Artistic Anatomy | Stuart Elliot Interview Part 2

‘How do you condense such a complex subject into information relevant to artists?’

This is a good question, which I think touches on the question of how or what the relationship is between knowledge and information. It is doubtlessly true that anatomical observation presents us with a gargantuan amount of information to digest and what a student needs to look for is a structured way through it. This involves two questions, that of the method of study and that of the ultimate goal of application. It is clear that both of those questions will be answered in different ways by, say, a medical doctor and a figurative artist. Rather than attempting to condense the information, and thereby risk oversimplifying it, what I try to teach a set of conceptual tools and a set of strategies which a student can then take and use to study that territory themselves.

If we establish a shared goal, in this case figurative drawing, painting and sculpture, then we can point to well-established approaches to studying and applying anatomy that artists can use. I will always start with the identification and understanding of major skeletal landmarks. From there we go on to look at various sections piece by piece in order to generate something like a systematic way of studying the musculature and all of the other related tissues that make up the form of the body. For instance, it works well to consider a basic hierarchy: bone, to tendon, to muscle, to fat, to
skin. I provide a survey of existing approaches that have to some extent stood the test of time. There are many ways of tackling the subject, but it’s not enough to say in a generalised way that some of these approaches are more effective than others, rather that some of these approaches are going to work better for certain individuals than they are for others.

This reminds me of the question that people would ask when I told them I was working on a book on artistic anatomy – aren’t there many books on that topic already? I thought about this long and hard. But it seemed to me that the question of knowledge is much more dynamic in some ways than that of information. If you look at Paul Richer’s books on artistic anatomy, all the information you could possibly need is contained within them. But information alone is not enough; we need to show each other examples of how that information might be organised, what routes might be taken through it; much in the same way that there are many different aspects to a city, many neighbourhoods.

It also seems clear to me that there is a need for perspectives on that knowledge to be constantly renewed, and this comes back to the question of how this complex object might be made available to people when I teach. I like to think it’s because I can do this in a way that is lively and interesting, but that also is reflexive in how it offers students a picture of my own learning path through the subject – I am by no means a master of anatomy, and in a sense, a community of students provide company and support for one another as they learn.

‘Which areas do you consider to be of most importance?’

The skeleton is fundamental. It is here that we have the rigid structural frame that can be plotted in perspective as well as the articulation and movement which make up the gesture of the body. Is hard from here to say what particular areas are of more importance than others. In a sense everything has to be covered evenly if we are not to be left with a patchy quality to our work, with some areas looking more developed than others.

There are certainly differences in the regions of the body to consider when studying anatomy: one thing I think about a lot is information density. For example, the upper arm consists of relatively few muscular forms which are fairly large in size and not too difficult to understand. Contrast this with the forearm, which is one of the most complex areas of musculature in the body, with around 22 muscles to think about and a massive range of deformation created by the movement possible in that region. Similar is true of the hand which is a shape-shifting, dynamic form. So, this affects how much time and energy we should ‘budget’ towards our study of each region. The hands are almost like little figures in themselves so we should not underestimate how long it might take us to develop confidence working with these forms. Likewise, the head and facial anatomy are subjects unto themselves. The challenge is to break apart the body into its individual components so as to know them better, but to maintain a sense of the whole, and unity of form in our more developed drawings and sculptures. That’s the complexity and contradiction of this sort of study.

How does the study of anatomy relate to the practice of sight-size?

It could be assumed that sight-size as a method of training is simply a way of uncritically transcribing visual phenomena from perception to marks made on a surface. Perhaps the opposite assumption would be that a constructive method of drawing takes us away from ‘truth’, so to speak, if it were thought of as a kind of stylisation. It can be this of course, though what I’m interested in is the way that both are aspects of a conceptual framework through which a convincing illusion might be created, but therefore also manipulated in order to produce an effect. Of course, with sight-size, there is a great deal of conceptualising that goes on with regard to an understanding of the pattern of light and shadow. Think about the different regions of highlight, half-tone, core shadow, shadow and reflected light: we can see that we’re employing quite specific ideas. There’s a hierarchy that needs to be in place for the illusion to work in a painting or drawing. In a way, anatomical observation gives us another layer of data, one that mutually reinforces the information we glean from trying to correlate the visual impression to the compelling design of two-dimensional shapes on the drawing surface. Like all of these skills, it makes things harder at first, but easier in the long run!

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