Classic Human Anatomy in Motion: The Artist's Guide to the Dynamics of Figure Drawing (2015)

Chapter 11

Finding Movement within the Stationary Figure

Many traditional figurative artists depict stationary figures or figures captured in just one phase of movement. Even though the figure is not actually moving (as an animated figure does), it is still desirable to find a sense of movement within the pose, creating a flowing rhythm or dynamic tension throughout the forms. Finding the movement within a stationary pose gives the figure energy that can be subtle or dynamic, depending on the pose and the artist’s intention.

In this chapter, I continue to break down the figure’s forms into simple structures to help you understand the mechanics of movement. I also explore ways of recognizing the indications of movement (subtle or dynamic) that occur in various poses. A strong directional alignment of body parts (e.g., torso, limbs, head), usually referred to as a line of action, can help create the illusion of movement within a stationary figure. Artists can also indicate how the muscles are stretching and compressing, giving a figure in a drawing, painting, sculpture, or digital image a sense of internal energy. Understanding movement within the forms can help artists who work extensively from imagination or memory, sharpening their awareness of how far to exaggerate the forms without distorting them or losing the vitality of the action.

The “Four T’s”

Anatomical structures can change spatial position in four basic ways, which are sometimes referred to as the “four T’s”: turning, tilting, tipping, and twisting. To understand the basic principles of these movements, it can be helpful to simplify the figure into extremely basic shapes. Here, I use a cylinder form that can represent the rib cage, torso, or head, showing how it changes in each action. The same principles can be applied to elongated cylinders used to represent the upper and lower arms and legs, or, in fact, to any basic shape (block, oval, etc.) that you might use to construct a figure.

As you study the drawings that follow, be aware that every structure has a central axis. In a cylinder, this axis is an imaginary line traveling though the center of the cylinder from top to bottom. When the cylinder turns, it is rotating around its central axis. For artistic purposes, however, the midline often functions as the central axis. The midline has the same alignment as the actual central axis but is positioned externally, on the surface form, not internally. In front views of the rib cage, the midline is along the sternum (breastbone); in back views, it is along the vertebral column. When the rib cage rotates, it is turning on its actual central axis (the invisible imaginary line in the center of the rib cage), but we can monitor how much rotation is occurring by observing the placement of the midline (the sternum or vertebral column, depending on the view).

Turning Movement

Turning is the rotation or pivoting of a structure around its central axis. At the left in the next drawing is a basic cylindrical shape with a vertical line placed at the center on the exterior. This center line represents the midline.


Let us assume the cylinder symbolizes a rib cage. If the rib cage is facing you, the sternum is positioned on the midline. When the rib cage turns to either the left or right, the sternum (on the midline) moves off-center, showing how much rotation is occurring. The middle cylinder in the drawing is turning toward its own right, and the cylinder on the right is turning to its left. As simple as this principle is, beginning art students sometimes fail to see how the rib cage rotates in certain poses, thereby missing the opportunity to indicate movement.

Note that turning is not a twisting action, because the rotation occurs on only one structure. Two structures must participate in a twisting action: one rotating in one direction while the other structure rotates in a slightly different direction.

Tilting Movement

In a tilting movement, a form bends to the side, away from a vertical alignment. The cylinder at the left in the top drawing represents an upright frontal view, with the midline again placed along the center of the exterior surface. The middle cylinder shows a slight tilting action, and the cylinder on the right shows a more dynamic tilt. When drawing a tilting figure, the easiest way to ascertain the degree of the tilt is to hold your pencil in front of you and align it with the model’s tilting rib cage. Another way to assess the extent of a tilt is to think of the face of a clock: Is the central axis of the form positioned at a certain “hour” (one o’clock, two o’clock, etc.)?


Tipping Movement

Tipping is another term for bending, but in this case the bending is toward or away from the viewer. The cylinder at the left in the middle drawing represents an upright frontal view, with the midline again placed along the center of the exterior surface. The middle cylinder is tipping toward the viewer, while the right cylinder is tipping away. In anatomy, the term flexion is used for a movement in a forward direction (such as a torso bending forward), and the term extension for a movement returning the form back to its original position or moving it even farther in a posterior (backward) direction. (This farther backward movement is sometimes called hyperextension.). In poses where there is some foreshortening, as when a torso tips toward the viewer, the tipping cylinder works well as a structural shape.


Twisting Movement

Twisting is a spiraling action involving more than one form. Generally speaking, a twisting movement can only occur if one structure (such as the rib cage) turns in one direction while another structure (such as the pelvis) is turning in a different direction. This creates a torque between the two structures and usually twists the soft tissues connecting them. At the left in the bottom drawing opposite are two stacked cylinders facing forward in the normal, upright position, with their central axis placed in the internal center and the midline placed along the center of the exterior. In the middle, the upper cylinder is turning toward its right while the lower cylinder turns toward its left. On the right, the twisting movement is reversed.


Note that there are anatomical exceptions to this rule. A single muscle—for example, the brachioradialis of the radial group of the upper arm—can twist in a spiraling motion, depending on the action and the position of the bones it attaches to.

Combining Tilting and Turning

Of course, the movements of turning, tilting, tipping, and twisting are often combined in various ways in the living, moving human figure. Let’s examine one such combination: a movement in which one structure rotates and tilts at the same time. The cylinder at left in the next drawing is facing forward (with the midline at the center) but tilting at an angle. (Note that there is no foreshortening occurring here.) The cylinder in the middle is tilting at the same angle but is turning toward its right, as indicated by the midline, and the cylinder on the right is tilting and turning toward its left. As a general rule, you should always check to see if there is any rotation going on in a tilting structure you are drawing.


RED ARROWS: Direction of tilt away from a vertical alignment

ORANGE ARROWS: Direction of rotation

Movements of the Head

When drawing the head in any position, first indicate its basic shape using an oval, egg shape, or modified skull shape or just a simple cylinder or block. Whichever shape you use, be aware of the head’s central axis—the invisible imaginary line running vertically through the center. Also indicate the midline of the head, using it as a guide for the placement of the facial features, which are positioned on lines perpendicular to the midline. (For more on the placement of facial features, see this page.)

The placement of the midline will, of course, change depending on whether the head is facing forward, rotating to the left or right, or tilting away from a vertical alignment. Likewise, the positions and directions of the brow line, eye line, nose line, and mouth line will also turn and tilt depending on the type and degree of action taking place in the head. When the head is looking up or down, these horizontal lines will follow the general curvature of the head, as they would on a cylinder.

Turning of the Head

Any position the head takes between a frontal view and a profile view is referred to as a three-quarter view. As the head turns, or rotates, farther away from a frontal view, the less you will see of the features on the far side of the midline. The head at the left of the drawing on this page is facing the viewer directly; at the middle and right, the head is shown rotating away to a lesser and greater extent.


Vertical alignment of the head

The central axis and midline are positioned vertically, at center.

Head turned slightly toward its left

The central axis does not move, but the midline turns toward the cylinder’s left.

Head turned farther toward its left

As the central axis remains stationary, the midline turns farther to the cylinder’s left.

Tilting of the Head

When the head tilts sideways (lateral flexion of the head), it leans toward the right or left shoulder to a lesser or greater degree. You can determine the position of the central axis and midline by comparing the angle to a vertical alignment nearby, such as the vertical sides of your drawing board or a vertical structure in the background. The cylinders in this drawing show this change of angle.


Vertical alignment of the head

The central axis and midline are positioned vertically, at center.

Head tilted toward left shoulder

The central axis and midline indicate how much tilting is occuring in the cylinder.

Tipping of the Head

The action of tipping the head in a forward and downward direction is called flexion of the head and neck. That of tipping the head back, with the chin moving in an upward direction, it is called extension of the head and neck. A frontal view of either action will produce some foreshortening of the features. Although the central axis and midline remain vertical, the eye, brow, nose, and mouth lines appear to curve around the facial structure. As the head looks down, the lines of the facial features curve slightly upward; when the head looks up, they curve downward, as can be seen in the following drawing.


Vertical alignment of the head

The central axis and midline are positioned vertically, at center.

Head tipping forward

The cylinder is tipping forward.

Head tipping back

The cylinder is tipping back.

Combining Tilting and Turning of the Head

In action poses, the head will often be tilting and rotating at the same time. In depicting such an action, the first step is to establish the basic shapes of the head, neck, and shoulders and their positions in relation to the torso. Indicate the midline of the head to see how much rotation and tilting is occurring, then position the features accordingly.


The head is tilting away from a vertical position while facing front.

The cylinder is tilting away from a vertical alignment.

The tilting alignment is the same, but the head is turning toward its right.

The tilt of the central axis is the same, but the midline is turning toward the cylinder’s right.

The tilting alignment is the same, but the head is turning toward its left.

The tilt of the central axis is the same, but the midline is turning toward the cylinder’s left.

Combining Turning, Tilting, and Tipping of the Head

The head is capable of turning, tilting, and tipping (backward or forward) all at once. When setting up the position and general shape of the head in a pose, find the midline, which will tell you right away if the head is both turning and tilting. Then see whether there is any foreshortening indicating that the head is tipping toward or away from you. As you add the feature lines (brow line, eye line, mouth line), make sure they follow the slightly curving alignment (downward or upward) that occurs when the head is tipping. The placement of the midline and facial lines in such poses is shown in the top drawing on the following page.


The head is tipping back, with a turning and tilting movement.

The head is tipping forward, with a turning and tilting movement.

Tilting Movements of the Torso

Assessing the angles of tilts is important for understanding what is occurring in most poses, even relatively passive ones. While it is not necessary to get the tilt absolutely correct in brief gesture drawings, in longer studies you should take the time to check the actual angles in all parts of the pose. Getting the tilts right minimizes proportional problems, preventing the impression that the drawing looks somehow “off.” If you do get that feeling, it usually means that an angle is not in the right position and that you have therefore mistakenly shortened or lengthened a structure.

In the following examples, I have broken down the torso into two shapes: a cylinder representing the rib cage and a slightly flared cylinder shape representing a female pelvis. (The male pelvis, with its narrower hips, can be represented with a square block shape.) There are numerous variations on these actions, depending on the degree of the tilts and the relative positions of the rib cage, pelvis, and head.

Vertical Alignment of the Rib Cage and Pelvis

The next drawing shows a vertical alignment of an upright torso, sometimes referred to as the neutral position of the torso. In the front view of the vertical torso, the midline begins at the pit of the neck, travels through the sternum (breastbone) and navel, and terminates in the pubic bone. In the back view, the midline goes from the base of the skull along the vertebral column to the sacrum.


LEFT: Midline of torso

CENTER: Anterior view

RIGHT: Posterior view

Tilting Rib Cage with Stationary Pelvis

The rib cage and pelvis can tilt independently of each other. In the drawing below, the pelvis remains stationary while the rib cage tilts to one side. This causes a slight curve in the midline of the whole torso unit.


LEFT: Midline of torso

CENTER: Anterior view

RIGHT: Posterior view

Tilting Pelvis with Stationary Rib Cage

The following drawing shows an opposite sort of movement, in which the rib cage remains stationary while the pelvis tilts toward one side. This likewise creates a subtle curve in the midline.


LEFT: Midline of torso

CENTER: Anterior view

RIGHT: Posterior view

Tilting Rib Cage and Tilting Pelvis

The following drawing shows both the rib cage and pelvis tilting, producing a more dynamic tilting action of the whole torso unit. The midline now has a more serpentine, curving alignment.


LEFT: Midline of torso

CENTER: Anterior view

RIGHT: Posterior view

Basic Twisting Movement of the Torso

Now, let’s look at how the torso can twist, again using a cylinder for the rib cage and a slightly flared cylinder for the (female) pelvis. On the following drawing, the upper cylinder is rotating slightly in one direction while the lower cylinder is rotating slightly in the opposite direction. The images at the middle and right are front and back views of a torso showing this twisting action taking place. When there is any kind of twisting action in the torso, the midline will have a serpentine alignment, from the pit of the neck to the public bone in front views, or along the vertebral column in back views.


Continuous Twisting Movement of the Whole Figure

When the whole figure is twisting, the feet are usually firmly planted and stationary. As the rib cage twists in one direction, the pelvis remains more or less stationary. This action can be subtle or dynamic, depending on the degree of the twist, the action of the arms, the placement of the legs, and the angle of the head.

The two following drawings are anterior (front) and posterior (back) views of a female figure continuously twisting. Her feet are firmly planted on the floor, and her arms swing in response to the twisting action of her upper body. You can see how much torque and tension is occurring in the upper body by observing the midline of the torso (represented by a red line in the drawings). In the front view, the midline travels from the pit of the neck down to the pubic bone of the pelvis; in the back view, the midline lies along the vertebral column, traveling down to the sacrum bone of the pelvis. The more dynamic the twist, the more the torque will affect the “stationary” pelvis. Even though the feet are firmly planted, the pelvis will pivot slightly because of the tension the twist creates in the vertebral column. As the torso twists, the head can either move with the twisting action or turn in opposition.


Anterior view


Posterior view

The next drawing shows a continuous twisting movement of a male figure from a lateral (side) view. With his feet firmly planted, the figure begins to turn his torso toward his left, producing a spiraling action within the whole torso. Although the twisting action is more noticeable in the rib cage, there is also a small amount of movement in the pelvis. Again, the key to assessing any twisting action is to look for the midline of the torso. The farther the figure twists, the more the midline curves, emphasizing the fluid relation between the rib cage and pelvis structures. The natural swing of the arms underscores the twisting, spiraling action.


Lateral view

Axes of Movement

In most poses, you can see the general action immediately merely by locating the central axis or midline of the whole figure. In addition, you should look for two other axes: the shoulder axis and hip axis. In standing poses, these are usually more or less perpendicular to the vertical central axis of the figure, but they align in different configurations in various turning, tilting, and twisting actions.

The shoulder axis is an imaginary horizontal line that runs through both collarbones (clavicles) and the pit of the neck. Some artists begin this line at the very outer tip of the shoulder (acromion process) and run it through to the other shoulder’s tip.

In an anterior view, the hip axis is an imaginary horizontal line connecting the ASIS landmarks—the bony protrusions at the anterior ends of the iliac crest, or upper rim, of the pelvis. Some artists start the hip axis at the outer edge of the hip and run it through both ASIS landmarks and over to the opposite edge of the hip. In a posterior view, the hip axis connects the PSIS landmarks—the sacral dimples on either side of the upper border of the sacral triangle (sacrum) of the pelvis. Again, the line can be extended to the outer edges of the hip.

These axes and features appear in the drawing opposite, as does a line marking the anatomical center. The anatomical center divides a vertical standing figure halfway between the top of the head and the bottom of the feet, traveling from the greater trochanter of one femur (bone of upper leg), through the pubic bone, to the greater trochanter of the other femur.

The drawing also shows the central axes of the upper and lower limbs. Note that these axes do not indicate the actual positions of the bones but serve only as guides for quickly assessing the general placement of the limbs in different poses. The central axis of the upper arm starts near the shoulder joint or higher up, near the acromion process or the outer end of the clavicle, and it ends near the elbow joint. The axis of the lower arm begins near the elbow joint and ends near the wrist joint. The axis of the upper leg starts near the hip joint (near the anatomical center) and ends on the knee joint. The axis of the lower leg begins at the knee joint and ends near the ankle joint. The hands, fingers, feet, and toes likewise have their own central axes (not shown in the drawing).


Anterior (left) and posterior (right) view

The figure in the life study Standing Male Figure Resting His Hand on a Wall, is executing a very classical, somewhat passive pose, yet there are various angles throughout. The main action is seen in the serpentine movement through the torso and the supporting leg. The axes of the shoulder and hip angle in different directions and also contrast with the various angles of the limbs. The accompanying structural diagram shows the various axes and their angles.


Black Conté crayon and sanguine pastel dust on white paper.


Finding Movement in Standing Poses: Contrapposto

Contrapposto is an Italian term that can be translated as “counterpoise,” “counterpose,” or “counterposition.” It is primarily used to describe a classical standing pose in which the figure’s weight is concentrated on one leg while the other knee is bent, creating a tilt in the pelvis. The foot of the bending leg can be flat on the ground, or the heel can be lifted while the ball of the foot remains anchored to the ground. The hip bone on the side of the straighter leg is higher than that of the bent leg, producing a counterbalancing reaction in the shoulder axis, which tilts slightly in opposition to the hip axis. Variations on this pose can be seen in figurative art of the past two thousand–plus years.

Here, we will look at two kinds of contrapposto: traditional contrapposto, which is somewhat passive in nature, and dynamic contrapposto, in which there is a twisting action in the torso. Both kinds are shown—and compared to a neutral standing pose—in these drawings.


Anterior view

LEFT: Neutral standing position

CENTER: Traditional contrapposto

RIGHT: Dynamic contrapposto with twisting action


Posterior view

LEFT: Neutral standing position

CENTER: Traditional contrapposto

RIGHT: Dynamic contrapposto with twisting action

Traditional Contrapposto

The traditional contrapposto pose, also known as classical contrapposto, was probably first employed by classical Greek sculptors who broke away from the symmetrical standing poses of ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and archaic Greek statuary. By shifting the figure’s weight to one leg, they created a lyrical curving alignment in the torso that often continues through the weight-bearing leg. A gentle S-shape can be seen curving between the pit of the neck and the pubic bone in front views and along the vertebral column in back views. When it continues through the supporting leg, it gives the whole pose a sense of flowing motion. Artists of the Renaissance also employed the pose, as did Neoclassical artists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and Academic artists of the nineteenth century. Even today, it appears in the work of artists working in a classical realist mode.

Traditionally, most depictions of classical contrapposto show a frontal plane on both the rib cage and pelvis structures. Even though the rib cage and hips are tilting in different directions, the planes of the torso face forward and are not rotating or turning to any degree. Of course, the same applies when observing the figure from the back.

The placement of the arms in a contrapposto pose can vary. Some poses have the arms raised upward, with the hands resting on or near the head or neck. Other poses have the arms bent at the elbows, with the hands placed on the hips (arms akimbo). And in others the arms are held near the torso in various graceful positions.

The figure in the life study Back View of Male Figure in a Traditional Contrapposto Pose, with Arms Akimbo, is taking the classic contrapposto stance, with the weight on one leg while the other leg is bent at the knee. This creates a tilting action in the pelvis with a slight counterbalancing action in the shoulders. The bent arms almost make the pose appear symmetrical, yet you can see the subtle, lyrical curve of the midline along the vertebral column.


Brown pastel pencils and white chalk on toned paper.

Dynamic Contrapposto

In the dynamic contrapposto pose, the rib cage tilts at one angle while the pelvis tilts in opposition—just as in traditional contrapposto. The difference is that, in the dynamic version of the pose, both the rib cage and pelvis twist or rotate away from each other, giving the midline of the torso more tension and movement and creating an obvious serpentine curve of the midline on the front of the torso or along the vertebral column.

This more dynamic version of contrapposto—also called baroque contrapposto or spiraling contrapposto—is found in many figurative paintings and sculptures of the late Rennaissance and the Mannerist periods, but most notably in works of the Baroque period (seventeenth century).

As in traditional contrapposto, the arms can be placed in a variety of positions. But the head can also tilt or swivel, altering the dynamics of the overall pose. In the life study Female Figure in a Dynamic Contrapposto Pose Holding a Staff, the turning head and the placement of the arms help convey the energy of the twisting action.


Graphite pencil, watercolor wash, and white chalk on toned paper.

Finding Movement in Various Poses: Line of Action

Line of action generally means the directional movement of the whole figure within a pose, but it can also pertain to an individual body part (a limb, the torso, the head), which may have its own line of action. The line of action is similar to the central axis but is more organic; at times, the line of action does not precisely follow the central axis of the body or a body component, instead indicating a more sweeping alignment within the pose. You can see this in the drawing below: Instead of tracing the angular relations between the central axes of the upper arm, lower arm, hand, and fingers, the line of action indicates a continuous, organic movement beginning at the shoulder and carried through to the wrist, hand, and index finger. Locating the line of action is especially important in quick gesture studies, but it can also be useful when doing longer studies, to emphasize a fluid quality throughout the forms.


Left arm, lateral view

TOP: The central axis is the actual alignment of a body component, usually running from joint to joint.

BOTTOM: The line of action is a continuous line moving throughout the forms, connecting the body components in one sweeping alignment.

Note that line of action does not mean the same thing as path of action. The line of action is a directional line describing the action within a single stationary pose, whereas the path of action is the pathway of a figure executing a sequential movement.

The life study Male Figure Resting on Floor, shows a strong main line of action. It more or less follows the central axis of the head and torso—though not exactly—and then flows downward and outward in a more general, organic way. The movement can be slightly exaggerated to produce a more dynamic action in an otherwise static pose. In the accompanying diagram, the main line of action is indicated with red arrows and secondary lines of action are indicated with yellow arrows. The support of this whole pose is made possible by the left arm; otherwise, the figure would topple over. The green line going through the left arm indicates this important support.


Sanguine and brown pastel pencils with white chalk on toned paper.


RED ARROWS: Main line of action

YELLOW ARROWS: Main twisting action of torso

GREEN LINE: Diagonal within pose

In the life study Male Figure in a Dynamic Standing Pose, the figure is leaning precariously to one side, creating a dynamic curving movement in the overall pose. The line of action begins from the supporting leg, going all the way through the torso and head. The figure is almost out of balance, but the suggestion of a staff keeps the figure from appearing to topple over. The red arrows in the accompanying diagram show the pathway of the line of action.


Black Conté crayon and sanguine pastel pencil on newsprint.


RED ARROWS: Main line of action

The next life study, Twisting Male Figure, below, shows a tremendous amount of twisting in the torso unit. The figure is leaning, and the limbs are tilting in different directions. Each body section (head, torso, and limbs) has its own line of action, but these different tilts and angles can be connected to create a sense of continuous rhythm or movement throughout the pose. In the accompanying diagram, the red arrows show the main lines of action; the yellow arrows indicate the extreme twisting action in the torso; and the purple lines show the placement of the shoulder and hip axes.


Graphite pencil, watercolor pencils, and ballpoint pen on light toned paper.


RED ARROWS: Main line of action

YELLOW ARROWS: Secondary lines of action

PURPLE LINES: Shoulder and hip axes

Finding Movement in Diagonal Poses

Poses that have an obvious diagonal alignment already contain a strong sense of one-directional movement. In longer poses, it is essential to indicate how far the figure is actually leaning and whether the figure is being supported; otherwise, the figure may appear to be toppling over. A strong diagonal in a drawing can be too strong, sweeping the viewer’s eye right off the page. If that’s the case, you must look for ways to counterbalance the diagonal. One way is to find an indication of rhythm in the anatomical forms or to look for other diagonals or angles that play in opposition to the main diagonal. Sometimes a twisting action in the torso and head region can counter an aggressive diagonal.

In the life study Female Figure Resting at a Diagonal, the figure is leaning on some sort of structure for support, which helps balance the figure. Tones and shadows help anchor the figure to the ground surface. The red arrows in the accompanying diagram show the subtly curving anatomical forms. Emphasizing the movement in the torso and legs helps counteract the intensity of the strong angle of the entire pose, shown by the green line.


Black Conté crayon on white paper.


RED ARROWS: Rhythmic movement within pose

BLUE LINES: Horizontal shoulder line and support angle of lower right arm

BLACK ARROWS: Pressure points for support

GREEN LINE: Diagonal within pose

In the life study Female Figure in a Diagonal Pose, the main line of action is an exceedingly strong diagonal. Again, the figure has many supports to maintain the sense of balance: support for the right arm at the elbow and the left arm, support for the hips and left leg, and the floor to support the right foot. What is interesting in this pose is the subtle twisting action in the torso region. The rib cage is twisting away from the viewer (you can see part of the model’s back up near her shoulders), while the pelvis is positioned sideways but twisting slightly toward the viewer. As you visually travel down the right leg, you can see that it twists toward the front. Even though these twisting actions of the torso and right leg are subtle, they help counteract the dynamic tilt of the overall pose. The accompanying diagram shows the strongly diagonal main line of action in the pose and, perpendicular to that alignment, the twisting action in the torso.


Graphite pencil, watercolor pencil, and white chalk on toned paper.


GREEN LINE: Diagonal within pose

RED ARROWS: Opposite twisting action in rib cage and pelvis


Graphite pencil, ballpoint pen, watercolor wash, and white chalk on toned paper.