Structural basics

The need for knowledge of structural basics

Is there any real need for us to spend time learning about structural basics of anatomy? What is the point of cluttering our brains with information and rules about bone and muscle structures of the human body? In Chapter 20 (link below), I give my answer to this question. This can be compared with what I have to say about the rules for drawing objects from observation, which are presented in BOOK 1, chapter 11. These are designed to help analysis of a life class model by alerting attention to examples of the following features of appearance (examples indicated by arrows):

  • How the parts fit together (blue arrows)
  • In front/behind relations (white arrows)
  • Subtle changes of direction along the length of any selected section of contour (green arrows)
  • Comparisons between near symmetries, such as between the shape of the two shoulders or between the two eyes.
Figure 1 : Blue, white and green arrows indicating key features of the pose of the young woman.*

Notice that all the same rules were applied to the analysis of the tree trunk featured in the drawing lesson in Chapter 10, or, indeed, could be applied to any other subject matter, as long as they have in front/behind relations and/or junctions between parts and/or contours containing curves (whether simple or complex). In Chapter 10, much use is made of the surroundings of the tree. In other words, the context provided by the the mown grass, the esplanade wall and the roof, gutter and windows of the house beyond it. There is a fundamental difference between these and the rules of human anatomy. Whereas my list of rules can be applied to any object-type, from any viewpoint and in any context, the rules of human anatomy relate to common features of specific object-types, seen in a limited number of poses, from limited number viewpoints.

How then could knowledge of anatomy improve your drawing of the model in Figure 1, or any other human model? As indicated above, the purpose of Chapter 20 of my book “Drawing with knowledge” (see link below) is to find answers to this question.

One of the answers is made clear by asking another question. Would knowledge of anatomy make any difference to the way you would depict the subtlety of curvatures along the length of any selected section of contour or make clear how parts fit together in your drawing? When I founded the Painting School of Montmiral over thirty years ago, my answer might well have been a guarded “no“. Today it is a guarded “yes“. I now realise how an awareness of which muscles are intertwining with which other muscles gives an added focus to our analysis of complex curvatures. I am also convinced that a better understanding of underlying structure can beneficially influence our search for visible signs of how parts fit together.

Nor is it only when drawing the human figure that knowledge of underlying structure can sharpen analysis when drawing from observation. It also helps when depicting the trunks and branches and leaves of trees. Indeed, it can make significant improvements in the depiction of all objects whose contours are made up of complex curves or characteristic ways of fitting together. What has slightly surprised me is the positive difference it makes to the quality of the drawings that result.

In the chapter you will find :

  • Simple diagrams that direct attention to basic “structural features”
  • Suggestions as to how to avoid common errors due to not making use of the context provided by other features
  • Reminders as
  • to how the “constancies of visual perception” can get in the way of the best of intentions.

After the link, I have included images of drawings made by four of the most innovative and adventurous artists among the Early Modernist Painters. It would seem that the deep  knowledge of anatomy, so clearly evidenced in them, did no harm at all to their expressive energy. The poster by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that precedes them and the images by Rodin, Degas and Matisse in the Post for Chapter 18  provide evidence for this.




The poster

Jane Avril by Toulouse-Lautrec, one of the artists featured below


Drawings by artists who started by learning about structural basics

Auguste Rodin : Studio drawing (with Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran?)


Edgar Degas : Study for early painting (student of Louis Lamothe)


Matisse : Studio drawing (with Gustave Moreau?)


Toulouse-Lautrec :  Studio study from plaster cast (with Léon Bonnat or Fernand Cormon?)


*The red arrow in Figure 1 signifies a need for more than one arrow type.

Earlier chapters on the uses and abuses of knowledge:


The chapters so far loaded:



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4 thoughts on “Structural basics”

  1. At the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, William-Adolphe Bouguereau taught painting as it had been for the past 300 years. Henri Matisse felt he had to attend but failed the entry exam. Gustave Moreau began teaching the École des Beaux Art and became a professor in October 1891. Henri Matisse claimed that Moreau’s teaching was fundamental to his artistic development: ‘He didn’t set his pupils on the right road, he took them off it. He made them uneasy…He didn’t show us how to paint; he roused our imagination.’ Another pupil was George Roualt, who like Matisse, was associated with Fauvism. Roualt spoke of Moreau’s great respect for the individual style and vision of each artist he tutored. Moreau would take his students into museums to paint from the masters, not to slavishly copy, but develop their own personal ways of painting. Without the likes of Moreau, Impressionism would not have been born. Of the drawings shown, Matisse offers more life and emotion, whereas the Rodin and Degas are traditionally rigid.

    1. Thank you Keith or the history lesson. I agree with you that Gustav Moreau was an inspirational teacher for Matisse and others. To my understanding, he was one of the great teachers in history. He is also a much underrated artist (Have you been to his Museum in Paris? Some of his work is mind blowingly ahead of his time). Obviously, I should have emphasised that the drawings above are ones showing that the four artists who made them all believed that the knowledge of anatomy provided by their early training stood them in good stead when, as you put it, they “went off the right road” and became four of the great innovators of their times. The only thing you write that I would question is Gustav Moreau’s part in the birth of Impressionism. His profound influence on Matisse cannot have been before he started attending Gustave Moreau’s classes in the mid 1890s (he only started painting in 1889. In contrast, Impressionism got underway in the 1860s. When Eduard Manet, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne et all were pioneering the way, Henri Matisse had yet not been born and Gustave Moreau, along with his great friend Edgar Degas, was still a fairly conventional artist (although they both shared the young “Impressionist’s” enthusiasm for the pioneering work of Eugene Delacroix). By the way, as well as taking Matisse into the museums, Gustave Moreau advised him to go and and see and get inspiration from the work of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, but none of the other, now famous Modernist painters. He found out about them from John Russel, whom he later described as his colour teacher.

  2. I said it was the likes of Moreau. Those forward-thinking visionaries who went against tradition and the establishment. I appreciate both Moreau and Matisse were too young. In the UK, John Constable challenged the Royal Academy in the same way; knowing the tradition of 300 years needed to change.

    Moreau wanted his students to respond through their individuality, whereas Boisbaudran expected the exactness of vision, even held on to through memory. The students of Boisbaudran, should create almost identical drawings, while those of Moreau, would be as individual as each student. I would rather have studied with Moreau than Boisbaudran. But my choice is based upon previous education. Throughout art college and after, I wanted to develop realism, and the accuracy it necessitated. Then I grasped something was missing. From that awareness, I explored ways of connecting with my individuality, to offer something very personal. Looking back, I recognise, in gaining a thorough understanding of the science (all that can be taught), was essential for me to move forward and explore (all that cannot be taught). What I learnt, now sits in my subconscious, to be call upon when required. At the start of my development, I may have preferred Boisbaudran. I do believe, both can be developed together, it should not be one or the other, but that is the way so much art teaching has developed.

    Although I have drawn the figure with regularity, at no time have I studied anatomy, regardless of the ‘formal’ teaching establishment. If you look with accuracy, what I refer to as ‘proactive looking’, then have the skills to translate what you have observed, not having studied anatomy, is no real handicap. When you look deeper, and deeper, and deeper; you notice the smallest of movements, as your arrows suggest. But more so, as between each arrow I can see many changes. There are also tensions and gravitational pulls within the body, which are more evident in life than a photograph. Anatomy simply explains how the body fits together. Like the rules of Linear Perspective when you cannot see the vanishing points or horizon, understanding the basics can help. You cannot see anatomy, but understanding how a body fits together, can also help.

  3. Hello again Keith. Thank you for this very well thought out comment. I tried to explain that, before being asked by students to teach anatomy and linear perspective, I shared your view that just looking can get you a long way, perhaps even as far as you need to go. What I have learnt as a teacher is that any method that encourages more perceptive looking has the possibility of helping. Also that checking up on rules, whether good or bad, does just this. Read all my chapters and I hope you will get this message.

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