At this point, I’ve probably spent more time studying anatomy than most Doctors. But you definitely don’t want me performing any surgery on you. Anatomy for figurative artists is very much vocation-specific. We focus on the gross anatomy: skeletal system and external muscles. We are much more interested in function and form, rather than the biology of how muscles work.
There are often two camps within figurative artists when it comes to studying anatomy. Some believe that it is a critical skill that lack of knowledge in demonstrates at best a lack of craftsmanship, at worst, a lack of integrity. I refer to this group as the “Constructionists, ” not to be confused with Constructivists. The other camp believes that anatomy need be studied very little, or not at all. They believe that if you are truly seeing your subject, you will be able to create accurate representations. As such, I call this group, Representationalists. Within classically trained artists, regardless of medium, the Constructionists are definitely the majority.
Whether in drawing or sculpture, Constructionalists will build a skeleton, then layer muscles and fat atop. They may provide abstract blocks to define the interior mass, but fundamentally, they are building the figure from the inside out. Classical and Manga art is typically in this camp.
Representationalists look at the object, not for the structure that creates it, but for how the eye perceives it. They look for contour, negative space, and shadow. The muscles and bones are drawn based on the how the eye perceives the surface. Impressionist and Abstract artists generally fall into this camp.
So, which is better? And more importantly, which am I? The answer should be obvious: both and neither. I do believe that fundamental knowledge of anatomy is critical, but I reflexively draw from observation. Knowing the anatomy helps the hand to take visual short cuts. If you can quickly draw the shape of a shoulder, you can convincingly capture the gesture, and then use your observation to compare your knowledge of a generic shoulder, into a representation of the one you are actually looking at. It also helps to keep the eye from getting lost when looking at a surface. Especially as a beginner, it is easy to become obsessed with insignificant detail. Focusing on strand of hair, when the fundamental volume of hair is wrong is a classic mistake. Beginners focused to much on construction create art that looks symbolic rather than portraiture. As a tangent, Picasso spent his entire career on visualizing the symbolic. Yet, he did that after demonstrating a mastery of representation.
Building too much from the anatomy tends to make art look too stiff or structured. Building too much from representation tends to make figures that are unconvincing or unrecognizable.
Art doesn’t have to be right. It has to be believable.