive anatomy video series a few years ago. Because Ron is also an illustrator like myself, I feel that his way of understanding the figure has been particularly applicable to my needs. Several of his mental ‘shorthands’ have worked their way into my own thought process now, including his ‘potato sack’ method of drawing the torso. I tend to learn better from videos than I do books, and this makes it really easy to draw along with Ron in real time for a lot of it. You can get the 5-volume set HERE.
I know lots of artists have cool figurines hanging around their studio. But more times than not, those figures sit on a shelf acting more like decor, rather than a real tool. I’ve taken to keeping these resin anatomy sculptures right next to my drawing table, and I can’t tell you how often I pick them up and draw from them! Constantly! The key in having them within arm’s reach at all times. It’s easy to keep drawing when the alternative means stopping to go scour a bookshelf. But when you have a constant reminder staring at you while you draw, it really helps. You can get the a male and female set right HERE.