It’s easy to say ‘draw loosely and expressively’ or ‘just capture the feeling of the pose with a few lines’. It’s really hard to actually do that. Let’s start the gesture drawing learning process from the point of view of a beginner.
Gesture drawing when you’re a beginner
When you are starting out, there is a combination of things that can cause problems. Here are the things that have made me struggle before:
- Desire for control: You aren’t confident with making big, simple marks yet – so far you’ve mostly made marks like writing letters, so you stick with those controlled, cautious little movements.
- Doubt: A lot of this is unfamiliar, so naturally there’s doubt in the whole process.
- Desire for accuracy: It’s hard work just to get the proportions about right. You need to map things out to get things in about the right place.
- Self-consciousness: You are worried about the drawing looking weird. That causes you to straighten things out and make things conform to the preconceived idea of the figure rather than trusting your eyes.
- Detail: The complexity and nuance going into your eyeballs is overwhelming. You want to put in every tone and line, because it’s there so it must mean something.
- Lack of shorthands: You don’t have any shorthands for body parts and features. Over time, you build up a repertoire of quick ways you can draw a finger or a nose. But when starting out, you have none of that.
So if any of that sounds familiar, you are not alone at all. And if you draw this way, it doesn’t mean that you are ‘bad at drawing’ or ‘don’t have talent’ or that you are somehow wrong. It just means that you have the standard, confusing array of challenges to overcome.
Today, we are not aiming to become great at gesture drawing. Instead, we are aiming to start to refocus away from these things to something different, and to loosen up a lot. Imagine you’re a tense rubber band. If we stretch it a little bit, it’s just going to bounce right back. But if we will really stretch things out, it may stay a bit stretched.
Let’s set our expectations: we are not talking about proportions or accuracy. The lines might be wrong. Also we don’t care about details or nuances in the tones. So, today our drawings might look like simple mutants. In fact, we can make that one of our goals – draw some simple mutants. Seriously, if you haven’t got some mutant drawings at the end, you probably aren’t doing this right, because you’re going with control and self-consciousness.
Later on, we will work on the technicalities of achieving gestural drawings, which you can see in the ‘nuts and bolts’ section below. However, for right now, it’s really important to get into the gesture practice mindset first.
So what do we want to achieve with this? Mainly, we want something that is super important that for some reason we just don’t care about when we start out. We call it movement.
Warming up and stretching
Lets warm up by drawing the Eiffel tower. Do you see that the eiffel tower has an upward flow? That’s the bit we do care about. We care a little tiny bit about getting it to feel like a solid mass and giving it a sense of stability. Mainly though we just care about this big flowing movement up to the sky. By the way, if you see something different, then go with that, that’s even cooler.
We all like to watch movies right? They tell us stories. But they don’t tell us just a series of facts. They vary the tempo. They also leave out 99% of whatever’s happening. I’m sure Darth Vader went to the toilet sometimes, but we don’t see that in the movie. We mostly see the interesting stuff – the stuff that stirs an emotion and moves the plot forward. We are just going to draw those parts of what we’re seeing.
Now let’s draw a tree with flowing branches to get even looser and let that movement go all over the place.
Now unlike a movie, we aren’t really telling a story, or even conveying an emotion. Sometimes we can, but that’s not necessary. Not all poses convey some obvious emotion like ‘sad’ or something. What is essential is the visual sensation. If you are interested in gesture drawing, it’s because when you see gesture drawings, you get them – you feel that they look cool or interesting in some way. That’s because they are filtering everything down to the same visual sensation you get when you see a figure. So yes, you do have that visual sense and I know that because you like gesture drawings. The hard part is filtering all the attention seeking nonsense out, so that you can see and draw it yourself with clarity and confidence.
Simplifying the whole figure into movement
Lets draw some figures this way. Feel free to follow the curves I’m using in the images, or draw it your own way. In this figure, you might notice the torso is creating a big curve on the right hand side. On the left hand side, things come in sharply at the waist and then come out wide again around the hips. The right hand side is stretched out, and the left hand side is squashed down as the torso is bent back. We can emphasise that and exaggerate it. Notice how much we are deviating from the actual figure:
We are filtering out tons of information and we are just going with the big simple ideas that matter. It’ll take time for you to learn how to see these ideas – more on that later. For now, let’s just enjoy putting down these simple curves that leave out so much from the figure.
So now we will add so additional curves. A big S shaped curve down the front of the leg. Some curves around the pelvis and the ribcage to show how the pelvis is tilted forward and the ribcage is tilted back. These are ideas important enough to add into our simple drawing.
Remember these curves I’m going through are not the ‘right’ ones – there are many ways to approach a pose. You can use these curves I’m giving you for this practice session. Below you’ll find more resources to train your own eye to see gesture your way.
And then we can add some curves for the other leg and arm to complete our drawing.
Below you can see my attempt to draw this pose with a charcoal pencil on paper. It’s absolutely not expected that yours looks like this, it could be messy or out of proportion. That’s absolutely fine – remember back to our mindset shift at the start of the article.
So movement isn’t the only thing we are aiming for in a gesture drawing. There are secondary aims too – we do want the big simple forms to be captured, and we want some sense of gravity and weight. To help give the sense of movement, we might want to change our line quality to bring attention to some places and move it away from others. But these are all things we don’t need to worry about at once. These are ideas you can work on further with the ‘nuts and bolts’ section below. That would be too much for this practice session. Right now, let’s just start to recognise and respect that visual sensation of movement as much as or maybe more than we respect proportions and details, and let’s start to loosen up.
The nuts and bolts of gesture drawing
A huge part of learning to draw gesture is about shifting to the mindset outlined above. However, there are also technical aspects to gesture drawing that you will need to slowly learn. Fortunately, we have some excellent resources for you as you keep going down this road:
1. The major forms
Gesture is not simply about flowing movement that you feel. Those flows are created by the relationships between the major forms, especially in the head and torso. It’s really useful to become good at seeing the basic shape of the ribcage and pelvis and how they relate to each other. They often are tilted or angled differently, creating a squash and stretch in the torso. To learn to see this, try our free figure drawing challenge called Fresh Eyes. It’s very powerful and effective.
2. The angles of those forms
Once you are confident in seeing the major forms of the figure, you’ll notice that a lot of the gesture comes from the angles of those forms. The angle change between the head, ribcage and pelvis in particular are what we are most interested in. Learn more about this super important idea underpinning gesture in this tutorial.
3. Gestural curves
Once you are confident in seeing those forms and angles, it’s time to work on the beautiful flowing curves you use. You can learn how to find and create those curves, and what to avoid, in this tutorial about gestural curves.
Motivation and mindset
Okay so finally, a note on your motivation and mindset. When you do these drawings, it might get ugly. At the start, it’s like you’re fighting off a hundred monsters at once. But one day, if you keep going, you slay one of those monsters. And suddenly, the fight is just a tiny bit easier. Then you slay another, and it’s easier again, so you get another one. And then things get better and better quicker and quicker until you have slain them all, and you are a confident artist. Then you’re presented with a set of ninjas to fight instead, but that’s for another day.
To learn more about the all important learning mindset for drawing, you might also like to check out our Life Drawing Success Guide (it’s free!)
If you need references to draw, we have some amazing ones in our free reference library!
Eiffel Tower photo: By Julie Anne Workman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Tree photo: by JarrahTree…commons.wikimedia.org [CC BY 2.5 au (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/au/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons