The simple technique to use here is one of stylisation. Skeletons can look a bit weedy if you stick strictly to realistic proportions, especially when stacked up against large or muscular characters.
The shoulders look a bit narrow, while the hands and feet, without flesh, seem a bit small. However, simply by enlarging the hands and feet, shrinking the head and broadening the shoulders a tiny bit, your skeletons should soon look more physical.
Without adding any rotting flesh (which I suppose would make them zombies or ghouls anyway), armour and ragged clothing are also great ways to add information to a skeleton's silhouette and give it weight.
As long as the clothing looks old and timeworn, it can be a great way to hint at the skeleton's former life, or help you hide some of the skeleton underneath (if you need to). If you're putting several skeletons in your scene, this will help you save time and give the viewer a way to visually distinguish them from each other.
Another great technique is to give the bones some nice curvature to them. It's a mistake to draw or paint them as straight tubes, because bones naturally have curvature and variations in thickness and texture. If you take advantage of this and play it up, then you can really add some heft and energy to your skeletons.
01. Brittle bones
There's nothing really wrong with the anatomy in this image. It's more or less correct, but the bones are so straight and boring that they don’t feel real or have any volume to them. The uniformity of thickness also tends to make the bones look shorter than they really are, because it makes it harder for you to show that they take up space.
02. Use curved lines
Adding some curvature to the thighbone has given a ton of energy to this leg and it feels primed for movement compared to the previous version. The variety of thickness and texture helps to accentuate this and articulate the three-dimensional shape to the viewer. I enlarged the foot ever so slightly too, which helps it feel more grounded.
03. Add your armour
Finally, adding a greave (shin armour) to the leg has naturally obscured some of the bones, but has added visual interest in spades. With the thigh and foot being exposed, the viewer's mind can fill in what's behind the armour plate, and we get a nice change of both shape and texture that brings variety to the image.
Artist's secret: Fudging the Details
It's good to familiarise yourself with the human skeleton to the point that you can draw it from memory. Even if the anatomy wouldn't be up to scratch for a textbook, I've made it realistic enough that it feels convincing.
Words: Jonathan Standing
Jonathan is an English artist and illustrator. He's based near Toronto, Canada, and works for a developer in the video games industry. This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine issue 82.
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