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5 tips to learn anatomy as a sculptor



The Statue of David is widely enjoyed as Italian Michelangelo’s finest work: a timely, masterful symbol of Florentine sovereignty in the face of gigantic neighbouring threats. On being asked how he was able to sculpt with such anatomical precision and lifelike expression, Michelangelo is famously quoted as saying - “It was easy, I just chipped away at the parts that didn’t look like David.”

Statue of DavidIf that sounds ostentatious to you, then it probably is. Michelangelo is commonly regarded as a prodigal artist but his anatomical knowledge was taught to him and practiced over many years, just the same as anyone in the field. The reason he was able to achieve such familiarity with the human form was through public dissections and meeting physician-philosophers, which would become the founders of anatomical science during the renaissance. This experience in his early teenage years created a foundation which would be further polished throughout decades of relentless work. His ability to see David inside the marble and remove the excess was not owed solely to his talent but also his practiced mastery of anatomy.

Now you may be learning anatomy for medical purposes and have no interest in art whatsoever. That is understandable and conventional; there exist many well-founded jokes about doctors’ handwriting as proof. It should be noted though, that the applications of anatomy go well beyond medicine and for anyone learning the basics about the bodies they live in: there are many ways to practice what you know. The creative and performing arts: painting, sculpting, fashion, dance, beauty and massage therapy, among many other aesthetic disciplines have industry professionals that know their biceps brachii from their biceps femoris. Here are 5 simple tips to learn anatomy as a sculptor.

Anatomy of the tooth
Recommended video: Anatomy of the tooth
Structure of the tooth seen in crossection.

1. Add as much detail as possible into the gross anatomy

The author of this article used approximately 1kg of inexpensive terra cotta clay to craft a human heart to scale, as well as the proximal beginnings of the large blood vessels. This mass did not account for the atria and ventricles that would be removed (a healthy adult human heart is typically ~300g) which was reused to make the pericardial sac. The coronary arteries and cardiac veins were hinted at through small folds in the texture of the clay, that represent the fibrous covering of the epicardium. Seeing your sculpture as a living model can help your comprehension.

Terra cota heart shapeWhen you come across anatomy you’re unsure of, you can always check the structures present in Kenhub’s atlas for easy reference. For example, there are illustrations depicting the heart both in situ (in the mediastinum) and isolated. The latter is presented with lateral, anterior, posteroinferior, transverse (valvular) sections, as well as additional material on the CNS innervation, vasculature and surrounding diaphragmatic structures. If that’s not your cup of tea, there are also relevant articles and videos to ensure a variety of learning formats. For example, how a detailed tutorial on the anatomy of heart valves can lead to a better understanding of the heart as a pump and controlling bloodflow through the cardiac cycle (for example this video about the heart valves).

Left ventricle - lateral-leftOnce the shape of the organ is made, you can perform ‘surgery’ to create an internal view. The section you choose to make should give a view of the organ that is also structurally stable. A coronal dissection of the clay heart pictured led to an open view of the dorsal cardiac wall, distinguishing the heart chambers, atrioventricular valves, chordae tendinae and associated papillary muscles. The septum and left ventricular wall have the thickest musculature, needed for effective pumping of oxygenated blood from the pulmonary vasculature into the systemic circulation. Remembering these physiological details are important for not only accurate sculpting but in understanding the holistic processes of the human body.

2. If it looks wrinkly and fleshy, you’re doing it right!

Human organs are generally speaking, not very pretty. One of the best aspects of recreating anatomy is that it forces you to consider the visual and spatial appearance of your structure of interest, both outside of and inside the body. This where your innate grasp of anatomy can thrive. Plastinations have differing levels of resemblance to the living, functional piece and textbook illustrations are two-dimensional and often overly simplified. In the case of a heart, preservation can be complicated by fatty lesions or ischemic damage. By making your own model heart (or whatever else) you can frame your understanding of cardiac processes and even show it off on your desk to invite discussion, criticisms and appreciation amongst your peers.

Tera cota heart - chambers

3. Allow for life-like variation in size, shape and texture

Humans have been evolving all around the world for millions of years, so we have a lot of variation in our external and internal appearance. This can be an important fact to remember when designing anatomical art or remembering the specific locations of structures, which in some cases can change very often. An example of this can be found in the breasts, kidneys, genitals and iliac crest (the superior arch of your hipbones) which all vary across sexes, races and age groups.

Some structures such as the heart and brainstem vary only slightly due to their necessary functions to keep the body alive. Keeping this in mind is useful for every student of anatomy, whether for artistic or therapeutic purposes.

4. Label the relevant structures in your work

These labels can be either done digitally or in clear writing, but even if it’s never used again it’s important to solidify each aspect of the anatomy that was made. Eyes, faces and skulls are so commonly drawn that we almost never think of the detail that we innately put into the drawing. Our familiarity with irises, pupils, corneas, noses, lips, teeth and the underlying facial skeleton learned through a lifetime of experiencing human society means we never have to think of the names for these structures when we draw them.

Tera cota heartHowever, the rest of the human body is considerably less familiar: with the many tuberosities and fossae of the skeleton, origins and insertions of musculature and the accompanying neurovasculature of each region, labelling is nearly essential for comprehensive anatomical study. Again, if you need reference material - you’re already on the perfect site! Kenhub can help with its broad library of videos, articles and atlas filled with figures specific to each region.

5. Always be learning and have fun along the way

None of us are Michelangelo, so however your work comes out don’t sweat it. The human body is incredibly complicated and these are exercises to help in memorising and understanding the design. Don’t limit yourself to what’s been done, or what you have to do. The microscopic layers of blood vessel walls, the cytoskeleton and organelles of a cell, even the nucleoplasmic arrangement of chromatin can be recreated for the purposes of better study.

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Show references

Author: Joachim Torrano


  • Statue of David - Photo credit: MCAD Library via Visual Hunt / CC BY
  • Terra cota heart - shape - Joachim Torrano
  • Tera cota heart - chambers - Joachim Torrano
  • Left ventricle - lateral-left - Yousun Koh
  • Tera cota heart - Joachim Torrano
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