The Dictionary of Human Form, by Ted Seth Jacobs

dictionary-human-formThe Dictionary of Human Form, by Ted Seth Jacobs. Santa Fe: Mariposa Press, 2011. 819 pp. $150.

Reviewed by Daniel Wahl

Ted Seth Jacobs painted The Open Window—one of the most beautiful paintings of the twentieth century. He taught Jacob Collins and Tony Ryder—two of the realist movement’s most influential teachers. And he has written three books on art—Drawing What the Eye Sees, Light for the Artist, and The Dictionary of Human Form.

This last is his latest, and it is arguably one of the greatest books of art instruction ever written. In fact, with more than twenty-five hundred drawings and diagrams on the structure of human form, no other book comes close to being as detailed and as comprehensive.

Most books about how to render the human form focus on anatomy. But Jacobs, who has a unique view on this issue (and many others), does not think the study of anatomy is necessary or helpful for artists. He says, for example:

Anatomy gives a picture of the skeletal system, of where muscles originate and insert, and their names and functions. I have talked with doctors and biologists, and both have assured me that the appearance of muscles in a dead dissected body is entirely different from that of a living subject. Perhaps that is why, most often, muscles drawn in anatomy books resemble skinny, attenuated, paramecium forms. (p. 10)


I have not seen all the extant anatomy books for artists, but I have never seen one with what I would consider a mastery of drawing. Anatomy is more applicable to scientific disciplines than to the needs of the artist. Most commonly lacking in anatomy books and courses, is the sense of the special three-dimensional shapes of forms on the surface of the body. (p. 10)


If you know anatomy as thoroughly as a doctor, but don’t know structure, you will not be able to draw correctly. If you don’t know any anatomy, but thoroughly understand structure, you will be able to learn to draw like an old master. (p. 1)

The Dictionary of Human Form is thus not at all about anatomy; its focus is structure. Jacobs defines structure, most broadly, as “the way in which living organic forms are organized” (p. 7). He then explains why studying the structure of the body is of value to artists:

To convincingly represent the body, it is absolutely necessary to understand its structures. They are our “vocabulary” of human form, and must be learned if the body is to be presented as it appears. You may imagine that you can reproduce what you see by looking carefully, without understanding or principles, but that approach, historically, has never worked. It is essential to look with an educated eye. (p. 9)

Jacobs has taught art for more than sixty years, first at the Art Students League of New York, then at the New York Academy, and finally at L’Ecole Albert Defois, an art school he founded in France. So, in addition to his qualifications as an artist, Jacobs has great experience in teaching students how to see with the keen observation and structural understanding of a master. This experience shows on nearly every page of The Dictionary of Human Form and, indeed, in the structure of the book itself.

Jacobs begins, for example, by detailing twenty-four principles on the structure of human form. His explanations are always clear and sometimes straightforward, like this:

The first principle to understand about structure is that all the structural information you will find here is universal. It is valid for every human being. All bodies have the same organization and structural shapes. Every person’s elbow has the same elbow structures, shaped and arranged in the same way. This is true for all parts of the figure. The artist will encounter, and can recognize, the same structures on every model. The first principle of structure then, is that it is universal. (p. 11)

Most often, however, Jacobs takes readers on a roundabout tour in which he names the principle, shows how it relates to those previously discussed, makes a clarifying analogy, and provides specific guidance about how to apply the principle in one’s drawings.

Consider how Jacobs explains three principles, starting with one on the growth of forms:

Form on the body grows as if outward, from a central seed. This is one of the most important principles of structure. The style of human form is expansive. The characteristic appearance of human form is a fullness, an amplitude. This is true for thin as well as heavy people.

Forms on the body should never be represented as hollowed out, concave, dented, or tightly pinched. This is true for both the contour and the internal modeling. The surface of human form is always convex. Good form looks ripe, like a fruit ready to drop from the tree. Perfectly straight contours will completely destroy the fullness of forms, as will hollowed out concave shapes, that make the form look as if it has been scooped out, or bitten into. (p. 23)

Jacobs next examines the principle that forms on the body are layered:

As forms grow outward, they produce progressively smaller forms, called “sub-forms.” Sub-forms are always layered atop larger forms beneath. This is another very important principle that must be grasped. In this sense, form has the character of terraced hills, one stacked upon another, with the largest always at the bottom. The very smallest are very small indeed. From largest to smallest, they all have specific, identifiable shapes. They are all to some degree curved.

When modeling . . . sub-forms, we must never allow them to destroy the sense of a larger, underlying, global shape. This global shape can be compared to the globe of the planet Earth. Upon the global surface, there are mountains and valleys, trees, human constructions, and people. These are all attached to an underlying rounded, larger mass. They must be drawn, lit, and modeled accordingly. The sub-forms should not look like a three-dimensional terrain model, lying on a flat tabletop. (p. 23)

And here Jacobs turns to a principle that results from the previous ones:

If all structures on the body are to some degree curved, or rounded; if all structures are layered, or packed, one atop another; if each structure has a specific, identifiable shape; then it follows that within each structure its surface is curved. It follows that where one sits atop another, an ending can be seen between them. There is thus a sequence in the arrangement of form, of rounding and ending.

Without rounding, structures will be totally inorganic, like flat boards. Without ending, there can be no definition of the characteristic shape of each structure. (p. 23)

In reading through this section, artists will come to see not only the above truths regarding the growth of forms, but also related truths about how the human form is nonparallel, how its parts taper and interlock, and how it is able to act as a unified whole. They will thus have a much greater understanding of the structure of human form and the specific shapes that make it up.

But Jacobs is just getting started. In the next (and by far largest) section, he cashes in on his many decades of experience as both an artist and teacher, using drawings from his class demonstrations as well as finished paintings, and showing how each part of the body displays the principles he earlier discussed.

The classification by body part is, of course, deliberate. It is what gives rise to the book’s title and the way artists can use it, just as writers (or readers) can use a dictionary. As Jacobs says:

When you encounter an unfamiliar word and wish to learn its meaning, you can look it up in the dictionary. In the same way, when you are working from the live model, or from imagination, and don’t understand the body part you are painting or drawing, you will be able to “look it up” in this visually presented, analytic dictionary. (p. 5)

It is hard to overstate the value of doing so, because for each body part, Jacobs provides artists with a wealth of information toward understanding what exactly they are seeing and how they might suggest it in their art more realistically.

Imagine, for example, that you are an artist looking down at a seated woman and want to more clearly understand the upper torso as viewed from that position. With The Dictionary of Human Form in hand, you can riff through the pages until you come to that body part as seen from that sight line. And from there, you can read a condensed lecture and demonstration on it (as you can for other body parts and perspectives). In this case, a full-page drawing of a seated woman is shown first. On the next page, Jacobs begins his commentary with a reminder of some principles he shared earlier:

One of the most remarkable characteristics of human form is its “designed” appearance. There is a sense of a unified design, in the manner in which structure is arranged on the body. Forms are placed in the optimally most efficient positions, fitting a vast multiplicity of functions into a relatively small space.

By creating families of similar related shapes, they can be fitted together without any nonfunctional spaces between them. The body is a marvel of packaging and stacking. The way the forms are woven together permits an almost instantaneous transmission of forces and impulses throughout the whole body. In art, the body should express this brilliant feat of engineering and design, without blockages. (p. 244)

Accompanying this commentary are smaller images of the previous drawing, each of which focuses on some aspect of the upper torso. Jacobs leaves one of these free of any marks so the artist can use it as a reference, and he draws over the others in order to clarify various points.

For example, in one image he draws blocks stacked on top of each other to more clearly show how the structures of the body are tilted and layered relative to a sight line from above. In another, he darkens his drawing of the form in order to more clearly show the rounding and ending of forms. Then, on the following page, he shares an oft-repeated tip:

In order to better understand the particular shape of three-dimensional structures, it is necessary to view them from many sight lines, such as bird’s eye views, and from below. When seen from the front, the overall curving shape [of the shoulder girdle] toward and away from our sight line is not very apparent. From above, as in this view, it is obvious that the shoulder girdle is widest in the center and narrows toward the shoulders, in an attenuated curve, more rounded at the center and then flattening toward the shoulders, to again become sharply curved as it goes around the shoulders . . . (p. 245)

Jacobs follows this with two more diagrams. In one of these, he emphasizes the “pathways” that are highlighted on the surface of the form as light washes over it—just as one section of a basket weave might be emphasized when struck by a beam of light. In the other, he simplifies the layered, interlocking arrangement of structures from the shoulder girdle into the rib cage and then the hip. He concludes the section by observing:

These structures are all asymmetric, tapered, and irregular in shape, like a curiously fitted mosaic. This is the style of organic form. . . . [S]elf-contained geometric shapes do not occur on the body. They cannot be efficiently packed or connected. (p. 245)

Needless to say, after a detailed presentation of the principles of human form, and nearly eight hundred additional pages focused on analyzing how these principles manifest on the body, artists who read this book carefully will have an understanding that, at best, would have taken them many decades to achieve on their own.

Of course, like any other dictionary, even one with an equivalent amount of notes on how to use the information it provides correctly, there are limits to the value that this dictionary can supply. As Jacobs says:

To master figure work, you will need information, but it must continually be applied to work from a live model. Practice without theory is not productive. On the contrary, the more the artist works without the necessary information, the more false symbolic preconceptions [about the body] become deeply ingrained. Theory without practice constitutes looking at the subject from the outside. That may produce a scholar, but not an artist. Theory and practice together create a powerful learning tool, and can lead to mastery. (p. 10)

If mastery is his goal, an artist will have to do more than read this dictionary to get it. However, knowing how to look for and see structure is the first and perhaps most crucially important step. Again, quoting Jacobs:

When one knows what to look for . . . extremely subtle structural effects can be defined. . . . The artist thinks, “I know everything on the body expresses structure. Nothing is random. I know the structures will be tapered, and layered. There will be a crisscross arrangement. Nothing will be parallel.” Armed and alerted by these principles, the artist then asks, “What then, is happening structurally? There is structure subtly hidden, where then is it, what is its shape, how does it fit into its neighbors?” This is a structural way of looking, and with it, structure will be found. (p. 581)

The Dictionary of Human Form teaches artists how to think this way, and that is a remarkable value. The book is thus another achievement in the already illustrious career of Ted Seth Jacobs. It shines yet more light on his role as the last of the artists descended from Jean-Léon Gérôme—and the first of their return.


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