Monday, May 14, 2007

Vanderpoel on Eyes

I have read so many books about anatomy that I should be an expert in the subject by now. Unfortunately my mind is not geared that way and very little of it sticks with me for very long. Years ago, a friend introduced me to "The Human Figure" by J. H. Vanderpoel. It is probably my favorite book ever on the subject. It is pretty short and contains a lot of great information that I don't think I've ever seen anywhere else. The Dover edition is available for a very reasonable $6.95 from

That said, another friend recently pointed out to me that the Dover reprint doesn't contain all the plates of the original, and that the plates in the Dover book are pretty poor reproductions compared to those visible in the first printings. So, of course, I had to go and locate a copy of one of the earlier printings to see what my friend was talking about. I found one for $30 and it's a third edition from 1907. Of course my friend was right! It's a spectacular book, no doubt about it. I am going to start reading it all over again and be amazed at how much I have forgotten.

A word of caution, though - don't take my word for it. everyone has a different opinion of what makes a good anatomy book and there are many to choose from. I wouldn't want anyone to spend a lot of money to find a copy and then be disappointed. Check out the Dover edition if you can at your local bookstore or library and see if Vanderpoel "floats your boats", so to speak.

Anyway, his first chapter is all about eyes, which should tell you how important it is to learn how to draw eyes well. I won't belabor the point, we've all heard over and over why learning to draw the eyes well is so important. Even though there has been so much written about drawing eyes, this book really blows me away with fresh insights on the subject, so I will scan the chapter for you to peruse. I know it's daunting to read all that tiny looking text but click on the page to read it at a bigger size. In all honesty, the language he uses reflects the time in which it was written and I frequently have to read a sentence a few times to glean his meaning. In any case, I will pick out some key points to type below for those of you who just want the high points. If you read none of this at all, at least check out his diagrams on eyes. They are scanned at a high resolution so you can get a good look at them. They are meticulously thought out and executed. Looking at them makes me think I should print them out and post them over my desk at work.

Below are some of his more helpful points. I used ellipses to indicate where I skipped over some of his writing, and I added my own clarifications in parantheses. I included the page numbers that the excerpts came from because sometimes he has diagrams in the margins to explain his text.

From page 19:

The eye, or any part of the human figure, no matter how well understood, must, to be of any value to the whole, be truly placed and bear a true relation to the larger planes.

The (eye) sockets are somewhat rectangular in form, and descend slightly from the nose outward; this drooping effect in the skull is counteracted in the living model by the eyebrows as they rise from their origin to the outside of the socket.

From page 20:

A plane formed not unlike a keystone, facing slightly downward and similar in direction to the orbital plane, descends from the center of the frontal bone, connecting the forehead with the nose and separating the eye sockets (here he is referring to the glabella).
The eyebrows originate at the sides of this keystone, and together mark the lower boundary of the plane of the forehead. Rising, in part from underneath the frontal bone and where it is heaviest, the eyebrow travels outward and a trifle upward, diminishing in width until at the approach of the temple it turns upon the outside of the bone, following the arch along the temporal border of the orbit to its termination.

From page 21:

(the orbicular muscle above the eye and below the eyebrow leaves a gap between the eyeball and nose - this is the best illustration I could find online of the eye muscles). This (gap) is indicated by a triangular shape of shadow on each side of the junction of the nose, when the head is...lighted from above.

The upper lid rises abruptly from the inner corner, and sweeps with graceful curve over the spherical form of the eyeball to the outer corner, while the lower lid starts continuously with the direction of the lower border of the corner, curving but slightly until it sweeps upward to the upper lid, which overlaps it.The inner corner of the eye is farther forward than the outer, so that a section of the exposed portion of the eyeball from corner to corner would slope backward from the center of the face; this enables the eye to swing sideways for observation without turning the head. The outer corner is also somewhat higher than the inner.

The upper lid is thicker than the lower, as it must be to support the heavy lashes...the thickness of the upper lid and weight of lashes have much to do with giving depth and mystery to the eye through their shading.

From page 25:

Note the apparent difference in the outer corners as the lids come together, the corner of the nearer eye being quite angular, whereas in the corner of the farther eye, the lids together describe the convexity of the ball perfectly.

Note, too, the tendency of the cornea to raise that part of the upper lid under which it rests.

The great thickness of the upper lid fringed with its heavy lashes shades the upper part of the iris and gives added depth and beauty to it.

From page 27:

The lower lid, beyond a slight capacity for bilateral and downward contraction, plays but a slight part in recording movements of the eye, while the upper lid responds and accommodates itself to every action and consequently is a great factor in expression.

(When the eye is looking up) the folded upper lid (presses) against the obicular muscle in its endeavor to keep the vision clear.

From page 28:

(When looking down) the lower lid contracts so that the upper lid overhangs it considerably.

Click to see these much bigger.

Everyone has a favorite book on anatomy and life drawing. This one happens to be one that I respond to, even as I find it difficult to wade through some of his dense writing. I hope that some of you will delve into the scans and read his writing for yourself; I have tried to pick out the most relevant parts for me but everyone will find different passages that speak to them so you may not respond to the same parts as I do.

I know that learning anatomy and structure are not inherently interesting to every artist and that's why I encourage you to keep searching for the books, teachers or methods that will make the subject palatable to you. Learning how things are put together are absolutely essential to drawing them well.

Back when I was at CalArts I happened to be watching "101 Dalmatians" and during the scene where Roger and Anita meet in the park I noticed that when Anita is casting her eyes down to read the book in her lap her eyes become downward curves, just like as if they were closed completely. I had always thought of eyes drawn like that as "closed" or "asleep" eyes. But in the context of the scene, it read clearly as "looking down (demurely) to read". It was absolutely the right choice and fit her feminine character perfectly. As soon as you see it you absolutely know that it's correct: when we look down or upper lid almost completely covers the eye. But I never would have realized that on my own. That's just one of the small things that Vanderpoel talks about that make me really appreciate him. And when you read a great tract on anatomy that points out subtleties, it increases your awareness and sensitivity to other subtleties of anatomy and how the smallest changes in our appearance and subtlest shifts in our expressions can convey a lot.

Anyway, I figure I'll post more of his chapters, but I'm not sure if it's doing any good for anybody. If you found this helpful, let me know in the comments, and if you didn't find it helpful let me know as well. Be honest, because it was a heck of a lot of work to scan (and pretty rough on the book binding) so if it's not helpful then let me know and save me the time and effort (although please don't leave comments telling me you'd prefer more posts about sketching...there will be more to come but this blog is about a lot of things, not just sketchbooks). If there are a lot of you who are really put off by the language in the text of these pages then maybe I could post all of his text but also take a stab at re-writing it for those who want it to be a little more reader-friendly (don't worry, I'll always provide all of his text as well for those who aren't keen on reading an idiot interpreting a genius).

Anyway, hope this is helpful to you.