April 11, 2009

This week: Ball, hoop, cone, vase.Surely everyone on the internet is familiar with the internet saying "old and busted/new hotness", as in "Toasters are old and busted, bread-seeking lasers are the new hotness."

For cartoonists who don't draw pure stick figures or totally realistic anatomy, but rather something in between, how to draw anatomy books are next to useless. In every book I'm familliar with, (including books made specifically for cartoonists that should know better) the basic-shape figure consists of a tallish rectangle to represent the mass of the ribcage, a squat, slightly wider rectangle to represent the general mass of the hips, a ball for the head, a line for the spine, and the joints are at the corners. Generally the next step in complexity is a quantum leap up to fairly complex anatomy, with no real in between offered except the recommendation to "study the figure." It's like those how-t0-draw-animals books where you'd draw a circle, an oval, some sticks, and then it would tell you to draw a tiger over that. I could have drawn a stick figure of a tiger if I'd wanted to, and if I could fill the anatomy in over those basic forms on my own, I wouldn't need a fucking how-to-draw book. The lack of any in-between information about gross anatomical structure is maddening for the artist who only wants to draw a cartoony muscle man whose muscles fall roughly in the right places without needing years of study to do it. The old basic shapes are old and busted, big time.

Allow me to tell you how I found the new hotness:

A couple weeks back I drew this to warm up before thumbnailing some pages:

I realized as I was drawing it that my back anatomy was getting pretty rusty, so I did an exercise that I often find useful for brushing up: I have a book with a drawing of just a skull, ribcage, spine and pelvis, no shoulder blades or femurs or anything. And I then fill in everything that's missing as best as my memory will serve, adding the missing bones and muscle and connecting everything up. When I can do it a few times correctly without looking for assistance, I know I've got it again.

It was while I was doing this this last time that I realized why there's such a huge gap of competence and ease with my real figure drawing and my cartoon figure drawing. I always start my cartoon figures with boxes with joints at the corners, like all the books say to, but the basic shapes of a real body are actually like this: And like a flash, I realized all the troubles I have drawing figues in comics are because I start with false basic shapes, that I have to spend time and mental energy correcting for. If you start with the right basic shapes, you don't HAVE to fix them later.

The ribcage is like a rounded cone. The pelvis is like one of those paper cone cups, squashed slightly. The shoulder girdle of the shoulder blades and clavicals is like a hoop, pulled so that the closest parts touch the back and front of the cone, and the farthest ends are the joints. The new basic shapes are the new hotness.

My figure drawing improved dramatically and immediately, both in speed and quality.

Here are two figures:
They both look serviceable. That is to say, neither looks so awful that it would attract attention. As you can see, the one on the left is drawn with the old and broken basic shapes. The one on the right is built with the new hotness shapes.
With the new hotness come new rules for finding your joints. They are easy and anatomically correct to an actual human:

-Shoulder joints are slightly, but not a lot, wider than the rib cage. Wider for men than women. It doesn't matter if the ribcage you start with is wide, or narrow, or tall or short. As long as the joints are slightly wider, but not too much wider, the figure will work.

-The pelvis is always slightly wider than the ribcage. It doesn't matter how fat, thin, tall or short the ribcage you start with is.

-Hip sockets are halfway up the vase formed by the pelvis. It doesn't matter if you draw the pelvis wide or narrow or tell or squat, the anatomy will always work out if you follow this.

-Elbows are always in between the pelvis and the ribcage.

The image below shows all the kinds of problems facing an artist using the old and busted basic shapes, and how the new hotness shapes solve those problems.

If you're trying to draw clothing on a character, the incorrect joints on the OAB figure make it difficult indeed to find where to put the fold of the sleeve into the armpit. It's just as akward figuring it out naked- you wind up with these boxy shoulders that you can't seem to pose correctly, or that look okay until you try to draw collar bones or shoulder blades on them. And what about drawing the pectorals? Where do you begin? Nothing on the figure looks like it should, so you re-draw and re-draw with what knowledge of anatomy you have until it looks passable, or you settle for a wonky figure and just assume you "cant draw people."

The crotch is the same tragic story. The hip joints start in the wrong place and using a box to represent the "mass of the hips" is of no use to anyone if they don't know what the anatomy of the hips is, and hip anatomy is counter-intuitive, complex, and hidden. So you do the best you can, and it looks funny. If you draw the figure nude their genitals hang from an odd squarish gap. You try to draw them in underpants and it's hard to tell where the waist and leg cuffs should go, with nothing to guide you. And if you try to draw pants, it's impossible to tell where the creases of the crotch should go.

Now look at the NH figure on the right- the NH basic shapes TELL you exactly where to put all these details. Muscles fall easily where they're meant to because the basic shapes actually act as a guide to where they should go. the NH basic shapes TELL you what the next steps of your drawing should be, instead if telling you "Next step, learn to draw anatomy." They already ARE anatomy.
To really show how fucked-up the seemingly okay OAB figure is compared with the NH figure, I drew the muscles of the front and back of the body on them, following the basic shapes.

Does the OAB figure even resemble any sort of muscles you've ever seen? Then how in the hell are you supposed to draw anything with them? Look how the muscle lays naturally on the NH basic shapes, because the NH shapes are real anatomical shapes.

"Now Matthew", you say, "It's all well and good for you to draw these shapes, you already have some anatomical knowledge. How am I supposed to get the basic shapes right?"

That's just it- the NH basic shapes function with flexible proportions. As long as you follow the rules listed above- shoulders and pelvis slightly wider than ribcage, elbows between the pelvis and ibcage, and hip joints halfway up the pelvis, you can draw the shapes as distorted as you like, and they'll still compliment each other and fit together so well you can actually lay muscle on them if you know how. Observe:

Both of these figures started off with nothing more than the ball, hoop, rounded cone and vase, and the shapes used could hardly be more different. And yet, because they followed the rules, they relate to one another proportionally correctly. I have done many drawings such as this and I cannot find any way of distorting the NH basic shapes so that they will not produce an anatomically viable figure, provided they follow the rules.

Furthermore, I've found that using the NH basic shapes makes is easy to render once difficult structures like the pelvis in perspective. By starting with the squished vase and adding two joints halfway up, you're guaranteed of at least a somewhat correct structure, regardless of drawing ability.

This week is only part one in a multi-part anatomy lesson tailored specifically for the cartoonist, who may not want, need, or be able to invest their time in studying all the complexities of anatomy, but who would like to at least be able to understand the basics of the figure. Next week I shall demonstrate how to build the pelvis, shoulders, and ribcage off of the NH basic shapes using very simple rules (which all scale in proportion, so it doesn't matter whether you draw the shapes exactly- perfect for cartoon anatomy) and then in following weeks I will show you how to draw the largest, most visible muscle groups, equally as simply as what I've shown you already.


Scheurbert said...

This is awesome and just what I needed today! Comictools has been one of the most helpful blogs I've ever read.

Jay said...

Great post, and definitely a new approach. Thanks for the work you put into this... I think it'll help me.

Sarah said...

This is a really fantastic observation on your part; I will have to give it a try. I never did get the hang of those block structures, they seem so unnatural.

To be completely honest, I only pencil in the anatomical structure about 20% of the time. Usually I just outline the person's body based on what motion I'm looking to achieve. I imagine that's why I have always preferred the "mummy" style of wrapping lines around the volume of the body; I never have to pick up the pencil.

honorless said...

Jack Hamm discusses a similar method in "Drawing the Head and Human Figure" -- instead of hoops, rounded cones, and vases, he uses the letter T for the collarbones and spine, an upside down U for the ribcage, and an M for the pelvis and sides of the hips. (For those who have trouble differentiating males and females: it may be worth noting that in the former, the sides of the M are parallel, and in the latter they spread outward.)

Your "vase" definitely provides greater assistance to pelvis-drawing in perspective and placement of the hip sockets, though!

MK Reed said...

Matt, have you seen Kyle Baker's book, How to Draw Stupid? I lent out my copy a few weeks back, and it's very John K-ish in tone, (another blog with a plethora of artiststic info) but the parts about drawing peeps in motion were pretty insightful for me. Of course, I'm not the devoted scholar you are. ^_^

And good timing, I just borrowed an anatomy book that I won't have time to read for a month!

matt said...

MK- I haven't read that book, but I have heard animation folk describe drawing things like peeps and bags of flour in motion as great gesture practice.

I've always been a natural at gesture, but it's form and anatomy that have always been difficult for me, and in these next few posts I'm endeavoring to bring people up to speed with what I've learned in the simplest, most useful way I can think of at the moment.

Filipe Henz said...

Wow! Great lesson. One of the great doubts I always had.

Sam said...

Thanks, this is great!

Edward said...

thank you so much for this.
It's exactly what i have been looking for. i have been using The Famous Artist course scans at
but this makes more sense when you want to draw a figure with some realism.
looking forward to the next tutorials

matt said...

Edward: The Famous Artist's course has much to recommend it, and it puzzles me why a course that so exactly describes every part of every other process it teaches does the same thing every other art course has ever done with anatomy, which is to do the equivalent of saying "To draw the earth, first draw a circle. Now, draw the continents and mountain ranges and rivers over that circle."

No helpful middle ground whatsoever. It's preposterous that no art course or book I've ever seen provides basic shapes that can also act as a guide to more complex anatomy, instead of requiring artists to draw anatomy over those basic shapes.

Eddy said...

Hi Matt,
yes i agree with you wholeheartedly.
Thank you for highlighting this issue. Its amazing how this subject is glossed over in many "how to" books.
I have 2 books that suffer from this.
"How to draw and paint crazy cartoon characters" by Vincent Woodcock and "Fantasy cartooning" by Ben Caldwell.
admittedly both work in a very stylized manner but there's a big leap from their wireframes to the finished sketch.
For me the most helpful have been the Jack Hamm books.
kind regards

Lazesummerstone said...

This is great! I might actually start drawing my characters with an underlying structure.
The whole rectangle body thing never made a lick of sense to me and it didn't work for me so much that I was disheartened and just tried to muscle through the character drawing process.

thiroux said...

Realy, realy great!!

Best thing I found in the internet in Ages!!


dacheatbot said...


A great tutorial would be one on drawing hair, as well as the variety of styles and its motion.

Thank You =)

Anonymous said...

This may sound shallow, but...

I think I love you.

Thank you so, so much.

matt said...

Dacheatbot: Drawing hair is like catching a rabbit coming out of it's hole. You need to know where it comes out and where it goes, and then you've got it. Unfortunately hair is too varied person to person for me to give you any solid rules beyond that.

Other folks: Garsh, thanks. You might wanna save the thank yous for when I take you through the muscles, though.

Anonymous said...

I'll tell you... I'm still in the "How the heck do you draw this" stage of the new hotness, but the change it has had on my figures is mindblowing!
I'm not horrible at anatomy, but it IS my weak point.
Not any more.
'Preciate it. I knew it was going to be something I'd like when I read "If I could draw a tiger, I wouldn't have bought the damn book" (My rewrite (and quote), not your words.)
I can't tell you how many times I've yelled that in my quest to make my anatomy better!

Margie said...

Some of the gifs don't show up anymore... are they fixable? I only found these anatomy posts recently.

matt said...

I can see all of them, which can't you see?

MidZ said...

Hi Matt!
This and later post of drawing muscles really helps simplify building the figures. I've used it a lot when making my sculptures.


matt said...

Glad to help, thanks for the kind words!

extended project student said...

Hi Matt!

First off Thhank yoou! for your tutorials and posts and everything, they've been very helpful.

Now - I am terribly interested in this post, But the images 4-8 won't load no matter what I try: Different browsers, viewing a cache copy, using google images.. I would be so grateful if you could suggest something i could do. Or if you could try reupload them. Thank you for considering my request.

Altercator said...

Hi, Matt.

It's been like yoinks ago that you've written this article. Now all your "new hotness" muscles aren't showing anymore on this article. Is alright for you to update the images for current readers?

Comic Tools said...

Agh, crap. It may take awhile. I'm not sure where the images are, or if I still have them stored. When found, I don't have anywhere set up to put them anymore. I'll do my best.

Comic Tools said...

Okay, fixed! Thanks for letting me know, and then reminding me. This series is one of my most important works and I want it available to people.