This article lists the best resources – books, websites, and models for studying anatomy and practicing your anatomy drawing skills, life drawing, thorough understanding of body parts, body types, and expanding your anatomy knowledge! Enjoy!
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If you are in a hurry, here is my list of best resources for studying anatomy for artists. If you have more time, keep reading on …
Table of Contents
Lots of people are familiar with Leonardo da Vinci’s and other old masters’ anatomy drawings, and how important they were to them in being able to understand what the human figure actually looks like, and why, and therefore be able to portray human subjects with realism, depth, light and life. When you think about it, in fact, it is no accident that the Renaissance in art, with its amazing paintings and sculptures of the human form, corresponds so exactly with real advances in medicine, and particularly our understanding of anatomy of the great masters.
Let’s answer some questions artists have when it comes to studying human and animal anatomy:
- How do artists practice anatomy?
- Is anatomy needed for art?
- Why do artists use anatomy?
- Why is drawing anatomy so difficult?
- How do I start learning anatomy?
- What is Écorché?
- What is the best way to learn anatomy?
- What are the best books for anatomy for artists?
- What are the best websites for anatomy for artists?
- What is an anatomy figure?
- Where can I find the best anatomy references for my art?
Why Should Artists Study Anatomy?
And this is just as important today as it was six or seven hundred years ago. From comic book and anime characters to portrait paintings and drawings and even 3D rendering, a clear and accurate picture of the structure and workings of the bones, joints, flesh and musculature, and really everything else going on in there, makes any depiction of a person (or, for that matter, an animal or even a fantasy character) so much more real, attractive and powerful.
The French, bien entendu, have a word for such images – écorché – which literally means “flayed” and refers to illustrations of what lays underneath the skin.
Assuming not many of us actually went to medical school, we may have to educate ourselves in human mechanics and anatomy. Happily, though, this is a fun and fascinating study. I know that there is this idea that learning, understanding, or drawing anatomy is difficult, but it is actually just a matter of putting in a little time – to study images, to read a little and to practice drawing them on paper or in a digital app for that matter. With the right resources, it can be easy, and it will certainly make drawing realistic and lifelike humans, animals and other creatures much easier!
And, even more happily, we will see an enormous improvement in our sketches, paintings, digital art or whatever medium we choose. In fact, lots of artists claim that their study of anatomy not only helps with depicting humans and animals, but encourages them to think more and more about what is “under the skin” of any object, and improves their work in whatever they draw.
What Is the Best Way to Study Anatomy?
It is possible to give yourself a kind of med school education even without going to med school (I hear they can be a bit spendy and difficult) by getting a university textbook about anatomy. This is definitely a way to really understand not just anatomy, but anatomy in relation to, or in context of, other working systems in the human body, and human functionality and health overall.
The thing is, though, that is really far beyond our needs here. We like to know not just what the surface of a human’s, or animal’s, body looks like, but the underlying anatomy structure – this greatly facilitates our ability to draw or paint with depth and realism. But since we are all pretty visual people, we can generally get a complete idea by using really detailed and well-made illustrations of anatomy, with perhaps a little description along the way.
So many of the best anatomy resources of this type, that mostly provide illustrations, will also include some basic text descriptions and explanations, which can also help. But to have a beautiful, precise and accurate picture of the muscles, cartilage and connective tissue, the skeleton, joints and overall supportive structure, even the organs underneath, is really what we’re looking for.
And yes, it might sound a bit gristly when I spell it out like that – organs, bones, tissue – but anatomy is life, and is really beautiful and, again, really fascinating. And the best resources are themselves beautiful works of art.
What Are the Best Resources for Studying Human Body and Animal Anatomy?
There are basically three different types of anatomy study guides for artists that we might want to consider:
- Anatomy Books
- Anatomy Models
- Anatomy Websites
Each has its own advantages, and you may already know which would be best for you, but I strongly recommend you consider getting at least one really excellent book on human anatomy and, if you like, another on animal anatomy. They are not expensive, usually, and the images on paper can have a different kind of effect and impact that seeing them on screen – and, for some people, are more relatable to their work of drawing or painting in physical media.
Anatomy models, on the other hand, can be quite expensive, but are an invaluable tool to have on hand. And anyway, we’ll look at both expensive anatomy figures and one quite affordable one as well.
And if you are a serious fine artist, a working commercial artist or illustrator, or if you do a lot of portraiture or any type of images of people and animals, I might also consider paying for one of the really valuable premium web services, like Proko, to get not just the very best images, but the superb and really useful features those sites offer.
But with web pages and apps, there are also a lot of really great free resources, and we’ll look at those too.
How Can You Find the Best Resources on Anatomy for Artists?
I have spent a lot of time collecting a resource list and presenting it here – not only from my own experience and personal use, but from the advice and recommendations of other artists, my friends, my art students and readers.
And here it is – a list of the best resources for any artist who wants to learn and better understand human anatomy and animal anatomy. We will point out the best choices for online websites, books and anatomy figurines.
Whether you want a quick glance at the inner workings of some creature you want to depict or you would like to have a deeper understanding of human and animal form – how it looks and why, the contours, the light and shading, the proportions, the movement and the life energy – you will find exactly the resources you need in this list of best anatomy references for artists.
At the end of the article, in the Bonus section, we will talk briefly about an amazing way for artists to learn anatomy – both human and animal – the industry-leading Computer Graphics Master Academy. I myself, as many of you know, also teach art, and I would normally want to steer people towards my own classes and learning platforms, but I have to say that CGMA is as good as it gets – and not just for computer graphics, but all aspects of art, including human and animal anatomy.
But first let’s have a peek under the surface, with this 2021 buyer’s guide for the best anatomy resources for any artist!
Best Human Anatomy Books for Artists
Best Book of Human Anatomy for Artists
Compared to Netter’s authoritative Atlas (listed just below), which is a standard reference for medical students and doctors, the above beautiful volumes are intended for artists, and explain things in a much simpler and easier to understand way, and in sparkling and engaging prose. The pictures, too, really shine, with lovely artistic quality, depth and life, and it is often said that just the illustrations alone – without even having to read the descriptions – will tell the artist all they need to know about human anatomy. The best anatomy books for artists available today!
Before we move on, I should mention another choice for the best artist anatomy book overall, the true modern classic by Eliot Goldfinger: Human Anatomy for Artists: The Elements of Form. Many would say that Goldfinger’s book, which is admittedly more popular and widely used than Peck’s Atlas, is one of the best and most beautiful and helpful art resource books of any kind, and while I slightly prefer Peck, I have to say that either one would be a stellar choice.
The Most Beautiful Book of Human Anatomy for Artists
A true masterpiece in every way! There are lots of anatomical drawings from Leonardo da Vinci scattered about in various collections and various books, but this “Manuscript A,” written around 1510, is his most thorough, most advanced and most beautiful volume on the subject. Complete with notes, well translated into English, this is a fascinating look into the mind and process of one of the greatest artists of all times, as well as an invaluable reference for any artist today.
Most Authoritative Book of Human Anatomy for Artists
Generally considered to have the most precise and visible representations of every aspect of human anatomy, Netter’s Atlas is perhaps not the most striking or beautiful artistic anatomy book on the list, but certainly the most accurate. For a deep understanding of human figures, body types and body parts, this volume is simply unsurpassed, and the admittedly steep price of admission also includes access to full high-res downloads from the complete online gallery – this alone makes the atlas an absolute bargain.
A must-have for serious artists and studios.
The Classical Reference
An artistic tour de force, Gray’s Anatomy is perhaps the single most widely known and recognized medical reference book ever made, and for good reason. Highly detailed and accurate drawings of every single aspect of human anatomy combined with clear and easy to understand descriptions, for very specific artistic reference as well as deeper study. Even though it is surprisingly inexpensive, compared to other anatomy books, this beautiful leatherbound edition has the finest quality printing I’ve seen, and would be a wonderful gift for any artist or a lifelong investment for yourself.
Best Value Book of Human Anatomy for Artists
By Kelly Solloway and Samantha Stutzman
Volume 2 - The Yoga Anatomy Coloring Book
Simple and exceptionally clear illustrations and very high quality printing make these two volumes great quick reference sources, for a kind of “glance and go” approach to sketching the human form. More than that, though, they are also brilliant sources for pose reference, and interesting and fun ways to see anatomy more deeply and organically, when actually used as coloring books. Inexpensive and invaluable!
Best Animal Anatomy Books for Artists
Best Overall Animal Anatomy Book for Artists
With over 500 individual illustrations, this classic book not only offers a great variety and selection of different animals, but enough types of animals to be considered quite complete and valuable. Beautifully rendered illustrations, detailed descriptions and even guides to drawing make Animal Anatomy for Artists the most highly regarded, and probably the most popular, book of its kind, and a wonderful companion to Goldfinger’s even more popular book – Human Anatomy for Artists: The Elements of Form.
Best Value Animal Anatomy Book for Artists
An inexpensive and yet really useful book, this Dover series reprint of the 1949 original offers enough of a variety of animals to be really useful to any artist who is drawing or painting animals. Each animal is really thoroughly covered (or uncovered, I guess) with the exact aspects and angles we need to see. There are more nicely printed and bound books, more beautiful books and more complete books, for sure, but this is one of the best values I know, and a great reference to have on hand.
Best Creatures Anatomy Book for Artists
By Terryl Whitlatch
From the author of the fun and fascinating Animals Real and Imagined, Whitlatch’s latest book is a brilliantly executed journey into the process of effectively realizing the imagination’s beautifully populated menagerie. Not just for fantasy animals, or fantasy artists, Science of Creature Design helps any artist better understand the inner workings of any animal – again, “real or imagined” – and how to best capture its shape, energy, movement and life. By itself, or as a companion to the equally important Animals Real and Imagined, this is a new classic, and gets my strongest recommendation!
Best Human Anatomy Figures for Artists
While basic artist mannequins are really valuable for pose reference, they are not accurate or detailed enough to be of any real help in learning or seeing human anatomy. For this, it is best to get a real anatomical model of a human figure- which can be a bit expensive but, for a fine artist or anybody who draws the human form a lot, is an important investment and well worth the money.
You can also get great animal anatomy figures, but unless you are really into drawing animals it is a bit of a stretch – with humans, you can get just two, or even just one, but to really have a complete and useful reference for animals you would kind of need to get a whole zoo of anatomical models, as a monkey’s innards are, from what I hear, a bit different than a cheetah’s.
So, in the case of animals, one of the wonderful books I’ve mentioned above might be a better idea, or diving into Pinterest for a range of images, but for humans I will include here two recommendations – one expensive, but the best of the best, and one quite a bit more affordable and still fantastic and really useful.
Best Male and Female Human Anatomy Figure/Mannequin for Artists
Accompanying anatomy book for the 3D Total Male and Female Drawing figures
Possibly the most beautiful anatomy model made, the 3dtotal human anatomy figure is a masterpiece of accuracy, flow, and life energy, and sure to inspire any artist even as it teaches and provides perfect anatomical reference. Not a complete, pull apart model like the cool interactive toy below, the 3dtotal models – both female and male – focus on the most important aspects of anatomy for artists: an accurate and life-like view of the shape, contours and proportions of a human body – torso, arms, legs, head, and the musculature underneath. Perfectly rendered, subtly spectacular and certainly one of the most useful tools any portrait artist, fine artist, commercial artist or art students can have.
Best Budget Human Anatomy Figure/Mannequin for Artists
This may sound a little silly – recommending a toy anatomy model to us serious artists? – but the Anatomy to the Max interactive figure is actually quite amazing. Really accurate and relatively complete organs, muscles and bones, which can be removed and studied individually and then put back together. In addition to simple and fun anatomical reference and study for any artist, the doll is fully articulated and poseable, and can make an insightful pose reference as well. Not as precise or beautiful as the superb 3dtotal models above, this is nonetheless a great product and a real resource for any artist, and costs a lot less!
Best Anatomy Reference Websites for Artists
Best Websites for Drawing Human Anatomy and Figure Drawing
It may be surprising, but artist websites tend to not feature Écorché, (that is, actual detailed anatomy) illustrations. In fact, the vast majority of websites devoted to artists have instead photographs of models, with perspective, poses in different positions and lighting designed to best illustrate the anatomy, contours, form and proportion of the human body.
As a result, my best free website – and the best place I know to find really great écorché images at no cost, is in fact a website aimed at medical students and health care professionals alike. My favorite premium site, though, is art-focused, and really shows the value and usefulness of those model photographs when they are done properly. I will also include a recommendation for a site you might have heard of… Pinterest – and a stern warning about bunnies.
Best Premium Anatomy Website
I recently chose Proko as the best premium website for pose references, and I have to say that this excellent site rates just as highly for anatomy references and anatomy lessons for artists. Not a collection of actual anatomical reference drawings, illustrating muscles, bones and flesh, but instead exceptionally sharp and clear photographs of models, featuring poses and lighting specifically engineered to highlight the anatomy and proportions of the human body.
Proko also has a huge range of anatomy courses and individual lessons, covering pretty much every part of the human body. Their award-winning classes and teachers are as good as it gets, as are their model photographs, and coupled with their invaluable range of pose references this is not only the best premium website for anatomy for artists, but one of the best art resources overall!
Best Free Anatomy Website
Link: InnerBody Research
Unlike most anatomy websites for art students or medical professionals, Innerbody does not make you pay sometimes extremely high membership fees to access their wonderful interactive anatomy charts and illustrations.
Like those other sites, though, the range and quality of Innerbody’s illustrations, and the control and usefulness of the interactive pictures, is truly premium. Perhaps way too much for an artist, and even a little distracting if you let yourself get lost in the next picture, and the next picture, and the next, this is such a well designed and well made website that even such apparently random browsing is still extremely valuable. And it is actually quite easy to find just exactly what you are looking for, quickly and directly.
For specific parts of the body, for whole body illustrations and for deeper and more complete understanding of human anatomy, Innerbody Research is the best free anatomy website I’ve ever found, and a wonderful resource for artists.
Best Collection of Anatomical Drawings, Écorché and Related Images
I normally stay away from websites like Pinterest (or Google Images or others) when I’m working, since they can really suck me in and waste tons of time – I mean, I search for drawings of hands, and an hour later I’m looking at a bunny in a top hat. I don’t know why, but I’m looking at it, and I’m giggling a little.
But in this case, by using simple search phrases like:
- Human Hand Anatomy
- Human Head Anatomy
- Anatomy for Artists
… and etcetera, you can find lots and lots of really amazing images, which are so well drawn or painted, or well photographed, and are an amazing guide and tool for anybody trying to draw the human form with more accuracy, beauty and life.
The same is true for animal anatomy, and I will also include Pinterest just below, in that section, but for human anatomy it is hard to beat the range and quality of the illustrations you will find here. In fact, if you can stay focused, and avoid the bunnies, Pinterest can be a gold mine for artists looking for pose references, botanical references, object references and lots of other images. But, if you’re like me, you better set a timer so you don’t get too lost!
Best Website for Animal Anatomy Reference
Well, this is going to be easy. It seems that there are very few websites which offer easily accessible, high quality écorché images – that is, detailed anatomy images – of animals. There are a few veterinary sites, but all of them I’ve come across charge for access to their images – and usually quite a bit. And there seem to be very few, if any, artist-focused sites offering any kind of quality images, free or premium.
So, in the human anatomy section just above, I recommended Pinterest, and said I would also give them a shout out here, in the best animal anatomy sites section. Turns out that they are, in fact, the only site I’ll list.
Luckily, they are actually an amazing reference for animal anatomy images, again if you just use the right search phrases:
- Animal écorché
- Cat écorché, dog écorché, horse écorché, etc
- Animal, cat, dog… musculature
- Animal, cat, dog… skeleton
- Animal, cat, dog… anatomy images
… and more specific phrases about paws, heads and skulls, teeth, fangs and jaws, whatever you need.
There are not, then, a huge number of really great free resources for artists interested in drawing or painting animals, or learning more about animal anatomy, but luckily Pinterest really comes through, with an almost unbelievable range of super high quality images.
Bonus Section: CGMA – the Computer Graphics Master Academy
Pretty much everything above is about teaching yourself anatomy, or even just finding quick and easily accessible human and animal anatomy images for your process and your art. But before we close I should mention another way to really learn anatomy, and from a perhaps somewhat surprising source.
The Computer Graphics Master Academy, I guess, not that surprising of a resource after all, given that so much of commercial art these days is about character design – in both traditional and digital art, in illustration, design and animation, whether for websites, films, games, marketing and advertising, product design or a million other niches.
And character design, just like portraiture, fine art, or any other form or level of human or animal drawing and painting, is radically transformed when the artist has even a basic understanding and vision of the anatomy just under the surface.
CGMA is an award-winning and industry leading online art academy for concept artists, with a huge range of classes covering every aspect of art. Although they are clearly focused on digital art, and are in fact superbly tuned to the most contemporary currents of art and the commercial art universe overall, their classes are also perfect for artists working in more traditional physical media.
Their anatomy classes – for human anatomy and animal anatomy (they even offer a course on the anatomy of clothing!) – are one example of the quality of CGMA’s offering – apt and relevant subject matter, brilliant art instruction and perfectly prepared courses overall.
As I said earlier, I am a working artist but I am also an online art teacher, and I think that the classes I prepare and teach are really excellent, but I have to say that if you want to learn anatomy for the artist in the best way possible, or if you want the very best and most complete guide overall available in art educations, CGMA is as good as it gets, and I highly recommend it!
Thanks so much for reading my latest article – Anatomy for Artists: The Best Websites, Books and Models for Human and Animal Anatomy – and please visit my blog – Art Side of Life – for tons of other inspiring ideas, resources, articles, buyer’s guides and a lot more!
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