Trying to draw animals or human figures without an understanding of the structure of the body is futile. It is not necessary to learn the names of every bone and muscle, but you should know roughly how the skeleton fits together and the shape and function of the main muscle groups. Learning the names of the major bones and muscles will help you remember their positions. Take the human body as the pattern and look at the way other animals differ from it.
I have used the Gazontopede as my example animal in the following drawings because it allows me to combine features of several different animals, but it is a good idea to develop some generic animal shapes you can draw from memory. Begin with something basic having a body, four legs, head, neck and tail, and draw it over and over again. Keep it very simple - even childish - at the beginning, but let it develop more detail as you gain confidence. It need not look like any animal in particular, but should have logical anatomy and proportions.
Be fanciful and try your creature in as many different positions and activities - running, jumping, twisting etc - as you can think of. Give it a name; draw it everywhere. Whenever possible, look at animals and notice details of anatomy or movement you can add to your drawings.
When you are drawing a specific animal, use your personal beast as a standard with which to compare it - are the legs longer or shorter? Do they slope more or less? How does the length of the body compare with the height of the animal?
It is important to spend as much time as you can observing and drawing live animals, but you will also learn a great deal about drawing them if you copy master artists. Albert Cuyp, Paulus Potter, Rubens, Durer, Landseer and Henry Moore are some good ones to start with. Study the way they drew and painted animals; copy those that take your fancy, then apply what you have learnt to drawing an animal from life again.
Animals will seldom be drawn completely in profile. Observe the difference in appearance between a leg or body seen from the front, rear, or side and study the foreshortening of a limb, neck or body as it turns towards or away from the viewer. Imagine the legs and body as cylinders. Make sure the form closest to the viewer overlaps more distant shapes; make distant shapes slightly smaller in proportion to closer shapes. Learn to judge proportions and the amount of foreshortening by eye.
Without a basic understanding of how the body moves and how the various parts relate to each other, you will find it impossible to give your figures the sense that there is a solid body under the clothing. It is essential to understand this, even if you never wish to paint nudes.
It is useless to try to learn to draw the figure from photographs. If possible, work from a nude model. If no model is available, either pose for yourself in front of a full-length mirror or copy paintings and drawings from great artists (Rubens, Botticelli, Luca Signorelli, Michelangelo)
There are various different sets of proportions for the human body, depending upon the desired effect. The height, for example, varies from 7½ heads to 11 or more heads (particularly in Mannerist paintings and 20th century fashion illustration). Many artists distort the proportions for effect; ridiculously small hands and feet have frequently been fashionable. Before choosing to distort the body, you must know how to draw it in proportion. There are many books available from which you can obtain more information on drawing the figure, but these notes will get you started.
The traditional proportions of the human body are: