Picture a person running. You’re probably picturing them wrong. It’s okay, you wouldn’t be alone. It turns out that artists have been drawing people running incorrectly for thousands of years. From Greek vases to drawing handbooks to modern sculptures, even our very best artists can’t seem to get the pose right.
To successfully run, a person swings opposite arms and legs. As the right leg goes forward, the right arm goes back, and vice versa. You can easily confirm this by attempting to run in place right now. Here’s Usain Bolt, current world record holder for the 100-yard dash, showing how it’s done.
But if you were asked to draw a person running, many of you would have the resulting stick figure (and let’s be real, you’d draw a stick figure) moving their right arm and right leg forward at the same time. A new paper aims to figure out why this mistake is both so common, and so hard for us to detect.
Drawing a person running improperly has a storied artistic history. Julian Meltzoff, a psychologist and the author of that recent paper, runs through the history of artists getting this pose totally wrong. Here are a few examples.
Around 660 B.C. the Egyptian god Khonsu defied not only death, but the physics of walking.
It shows up in this Greek vase from 530 B.C.
Famous painters like Donatello and Da Vinci make the same mistake. Here is a detail from Donatello’s The Cantoria. About half of his angels are posed correctly, while the other half are not.
Drawing guides later reinforced the problem. Here is an image from Peter Paul Rubens’s Théorie de la Figure Humaine, a guide to representing the human form, published in 1773.
And it’s not just Western art that can’t seem to get this right. Here’s a famous painting by the 18th century Japanese artist Utamuro called The Shower.
Today's modern guides for figure drawing perpetuate the problem.
Even a New Yorker cover in 2005 fell victim to the difficulty.