Nowhere is form equals function more abundantly evidenced than in nature. And that’s why horse skeletons and human skeletons are basically the same, the famous art instructor and lecturer on artistic anatomy, Robert Beverly Hale demonstrates here.

The first life drawing class I took was taught by WPA muralist Tracy Montminy at the University of Missouri – Columbia. The textbook she had us buy was Hale’s Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters (Watson Guptill Publications, 1964.)

Hale was the Curator of American Painting and Sculpture of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a drawing instructor and lecturer, at both the Art Students League of New York and Columbia University. “The trouble is that there is no one alive today who can draw the figure very well,” he wrote in his preface for the book. “There is perhaps no one alive today who can draw the figure even as well as the worst artist represented in this book.”

“But things are not as bad they seem because in these days of unlimited reproductions you can study with any of the old masters you wish,” he added cheerily.

Making good his assertion, he packed his book with plates of figure drawings by 100 masters of Western art ranging across centuries, like DaVinci, Michelangelo, Brueghel, Rembrandt, Goya, Degas, and even one American Winslow Homer.

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Mrs. Montminy taught us how to sharpen our Conte crayons on sandpaper and render as best we could on our big newsprint pads the various live models she brought into the room.  (Her studio classroom is where I discovered, staring at the naked figures, that I was near-sighted, which led to my first pair of eyeglasses at age 19.)

Also, she had us draw in our sketchbooks from the reproductions in Hale’s formidable but still intriguing tome.

I still have my book from her class – the dust jacket in shreds, the cover worn and warped, but the reproductions inside still beautiful. Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters is an education between covers for sure. But maybe not as much as actually watching and hearing Hale talk to his students at the Art Students League of New York.

The talk above, titled The Ribcage is the first of what would become a legendary series of 10 presentations on artistic anatomy he gave to students of the Art Students League of New York. It’s about a whole lot more than the ribcage. Hale starts by drawing with chalk on a long stick an entire horse skeleton to demonstrate how “celestial engineers” designed it uncannily like the human skeleton.

The skeleton rules, he asserts. In his book, he actually urged students to go out and purchase a human skeleton from a medical supply house to live with, study and sketch from.  I imagined the skeleton in my dorm room and how my roommate might react. Artists of olden times reportedly scored cadavers for visual reference purposes.

“Beware of fleshy landmarks,” Hale says in the video. “Nipples can drop quite a bit with age. The navel’s sort of a traveling salesman.

“The [real] landmarks, the construction points are in the skeleton. It doesn’t change significantly between adult individuals. If you go to a cocktail party of skeletons you won’t be able to tell one from the other. You’d have to be quite an expert to tell the males from the females.”

His Art Students League lectures (all up on YouTube right now) are wondrous in the amount of knowledge shared, their precision and relevance. The video quality is primitive, as video recorders themselves were in the 1960s, but Hale’s language will carry you. When he draws to illustrate a point, we see enough in the grainy black and white to get the essential idea. He disses his classroom skeleton for its shortcomings of verisimilitude and assembly. He blows and wipes his nose a lot. with a crumpled handkerchief, repeatedly pulled from one pocket. He also delights with his wry wit and throw-away observations on art. (Botticelli, he asserts, “was the best hairdresser who ever lived based on all the ways he drew spirals of hair.” You can tell by students’ appreciative laughter they know how lucky they are to be in this lecture hall on this day and hour.

More takeaways from the video:

  • “Beware a bit of the medical specimens,” he cautions.”Think of the skeleton of the living and not of the dead. Get the feel of the skeleton off yourself, because in most cases you’re alive, you know. And so are the models.”
  • When looking at the skeleton, see the “geometric solids – the abstract shapes in the skeletal framework: boxes and cylinders, the ovoid, the ball, spools, cones, even doughnuts.”
  • As your second step, learn about the muscles and ligaments, which “lock the joints and keep us from falling this way and that way as we stand upright.” The gluteus maximus is the muscle that actually holds us upright.
  • Memorize and be able to hold in your mind a persuasive model of the human figure so you can turn it this way and that way in your mind’s eye. “It’s your responsibility to have your own secret figure which you consider to be normal against which you can measure the model.”
  • Lines, the stock and trade of the draftsman and figurative artist, “don’t exist in the three-dimensional world. They’re mental concepts. Principally we draw lines [including outlines] to show the meeting of planes.”

Illustrators typically measure their human and animal framework references in easily duplicatable units, like head-height to determine figure sizes and proportions. Of course, (me interjecting here) skeletons of babies, toddlers, and teens are very different than adult skeletons and much harder to come by. But do the best you can to find good visual references for the ages of the subjects in your story – and hold to those proportions.

In his video below, fine arts painter and teacher Stan Prokopenko takes us through the virtues of Hale’s preferred unit of anatomical measure, the ‘cranial sphere’ over the traditional method of using the head height as the metric. (From his YouTube channel Proko)