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Characters in Motion

Characters in Motion

Motion! It’s kind of the foundation of everything we know, right? When you think about it, nothing in reality is ever still. The whole universe is ever expanding and relatively everything is in tow with it.

And so creating art with convincing character motion and depicting movement (in general) should be a huge priority for your studies.

If you like reading comics, it’s probably because you enjoy filling in the gaps when reading the sequences of images that are shown from page to page.

Characters drawn in motion is something really cool to look at because, unlike moving pictures like film, viewing a still image allows the reader to really soak in every aspect of the movement.

There are many things to consider when trying to create a convincing movement, however.

In this tutorial, I’m going to break down as much as possible to get you started on the right foot. Speaking of, let’s first talk about how to find the right pose to show a character’s movements.

Character Key Poses

Think of it this way. In animation, it’s the job of an animator to create the key poses for any given movement. The key pose should be the pose that tells the most about the movement as clearly as possible. Check out the Character Posing tutorial for more on that.

After the animator sets the key poses, another more junior artist will draw the ‘in-betweens’ which will begin to depict movement in a fluid way when played back sequentially.

For comics, think of the animator as the comic book illustrator and the junior artist as the audience. The comic artist picks the best pose for any given situation so that the intention of the action is as clear as possible.

Then when it’s read later on the audience will fill in the ‘in-betweens’ actions solely with their imagination. Pretty cool right?

So, let’s focus on what’s actually a comic artist’s control: Making the key poses that depict the movement as interesting and as believable as possible. In order to get movement to feel believable, there are some things that we’ll need to go over. Here’s the topics on today’s tutorial:

  • Ways to show basic motion

  • The Body’s Range of Motion

  • Articulation of hands and feet

  • Exaggeration

  • Best Ways to Practice

Let’s keep movin’ and learn about the basics!

Basic Motion

Since we are visual artists we have certain graphical tools at our disposal to show movement within our 2D still picture.

Here, I will demonstrate them with the use of a ball, but they can be combined with great posing and composition for even better results.

Drawing Basic Motion

Blur - Either blurring the lines of the moving object or even the background will produce the illusion of motion. This the most accurate graphical way to show motion but it won’t necessarily be the best for your artwork. It’s just one tool within your arsenal.

Afterimage - This a big one for American comics. Essentially if you show a few frames of the in between shots from before the key pose takes place, the audience will be able to see the change literally. All you have to do is lower the transparency or opacity of all the poses that are not the key pose.

Speed Lines - This one is used widely in all of comics but I think the Japanese manga books popularized its use in the most extreme way. Speed lines are used in tandem with a great pose to show a very fast action. Whether it be a car speeding by or a villain punching toward the camera, using these (usually straight) lines will convince the viewer that they’re in a dramatic scene that requires their attention.

Streaks - Very similar to speed lines, a streak is one or two lines that curve and show an organic motion. This is a versatile technique that will work with many actions.

Clothing and Hair - Fabric or any light weight material stuck to a character will tend to float when in motion. This also includes hair, especially when it’s long. Having clothing or hair move will either show that there is wind or that the character is currently moving.

Cartoon Wobble - This is a technique commonly used in the old cartoon strips popular in newspapers. It works like this: Sticking lines around the contour of a character will show a small motion taking place. Adding a few extra lines will show a character shifting around, but adding even more lines will depict a character violently shaking.

FX - This technique is probably the most organic, accurate and visually appealing, all in one. My advice would be to use this whenever possible. FX is short for ‘effects’ like in ’special effects’. So this includes smoke, mist, fire, sparks, water, and even just ambiguous render lines.

When characters come in contact with outside forces you have to have them react realistically. If done well, the audience will instantly be drawn into your art because of the believability.

Alright! Let’s move on.

Range of Motion

Every character, including superheroes will all have limits to how far the can move, stretch or contort. Having this range of motion be similar to real life will give great footing for your reader to get invested in your character.

Our first concern should be the human body’s two main masses. They are of course the two parts of the torso. The upper being the rib cage and the lower being the pelvis. These two masses are, first, connected by the spine and then several muscle groups.

Muscles have much more flexibility than the spine however, because the spine is bone and therefore rigid.

The ligaments that connect the bones together are also not very flexible and this will be the first reason the body has movement limitations. The best part about figuring out the bodies range of motion is that you can always check on your own body.

Go ahead, see how far you can twist your upper body while at the same time keeping your hips still. I’m sure you are very aware that this twisting motion is quite limited and I think its a great starting place for understanding these constraints.

Range of Motion of The Human Figure

For the average person, this twist is maybe about 30 degrees. As an artist, a good way to practice this range is to simplify the torso in to boxes and then rotate them on paper. Take a look at some reference to really see if you are getting it right.

Next, let’s move to the torso’s much more flexible angle. The body is built so that the upper body can bend almost 90 degrees when bending forward and back. Because of the natural arch of the spine, bending toward the back is more inflexible but it still has a good amount of range.

Torso Range of Motion

You test this pose by trying to touch your toes in front of a mirror and see how the motion works it first hand. This action is one that demonstrates the direction in which the torso can move the best.

Take a quick internet look at how much a track and field athlete can jump hurtles. For them to keep running at the same time they must use this dominant bend of the torso.

Before we move on to more common body limitations, let me explain how muscles should react to the bodies movement.

The human body uses muscles to move. This is possible because each muscle has two ends and each are attached to a different tendon or bone. Muscles have a decent amount of flexibility and you can see here are the states that any given muscle can be in when you draw them.

Leg Range of Motion

First, is the neutral state; this is where there is neither active or passive pressure on it. Next, is the PASSIVE state of a muscle.

When a muscle is not being used and instead being pulled along for the ride by other muscle groups, the fibres will stretch and therefore, the width will get thinned out while the distance between end points will increase.

Last, is the ACTIVE state. When a muscle is activated it will push the two ends together, therefore creating a bulge. Cool! Let’s see it in a practical example.

Arm Range of Motion

The most explicit example of these muscle states can be seen in the musculature of your arms and legs. The groups are so intertwined that the muscles are constantly in flux of being in the Active, Passive and Neutral states.

Notice that when the bicep is ACTIVE and contracts it forces the triceps on the opposite side of the arm to be in its PASSIVE state.

While we are on the subject of the arm, let’s look at an example of its limitations, while also discussing the volumes that muscle masses take up.

Range of Motion - Arm Muscle Stretch

The arm has quite a good amount of range. It can just about reach a flat angle when straightened at the elbow. Also, keep in mind that the arm can also twist in about 180 degrees by rotating the wrist.

Go ahead, check it out on your own arm.

Now, pay attention to how the bicep (colored in blue) is in its passive state. Notice that when the arm will bend, the amount of volume the muscle takes up will be the same. That means that the shape of the muscle will change but it takes up the same amount of space.

Range of Motion - Arm Muscle Retracted

Here, the bicep is contracted and in its active position. Clearly the mass is about the same, but the shape is all bunched up, creating the bulge in the arm.

Remember to keep this in mind with all the muscles of the body, try to use the same amount of mass for each muscle from panel to panel no matter if it’s in the active, passive or neutral state.

There is an immense amount of information to understand about the human body. I am going to try and hit a few more areas where its range of motion needs to be understood.

Range of Motion of The Head

The neck is a complex grouping of muscles that have a very distinct amount of movement. If you get this range of motion wrong I think it will be immediately noticeable in your work. So, let’s talk about the limitations of moving the neck.

Here I’m showing you a couple different angles of the same motion so that you can get the right idea about how for the neck can move. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but you can not see your own back.

And that’s because the neck and spine won’t allow your head to turn more than roughly 90 degrees in both lateral directions. And if you try to tilt your head either forward or back while you turn, you won’t even get that far.

So remember the head and neck have maximum range of motion when it’s not tilted up or down at the same time. Use my illustrations to help give you a basis for how far you can push your own characters.

Now, we will check out the rotation of the leg. While the arm can rotate almost all the way around, the leg can only rotate about 25 to 30 degrees.

Range of Motion of The Foot

Make note that the rotation towards the inside of the body has a little more range of motion than the opposite direction.

Great! Let’s move on to how the hands and feet move.

I would say this is a part of how the hands and feet articulate but it’s also the range of motion for their corresponding joints.

Foot Range of Motion

As you can see, feet have a good amount of articulation when it comes to the forward and backward movements. But take a look at the tilting of the feet from left to right.

This tilt allows for the legs to be in a variety of angles relative to the floor and still have the ability for the feet to remain flat on the ground. Remember that there is a limitation there but it is pretty wide in range. Now, on to hands!

Hand Range of Motion

I think we can forget how much movement our hands can actually achieve because we end up getting used to the limitations in daily life. But if you take a moment to look, like we are here you can see that the hands have a very asymmetrical range of motion.

Trying to bend your hand back will reveal it to be very limited, while bending forward allows for a lot of movement. Similarly, trying to bend the hand on the thumbs side reveals that it’s quite limited, while bending on the pinkie side will triple its range of motion.

Remember that many of our joints are ball joints, so when it comes to hands and feet we can rotate them in all directions with varying degrees of range.

Excellent! Now let’s take a look at the effectiveness of Exaggerating the body’s limits.


If you take a look at the old Disney animators of the 20th century you will find some great advice. They were masters of visual animation and had many guidelines that they used to expertly show movement to an audience.

Do a quick google search for yourself and read them all. Today, I’m going to talk about a couple and then give an example of comic book characters utilizing a tool or two.

No matter how you look at it, the manipulation of characters range of motion, and animation is an exaggeration of real life. The old masters were well aware of the rules to break and they called them the principles of animation. Since we work in a still medium we will take what we can from this.

First up is Squash and Stretch. This principle says that if you want to exaggerate the feeling of a character putting force on another object be sure to squash the proportions of the character to really sell it.

The best example of it is of a character jumping.

If you really want a character to look dynamic have him coil up as much as possible in anticipation of the jump. Then, while they are jumping stretch their body out as much as possible to really exaggerate the energy and effort involved in the action.

Exaggerating the pose of a character is essential to making your art larger than life. It is a secret to why you like some characters actions and not care about others.

Let’s take a look at some comic art by Todd McFarlane and Tradd Moore.

Exaggerating Character Poses

In both of these artworks, the creator has decided to purposely break the characters range of motion in order to squash and extend the action’s dynamics.

First, take a look at the top drawing of Spidey. Todd’s classic run on the character is famous because of his drive to push the boundaries of what Spidey could do on the page. Here, Spidey looks like he’s a bit contorted but still believable.

Notice how Todd over-rotated the legs and feet. We all know that it’s impossible for our feet to be facing opposite directions but somehow Todd pulls it off with amazing results.

Next, look at the surfer. Tradd, again, has over-rotated the torso and spine in order to get the characters face in the shot and also keep the dynamic stance of the character on the surf board.

If you try this technique of drawing the characters you love from comics on separate sheets of paper, you will most likely discover that exaggeration of the body is in play.

Awesome. Lastly, let’s talk about how to practice getting better at character movement while we do an example.

The Da Vinci Method

There some obvious ways for you to study anatomy, characters and range of motion but here, I’m going to run you through a process that seems to work well for me and I’ve coined it the Da Vinci Method.

I know the clever name is appealing but it comes with a good amount of work so don’t start smiling yet.

Either way, you’re gonna love this!

Here’s how the method works. First, it calls for you to find reference of a good pose. Once you find good reference, you are going to draw it to your best abilities.

Now comes the cool part. You will then use a new layer to draw the same character but with their limbs doing different actions, preferably in extreme dynamic poses.

If you remember the famous Da Vinci drawing of a man where it shows how his range of motion is circular, then this exercise will start to look like that. Before we do one for an example, let’s talk about why this a great exercise. And yes, you can tell your art friends…

So the reason why this study technique is great, is because it is engaging almost all of your artistic intuitions, giving you freedom of exploration and at the same time keeps you tethered to the initial reference that you started with.

As we do the example I will point out some of the cooler insights and advice I have about the process.

Let’s Draw

Step 1: Draw Lines Of Action For The Pose

Okay! As always, let’s start with a good line of action for our pose. Again, you should be drawing from reference. If you need more help with this step, head over to the Gesture or Character Drawing Tutorials, here on How To Draw Comics. Net.

Draw Lines Of Action For The Pose

Step 2: Draw a Mannequin For The Figure

Next, is the task of drawing a well-structured, gestural mannequin. In other words, you need to draw a figure that is clearly defined and proportioned but keeps the energy lines from drawing gesturally.

You should spend a good amount of time getting this drawing to your liking and as accurate as possible. All further drawings will be based upon this one’s accuracy. This is testing your ‘drawing from life’ abilities, which is a great thing to have.

Draw a Mannequin For The Figure

Step 3: Draw a New Pose

Great job! Let’s move on to the fun part! Now we’re going to draw from our imagination… partially. We are going to use what we just drew as an under drawing and then draw a new pose on top. Here’s mine.

Draw a New Pose

Step 4: Overlay Another Pose

As you can see, it’s not a completely new pose. Parts of the old pose need to stay. My advice is to keep the pelvis and the torso relatively in the same place and then practice your range of motion skills and creatively come up with a new dynamic pose by moving the limbs and head.

If you want to live further on the edge of chaos, only keep one part of the torso in tact, and freely move the other. For example, let’s do another overlay layer, with a new, new pose.

Overlay Another Pose

You can do as many of these additional poses as you like but it is a good idea to start with fresh piece of reference now and again. Here’s an additional new pose.

The Da Vinci Method

In my example, I pull back the shoulders on the pose for this swan dive type of gesture. Speaking of gesture, make sure to keep your drawings relatively loose because that's where you will reveal the power of this method.

Not only are you finding ways to pose effectively but you are experimenting with how much is too much exaggeration. For example, I believe that I pulled the arms a little too far back on this one, but it still works as a pose.

The Human Figure In Motion

Great work! At any time you can take a pose that you like and try to bring it to a more polished level. It may not come out as perfect as you like because you are doing the majority of the work by imagination (after step 2), but it will keep the energy and exaggeration that you started with.

Amazing! You made it through!

Before You Go

Studying movement is one of the more difficult things to work on. It requires patience, an intermediate understanding of the fundamentals, and lots of life reference.

In fact, once you have a good handle on drawing, I suggest you go to places where people are active like sporting games, gyms, and parks to see if you can capture the energy of the participants live.

This skill is a tough one to pick up because it requires a higher comfortability with figure drawing. But I believe in you guys!

I’m having a blast writing up these tutorials so make sure you reach out and let me know what you think. You can send me a message on twitter here:

As much as I try to share some knowledge through these tutorials, I am also learning through the process as well, so I’ll take any feedback to get better; good or otherwise.

Remember that there is great community of aspiring and professional artists at

How To Draw Comics. Net and on all their social media pages so get in there and ask for feedback on your work.

Don’t be shy about getting feedback because it can be a great stepping stone for growth. In fact, you should hope for negative critiques, because it will be the biggest catalyst for change.

For the more dedicated among you, I’d also recommend the Mentorship program because you can gain even more with a 1-on-1 setup with a professional.

If you enjoy these tutorials, you should also check out my cyberpunk, fantasy comic book call STAR CIRCUIT. It’s been successfully crowdfunded and already shipped out but don’t fret its still available on my website.

If you like world’s like Akira and F-zero go check it out at

Thank you for reading.

-Joe Catapano

Tutorial by Joe Catapano

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