Gesture Drawing

By Joe Catapano

Introduction

If you’re anything like I was, just hearing the word gesture is enough to make your eyes roll.  I’m not lying.  When I was beginning my journey as an aspiring artist, I really hated gesture drawing.  I felt that it was a pretentious way for “fine artists” to scribble some lines and call it figure drawing.  I only got more stubborn about the approach as time went on.  But let me tell you how wrong I was for telling myself this.

First, if you are not aware of what gesture drawing is, then let me fill you in.  Gesture drawing is just the act of laying down the rhythm, action and form lines that make up the pose of a character or subject.  They are usually very loose drawings.  And because they didn’t have the detail or the finished attractiveness of other art I thought of it as lesser. 

In fact, I had the wrong impression from the very beginning.  I wasn’t fond of the craft of gesture drawing and I didn’t understand where it fit in with how characters are actually drawn.  Because of these two reasons I didn’t see the value in learning this essential skill. 

In this tutorial, I aim to present you with everything you need to know to start gesture drawing effectively, and how to then apply it to making awesome comics that explode with energy. 

The Basics

Some of the older artists may tell you that you need certain tools or techniques to gesture well, (for example, using a specifically sharpened pencil). While I see at least some of this as accurate and I don’t pretend to know more than the great masters, I also don’t want the entryway to learning gesture to be so narrow. So, for this tutorial I won’t be discussing any specific tools or methods, but instead I’ll be focusing on the mindset and practices that it takes to start the journey to mastering gesture. 

 

To begin gesturing you need to have subject matter, so finding a good model is key. So, let’s say you have a photo or model of a person you’d like to draw. Even if you’d like to eventually draw in all the details that make this person unique, you must first start somewhere. This is where gesture drawing comes in. You can start drawing a subject in many different ways, but the question is:

 

How should you start?  The answer is gesture.

 

Gesture, in a nutshell, is only drawing the lines that matter. 

Ok, so, what are the lines that matter, you might ask? 

The answer: it’s entirely up to you. 

 

However, to represent life, it’s best to choose the lines that show the action and movement of the figure. 

Well that’s still pretty vague, right? 

 

Agreed. Well let’s get specific then! 

 

First, let’s restrict ourselves to only using three types of lines. As, Michael Hampton describes in his book, Figure Drawing: Design and Invention, the three types are C, S, and straight lines. In the early 20th century, an illustrator, Frank J. Reilly, formed a whole method, now known as the Reilly Method, where these basic “rhythms” can be used to construct a figure. So that's’ what we will call these lines: Rhythms. (In Reilly’s book, there are actually six but I like the simplicity of just these three.)

C curve: This is a basic curve. A line curves in the same direction. This is used for rhythm and form.

S Curves: The line as the potential to show the most amount of expression. Some say call S Curves, lines of Beauty.

Straight: A straight line, used for hard corners, folds in cloth and protruding ridges on the body (usually depicting a bone resting under the skin. 

By using a variety of these lines in gesture drawing, it will ensure a nice economy of line. An economy means having a balance between the different types of rhythm lines.

Now that we know what lines we should utilize, let’s discuss how to simplify the figure. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Humans are complicated.

In my experience, jumping right to gesturing a figure is like trying out for the varsity team when you’ve only read the rules. This is slightly controversial, but I think it’s best if we gradually slide into gesturing a whole figure. Instead, let’s gesture a grouping of objects and then a something more organic. 

Let’s Get to Work

1. When you aim to draw gesture, I think starting on a blank page is tough. So first off, draw scribbles lightly on your page to let your brain know immediately that this drawing isn’t a rigid copy session.

2. Start with a basic circle for the focal point of the image.  In this case, it really works well for this half cut fruit.  This step does two things: One, it gives you a starting place for positioning all of your elements and two; it becomes a visual guide for scale and proportion.  Keep this egg shape super simple, and it will do its job well.

3. Now, with a flowing stroke or two, draw the line of action (LoA). The LoA is really up to your interpretation as an artist. It is the representation of the movement of these objects. Let’s put it this way, if you had to draw all of this fruit with only one simple curve what would it be?

4. Great, it doesn’t look like much but this is a great foundation for not only the positioning in space but also it’s energy (as you see it). Step three is to add more accompanying rhythm lines. A rhythm line is one that describes the flow of these shapes’ contours and not necessarily the shapes themselves. Rhythm lines can be found at the contours of objects (1), separations of light and dark (2), and shapes that are created when two forms overlap or run parallel to each other (3). Some rhythms will be short and even butt up against another line creating a perpendicular wedge (4).

5. This step is all about adding to these flowing lines to inform the sketch further. Try not to copy all of the details; only draw the lines you think are necessary. This stage is what I like call fleshing out the sketch.

6. Like always, adding shadows will drastically affect the realism of your sketch, after all, our eyes are made to pick up contrasting values the best. So shade in just a couple of the places where shadows are most prevalent. 

7. Lastly, is adding a few more landmarks that seal the deal. Landmarks are just defining features of the subject. On this fruit, they are the stem, the center point of the inside and the divisions in the fruits core.

Great job! I bet your drawing has a lot of energy to it. People identify energy with movement and if you can show movement in a still drawing then you’ve accomplished a big step toward viewer appeal. And that's great for comics!

Photo Credit: mnn.com

Now, let’s try something a little more complex and interesting:  A dolphin in motion.

Let’s go!

1. Start again by drawing scribbles lightly on your page to let your brain know immediately that this drawing isn’t a rigid exercise.

2. Draw the focal point. If it’s an animal with a face like we have here, that will work just fine. Just know that even this choice of focal point is up to you. Also, add a smudgy dot for the dolphin’s eye to add even more info for this scale and positioning stage.

3. Let’s add the LoA. In this example it should be pretty simple where the direction the motion is headed. The exact curve is up to you but I would say 99% of artists would mark the LoA as I have.

4. Great. Move on to adding some rhythm lines. With something that is cylindrical, adding sectional lines as it recedes in space is an excellent way to show the volume in gestural form. 

5. Now let’s add the meat, or in other words some of the “real” contours on the dolphin. This means use sweeping lines to more accurate representation the body and fins.

6. Now us the reference image to place some of the important shadows. Since the dolphin is wet and shiny much of the bounce light around the dolphin will reflect of off of the skin. Try to only add the shadows where the darkest tones are without adding them to where the bounce light is present.

7. Last, is adding some of the landmarks on the dolphin, like the blowhole, mouth and even some water. I actually used some white on this stage to more accurately depict the shine on the skin and the water. 

Fantastic job! With these two warm-up exercises done, I think you are ready to try gesturing a human figure. If you were still not confident with the process, I would recommend doing more exercises with the simpler objects. 

 

Ok, let’s move on. 

 

 

Drawing a Figure

 

There are many ways to break a figure down into parts. One way to do it is anatomically, either by muscles group, skeletal group or whatever. In the framing of gesture drawing, we need to break the figure into flowing rhythms and lines of action. In other words we are drawing lines that show the movement of the body instead of drawing the body itself. I know that sounds a bit confusing and vague but lets put it into action and see if it becomes clearer. 

 

*Disclaimer: Gesture drawing has a lot to do with rhythm and flow, so following a strict step-by-step process like this will feel very obtuse. I recommend doing several poses, using this process, just to get the idea. Since it will be hard to constantly be looking back at these steps as your drawing, I also recommend to not use a timer at first. Doing quick sketches are staples of figure drawing, but for this tutorial take your time. 

 

Credit: https://blog.synstudio.ca/online-figure-drawing-references/

 

1. Again, draw scribbles lightly on your page to let your brain know immediately that this drawing isn’t a stiff copy session.

2. Start with the head. Draw in an egg shape for the head. Make sure it’s in a place on your page where it leaves you room for the remainder of the body. You may also indicate one or two of the heads features. Adding the eyes, nose, moth or ears will give perspective and form to the egg shape.

3. Now, just like before, draw the line of action (LoA). Remember, it is really up to your interpretation. Think, if you had to draw the entire figure with only a curve or two what would it be? The LoA usually flows in parallel with the spine and the appendages (arms and legs).

4. Draw a few more accompanying rhythm lines. Using the rhythm lines and the LoA as landmarks, loosely draw the torso and pelvic regions as circular shapes. These lines should resemble the contours of the body. 

5. Draw in the leg rhythms using the three different types of lines. Remember to use flowing lines and don’t try to nail down the actual contour shape just yet. If you are wondering, we start with the legs because as Andrew Loomis would say, the legs make up more of the mass of the body and also determine the balance of the figure.

6. Do the same for the arms. At this point you should have a flowy looking, stick figure. Great, if you’ve captured the energy of the pose it will show. Now to draw some more lines to inform the gesture further. 

7. Add the meat on to the legs and arms by adding to the rhythms. Now is also a good time to add any other missing pieces to the neck, hands and feet.

8. Shade some of the important shadow areas. The more specific you are with the shadows the better. When a viewer first sees this pose, the contrast of shadow and light will be the first thing their eyes will register.

9. Lastly, let’s add some landmarks that will help the viewer know where the body is in space. Landmarks are areas like the belly button, the color bone, etc. Landmarks are usually areas where a sharp ridge is formed because of the bone under the skin.

Great work! You have a now a vibrate figure, not with detail but with life and energy. 

Drawing the Figure, Again

1. Again, draw scribbles lightly on your page.

2. Start with the head.

3. Draw the line of action (LoA).

4. Draw the torso rhythms.

5. Add more rhythms and include the arms and legs.

6. Add the shadows.

7. Add the landmarks and final touches. 

The Practice of Figure Drawing

So you think you have a good handle on the concepts? Well now it’s time for a lifetime of practice. This is one of the hardest things to get right in art and because of that artists will go regularly to quick figure drawing sessions and improve their skills. A figure drawing session is just a place where artists draw a live model. Usually the organization that is putting on the event will ask for cover charge in order to pay for the live model. 

Doing these sessions with a live model will really help you develop. The session’s breakdown into a couple different periods with a break in between. The model will keep a single pose from one minute up to 20 minutes. Varying the time is essential to help you get used to laying down these lines quickly and getting the most out of each gesture. 

The Beautiful Thing About Gestures

Gestural figure drawing tends to lead to amazing works of beauty in their own right. But what I am referring to when I say the beauty of gestures is the practical use of the craft; exactly what I didn’t understand when I was a young artist. 

So the beauty of gestures is that it becomes the filter in which you translate the world into your art. It’s the majority of your artistic decisions all in one scribble. 

And the best part of all is that gestures become the best way to learn the real anatomy while still making personal art choices that has all your idiosyncrasies. These personal pieces will lead to you discovering your style in the comic book field and ultimately becoming successful. What I didn’t understand early on was that having great skill with gesture drawing translates quickly into success with comic book illustration. The more energy in your drawings the better. Your comics will become true adventures of storytelling.

With all that being said, here is my finished figure that we worked on earlier. 

But this time pushed it to a finished level ready to be a part of any comic book. Think about all the ways you can use gestures in your comic work. All it takes is a bit of imagination and you can apply any pose you want to your stories.

 

Here are a couple different versions of the same pose that could be used in different comic books scenarios.

Finished!

I want to thank you for reading and diving into gesture drawing with me. If this is your first time trying this out, don’t get discouraged if your figure didn’t come out as you’d liked. This is a very stubborn process and will take many hours of practice before you find your own footing. 

So draw everyday, use photo reference and go to figure drawing sessions in your local area whenever you can. If there aren’t any around, you can always make your own drawing group and start the process that way. The key is consistency. Drawing never gets easier but your results will really improve if you drawing regularly and put all your heart into it.

Before You Go

We have many other step-by-step tutorials on HTDC.net and I encourage you to give them all a read. Even if you know these subjects, it’s always a good idea to brush up. Also, there is an ever-growing HTDC community that will help you out with giving advice and feedback on your art. Don’t miss out. 

Lastly, if you’d like an art critique or want to just say hi, you can reach out to me directly on my site, https://joecatapanoart.com or on IG, https://Instagram.com/Catapanoart

Keep on drawing!

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