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What Are the Different Ways of Depicting the Human Body in Art?

By R. Dhillon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Artists have been creating artwork depicting the human body since the prehistoric era. Some of the oldest images feature stick-like, geometric bodies carved into or painted onto stone. Since then, artists have greatly expanded their repertoire for depicting the human body using both nude and clothed figures. In addition to basic stick figures, artists use realistic, abstract, and informative styles for depicting the human body in art. They also use a wide variety of media.

Realistic representations of the human body in art show the form in its correct proportions or use realistic proportions that differ slightly from the norm. The torso might be slightly longer than usual, for example, but not noticeably so. This type of artwork can be created in color, black and white, or a combination of the two. It can also be created with any type of media, including pencil on paper, paint, sculpture, and carvings. In realistic representations, the human body might be working, resting, or performing some other action that can be completed according to the rules of the real world.

The human body is also depicted in animations using two-dimensional (2D) and three-dimensional (3D) representations. Animations are typically made using a computer and animation software. Animated bodies usually start as wireframes, which show the body's form and resemble a mesh-like surface. The artist then builds up the body by adding skin, defined features, and clothing if necessary.

Abstract depictions of the human body in art distort the body, sometimes beyond recognition. This type of art doesn't maintain the proportions or the specific shapes that make up the human form. Instead, it focuses on expression, creativity, fantasy, and emotion. The subject matter might not be readily apparent when viewing an abstract image of the human body or its parts, including its organs, which might be reorganized and distorted. Abstract representations of the human body in art can be found in paintings, sculptures, petroglyphs, and many other types of media.

It is common for artists to greatly alter the human body in art, but most usually strive for some recognition. A caricature style, for example, might feature heavily elongated or shortened body parts or simplified shapes. Cartoon characters often exhibit these qualities. Since realism is not a concern, the human body can be located in any setting and may perform any action.

Some artists merge creativity with scientific information. This type of art might display human anatomy or show the functions of different body parts. Additionally, an artwork can focus on a single body part, rather than the body as a whole. Informative depictions of the human body can be found in science books, some art galleries, and online. The human body has also been the subject of infographics, which combine images of the body or its parts with text and graphic information to inform viewers of interesting facts.

Like other forms of art, photography captures the human body in abstract, realistic, and surreal ways. The photographer's technique and choice of settings create the final effect. Additionally, the photo can be manipulated using software to enhance or distort the image.

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Discussion Comments
By browncoat — On Dec 27, 2013

@Mor - Well, the good thing is, apparently people will start having a better self image almost immediately if they are exposed to lots of different body shapes and sizes in art and media.

I've actually had artists tell me that they learned to love themselves, faults and all, through taking life art classes and noticing all the different curves and irregularities on every single model they sketched, from the classically beautiful to the non-ideal.

I think the world is moving towards being more tolerant every day. And art is a big part of that.

By Mor — On Dec 27, 2013

@KoiwiGal - This isn't a new phenomenon. I'd be surprised if there weren't some liberties taken with the size of the muscles on those people depicted in the cave paintings. Certainly we can tell from art what historical ideals existed at the time of the painting, because almost all artists would tease and shape their subjects into that ideal as much as possible.

By KoiwiGal — On Dec 26, 2013

I actually think it's difficult to draw a line these days between photographs in certain publications and art depicting the human body. If you look at the process they use to airbrush and idealize the models used in photo-shoots for fashion magazines and the like, they might as well just create a whole new image and be done with it. They smooth out everything, elongate everything and lighten everything, until you'd barely be able to recognize the person on the streets.

I'm all for art and I think the human body is a fascinating subject, but when we are all exposed to a particular ideal over and over, even when the images are supposed to be from "real life" I just think that is bad for people and for children in the particular. It's too easy to compare yourself to that ideal and despair, even though it's basically impossible to achieve.

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