Artistic Anatomy | Stuart Elliot Interview Part 1


Stuart Elliot explains the importance of anatomical study for artists and its relevance when using the sight-size method. Part 1 of 2.

*Artistic Anatomy for Portraiture with Stuart Eliot begins October 7th for 5 Saturdays!*

'Why is Anatomy Study Important For Artists?'

For those artists who want to attain a degree of expertise in creating convincing representational images or sculptural forms of the figure, anatomy is critical. Part of the difficulty of this is that attaining a high standard of result is in itself a formidable feat. To take drawing as an example: drawing is not a skill in its own right, it is rather a complex compound of interrelated skills of perception, analysis, comparison, evaluation, material dynamics and so on.  These are substantial areas of study which themselves can take many years to establish. It is possible, with the right reference, or the right set-up of model and lighting to work from, to produce highly rendered and convincing images.

However, if one desires to create images from imagination or invention, one needs to have a knowledge of structure. Robert Beverly Hale's books on artistic anatomy make this very clear.  In terms of being able to create a form from invention, he talks about the need to know first what it is that one wants to construct in order to be able to represent it. So one of my approaches is to apply the concepts of fundamental forms such as the cylinder, the sphere, the box, to the particulars of human anatomy. A deep knowledge of the subject does not make it possible only to invent convincingly, but also to render from observation with a much higher degree of understanding and fidelity. It also opens up new possibilities in the economy of that rendering: one doesn't have to be so literal in the optical transcription of the visual impression before us.

The best drawings from history seem to have an animation about them that is born from the economical selection and interpretation of visual information: not everything is put in. It is an old adage of drawing that one has to know what one is leaving out in order to leave it out, and this is different from mere omission! I think in particular of someone like Rembrandt and his gestural ink drawings, how communicative and fluid they are. However, I'm always wary of charting the breadth and depth of the subject of anatomy in too expansive a way in the beginning, because this can make it seem too a daunting a prospect. In my experience I've found that even a small amount of carefully targeted anatomical knowledge can have immediate benefits, straightaway becoming useful as a part of the armoury of tools with which an artist can assess their own work.

  • rembrant van rijn - a woman sleeping c.1655 courtesy of the british museum
  • One of the first lessons of anatomy that I teach to beginners is the observation that, generally speaking (and we are always dealing in generalisations at first) the pubic bone of the pelvis is the halfway point of the height of the figure; the knees are halfway down again towards the ground; and the end of the sternum is halfway between the pubis and the head. Just knowing those few elementary points greatly simplifies the problem of proportion, and gives you some concrete landmarks to look for on the body that are independent of the play of light and shadow.

    Finally, it dawned on me quite early on that all the artists I admired from the past left no stone unturned in the search for ways to solve problems: they seemed to know, or try to know, everything there was to find out. I think of Edgar Degas and his remark that the making of an artwork should be like the perpetration of a crime: in short, one should use every trick in the book.

    In addition to all of this essentially pragmatic advice, there is also the not insignificant fact that the study of human anatomy, and comparative anatomy where we look at the structure of animals, is just such a rich and endlessly rewarding intellectual activity in itself. Not only that, it was partly the study of anatomy that first revealed to me the conceptual nature of much of the painting in the National Gallery . I started to see that the bodies in those paintings were not straightforwardly empirical. They were decisively constructed, and contained within them all sorts of ideas and principles relating to architecture, sculpture, the aesthetics of the time, and so on. This showed me the extent of the artifice involved, and challenged what had perhaps been an overly simplistic idea of visual representation that I had carried with me up to that point.

    Read Part Two

    *Artistic Anatomy for Portraiture with Stuart Eliot begins October 7th for 5 Saturdays!*


More from the journal