| |

How to Draw the Human Back, a Step-by-Step Construction Guide

If I can teach you one thing about how to draw the back of a person, it’s that it’s absolutely crucial to understand the position of the scapula bones (shoulder blades) as they sit on the rib cage and glide around it.

Especially when reaching out with your arms, the scapula could slide as far as the side of the rib cage – usually a lot further than the beginning artist would suspect.

To draw the human back, identify the angle of the spine, and indicate it on canvas, then find the spines of the scapulas from which to connect and construct all the muscles of the upper back.

(For the beginner artist: note that the spine of the scapula is a landmark on the scapula bones, separate from the spine itself – I provide detailed images below for reference).

In this tutorial, we will go over the bones and major muscle groups you will need to know to draw the back well. We will then look at a few examples of how to construct a drawing of the human back that has the proper anatomical features.

Before we get into the tutorial, I want to quickly go over my method of drawing the back to give you some idea of what we will discuss.

Construction example:

In step 1, we will identify the overall shape of the back. It can change later, but we need it to get us oriented. It starts with identifying the line of the spine, and creating a frame around it.
In steps 2 through 6, we construct all of the anatomy and adjust the shape of the frame we created in step one. Adding muscle groups step by step – detailed at the end of this tutorial.
Once the construction of the back is complete, I can add shadows and highlights to create three-dimensional form of the back in my drawing.

Keep in mind, on the back – depending on figure and pose – sometimes the muscles will stand out and sometimes the skeletal structure (the scapulas). Inner portions of the scapula – closest to the spine often come out and stand out in less muscular figures.

In this guide on how to draw the human back, I will cover simplified anatomy for the beginning – intermediate artists. We will go over the bones, and the general muscle groups of the back, and then draw the human back from scratch through a step-by-step construction. Some muscle groups of the back are intentionally omitted.

Why is it so hard to draw the back? How do we learn to draw the back?

Okay, so you tried to draw the back and looked at pictures for references, but it seems like it is not working or that the back keeps changing or that you are not drawing the right thing?

Why is it so hard to draw the back? Thankfully there is a simple answer.

The scapula bones on the back move and rotate around on top of the rib cage, and there are lots of muscles covering them. Depending on the movement, (and the build of a person you are drawing), more bone or more muscle will show up. So not only does the scapula move under the surface, sometimes it is covered by muscles, and sometimes it stands out (especially when the arm is pulled back), thereby changing the shapes you see completely).

The bones are under the muscles and sometimes push them outward, creating shapes that are hard to recognize.

How do we learn to overcome this problem of drawing the back?

We have to (1) know basic anatomy, the bones and muscles. (2) Identify landmarks to which we can keep our drawing accountable. And of course, have a bit of patience as we practice.

So then, how does learning to draw the back look like, even if it is simplified. It looks like the following steps, exactly the steps we will take in this tutorial:

Outline, an attack plan to learn to draw the back:

  1. Learning the bones (simplified)
  2. Learning the muscles (simplified) + and identifying landmarks
  3. Step-by-step construction

Learning the Bones of the Back for Drawing

I need to cover only four bone sets to cover the back:

Rib cage to draw the back

There is a lot of detail on this anatomical study of the back I did for practice. However, all you really have to remember here is the shape of the rib cage.

The other thing to remember is that some of the lower ribs of the back will stand out from beneath the muscles slightly when the figure is curled up or arching.

Scapula to draw the back

Scapula bones, back view. Here they are, the scapula bones. Remember their location and triangular shape. Remember that they move back, slide to the side as the arm reaches out, and pivot with the bottom edge moving outward and up as the arm is raised.

Wow that is a lot to know Gvaat – yes, it is quite a bit, however just remember that when you will look for it in reference, look at what the figure is doing, then think about where the scapula bone should be, then try to find it on reference.
Scapula bones on the back, front view. Gvaat’s anatomy study.

Scapula – the scapula is the most important for our construction of the back. Remember the following: it is a triangular shape. It is not visible on all people in every single pose, it is most visible on skinny people that do not have very developed upper back muscles. It is visible on all people during pulling movements. Upper and inner side are the ones that are usually most visible.

One of the best ways to learn to draw the back is to learn anatomy and then look and pictures and try to identify the muscle groups you see.

The biggest landmark that we will look for is the spine of the scapula to it at the top of the trapezius attaches as it overflows the scapula down the spine. Here it is for reference:

Spine of the scapula.
Spines of the scapula indicated on a drawing – sketch by Gvaat

Attaching at the other side of the spine of the scapula is the rear deltoid.

Finding the spine of the scapula and being able to separate the muscles around it is the key to constructing the back.

To draw the back then first we will block in the overall shape, and then scapula bones as they sit on the rib cage with special attention paid to the rhythms of the spine of the scapulas. It’s a cross between the spines of the scapula and the spine itself that makes up the construction of the upper back. 

All other muscles of the back can be constructed from having this knowledge.

Humerus bone to draw the back

This is the bone of the upper arm. We need to cover it because the shoulder sits on its top and because muscles of the back attach to it. Muscles reach from the scapula and tuck in under the armpit and attach to the humorous bone. We will cover these muscles in the muscle diagrams below.

Curious about the anatomy of the arm? Check out my arm drawing tutorial here.

The clavicle bone to draw the back

Front view.

The clavicle is the bone at the bottom of the neck, that on the outer edges connects to the scapula and then drives into to the center of the top of the chest. We are covering this bone because the trapezius muscle curves around from the back and attaches to the section of it.
Clavicle bones – back view. study by Gvaat.

Two important reasons why we should know this bone to learn to draw the human back:

The trapezius – a major muscle of the upper back partially wraps around the neck and attached to the clavicle. And, the clavicle connects to the acromion process of the scapula, creating the acromioclavicular joint, a major landmark.

The bump you see between the traps and the shoulders in a standing figure at ease is the acromioclavicular joint.

Learning to draw the back – the major muscles of the back

The trapezius

Trapezius muscle. (Anatomy study by Gvaat – back view).

Trapezius muscle, (or traps) help rotate the scapula up to lift up the arm. Traps also attach to the clavicle bone at the front. Traps attach at the spine of the scapula – easy to see on a muscular person. – a C curve you see on backs with well-developed muscle is the trapezius attaching around the scapula.

Notice the trapezius cover some of the bone of the scapula – specifically, the upper inner edge. This is important to remember because in some poses you will just see the trapezius muscle, in others you will see the scapula push out creating a new shape – unless you know that the trapezius covers some of the scapula in this way, it is difficult to recognize and therefore difficult to draw.

Keep in mind that a portion of the traps overlaps some of the scapula as it stretches over it.

So the traps at the top attach to the spine of the scapula but it is important to note that they go around to the front of the body and also attach at the highest portion of the clavicle. In this way, the traps create a sort of a tent around the neck. 

The rear deltoids

Rear deltoid. (Anatomy study by Gvaat – back view).

For our purposes of drawing the human back, notice how the real delt attaches to the spine of the scapula, opposite to the trapezius muscle.

The lats – latissimus dorsi

Lats twist around and insert into the humerus bone on the arm. It’s the pull up muscle, engaged when you do any kind of pulling action with your arms. It starts at the lower back spinal process, attaches to some of the lower ribs, and covers the back, in some areas as a thin sheet of muscle.

The thin quality of it means that muscles underneath will become visible.

It is a massive sheet of muscle and thin on the back, getting thicker as it twists around the side of the torso.

Latissimus dorsi muscle, covering external obliques (aka side abs). (Anatomy study by Gvaat – back view).

The Infraspinatus, the Teres Major and the Rhomboid

Rhomboid muscle. (Anatomy study by Gvaat – back view).

Rhomboids are pulling shoulder blades (scapula) back together, when you pull the shoulders back, bringing the scapula closer to the spine on each side. They are under the traps, they become more revealed as the arms stretch and force the scapula bones to slide to the sides of the back.

Infraspinatus muscle. (Anatomy study by Gvaat – back view).

Infraspinatus muscle and teres major muscle are the ones showing most often. Infraspinatus usually sits deeper in than the teres major. The teres major will stick out more, and tuck in under the armpit. It attaches to the front (anterior) of the humorus bone, while teres minor attaches to the back (posterior) of it.

Teres minor (above) and Teres major muscle. (Anatomy study by Gvaat – back view).

Given that teres major attaches at the humerus anteriorly (at the front), we will see this muscle carried forward under the arm to the side of the body.

Here is an important bit: teres major is partially overlapped by the lat muscle. A bulge in the lat under the teres major is actually a portion of the teres major covered by the latissimus dorsi. Try looking at some pictures and spotting this yourself.

The serratus anterior

Serratus anterior. (Gvaat’s anatomy study – back view). This is the ‘comic book muscle’ – exaggerated in comic book heroes to give a serrated look to the side of the trunk of the figure.

The serratus anterior connects between the lats and the external obliques. Usually not visible from the back, it becomes visible in three-quarters view.

The erector spinae

Erector spinae are two rods running at the lower back towards the glutes. They push up at the lats from below. Although they run up the back as well, for the artist they are covered by the upper back muscles. Focus more on identifying these at the lower back. While they are covered by a thin sheet of the lats at the lower back, they stand out and are clearly visible separate from the major muscles mass of the lats.

Erector spinae muscle. (Anatomy study by Gvaat – back view).
Erector spinae muscle covered by a thin sheet of latissimus dorsi on the back. External obliques also shows. (Anatomy study by Gvaat – back view).

The external obliques

External obliques. (Gvaat’s anatomy study – back view).

Obliques are the side abs of the torso. Visible when drawing the back in three-quarters view.

All muscles together for drawing the back

Let’s put all the back muscles important for our drawing of the back together:

Can you identify where the spine of the scapula is? It is where the traps meet rear deltoid muscles.
Here is a reminder! Keep this landmark in mind as we draw the back.

Step-by-step construction of the back

Step 1: find the rhythm of the spine and block in the general form. When I say ‘rhythm of the spine’, I mean try to place its angles as it runs through the body.

Here you see me sketching around and identifying shapes

Step 2: find the spines of the scapula.

Spines of the scapula indicated for reference with this step

Step 3: connect the traps. Traps are easiest to identify. We know they run down the middle of the spine in the upper back, we know they cover the back of the neck. We just need to attach them to the top of the spine of the scapula.

Traps – back view, for reference with this step.

Step 4: connect the rear delts. Connect the rear delts to the bottom side of the spine of the scapula.

Rear delts indicated – note how they attach on the other side of the scapula’s spine – opposing the traps.

Step 5: position the teres major/infraspinatus/rhomboid.

In this image, teres major and erector spinae were very visible and hit by light. In this step I painted in the shadow to start defining form.

Step 6: draw in the lats, erector spinae, external obliques, and serratus anterior if visible.

Step 7: once the muscle groups are in place, I can finish rendering the piece, adjusting any placement of muscle if necessary.

Here darker tones are added for the darkest darks of the shadows.
LIghter tones are added.
Finally the highlights are added.
Steps to Drawing the Human Back:
Step 1: find the rhythm of the spine and block in the general form
Step 2: find the spines of the scapula
Step 3: connect the traps
Step 4: connect the rear delts
Step 5: position the teres major/infraspinatus/rhomboid
Step 6: draw in the lats, erector spinae, external obliques, and serratus anterior if visible.
Step 7: once the muscle groups are added, proceed to render with shadows and lights.

Another example of a back drawing study by Gvaat:

Drawing in the general shape, the shape can change later.
Blocking in muscles after I found the connection between traps and rear delts at the scapula.

I hope this guide helped you study this important topic! Knowing anatomy is super important to take your figure drawing to the next level. Yes, it is a pain, and yes drawing the back can be hard. But we can make it easier by studying the skeletal structure and all the muscle groups needed to construct the back, and by having a plan before we set out to draw.

I highly recommend taking the time to study the muscles and know them. You only have to do it once and then you can use it for all of your drawings.

Download Free Learning Materials

Speaking of improving your drawing skills. If like me, you are studying to improve at drawing, I highly recommend joining my newsletter for free:

Join Gvaat’s free monthly newsletter and download posters, .psd process and high-quality images from Gvaat’s tutorials. You will also get access to Gvaat’s digital downloads library, including the 7 Day Artist Workbook to drastically improve your art skills in a week, and many other goodies. Joining the newsletter is completely and super free. Follow this link to join!