Draw like Don Gale – Wild & Expressive Gestures

These figures are drawn with extravagant movement and energy, but they still work. They feel more human than much more carefully rendered drawings by other artists. How is it possible to have such clear structure and humanity captured with such wild lines? Today we are going to look at the work of Don Gale.

Don Gale is a sculptor and draftsman, and it’s his figure drawings we are going to focus on in this video. You can see his artwork at dongalestudio.com.

I wanted to thank Don for giving me permission to make this video/article and use images from his website.

Movement built on solid foundations

The thing that first strikes you about Don’s drawings is the movement, the gesture. They have that big line of movement the pose creates, but then every body part is also captured in the same way.

If we look past those fantastic big flowing lines, we can see that these figures are built on a solid structure. Let’s start with some of Don’s less wild figure drawings where this is easier to see. He has those important lines and points we talked about in the beginner series. A line across the shoulders, the pelvis, the spine or torso centre line.

He captures the big anatomical shapes of the figure. We are always going on about the ribcage and pelvis with the squashy bit in the middle. There’s a lot to learn from how Don draws the muscles too – it’s still the big, important, simplified shapes that are needed.

With the essential points and shapes in place, and the figure’s balance and proportions established, the drawing will work even with extremely expressive lines on top of that structure. The figure will feel human and natural. It’s a bit like how in a landscape painting, if the perspective is there and the big shapes are explained, then you can be extremely loose with the brush strokes and it’ll still feel like a real place and a real moment.

This stormy sea scene is by Turner, and it’s pretty nuts, crazy brush strokes everywhere. If you zoomed in you wouldn’t know what was going on. But as a whole, the perspective is there – lines coming in to a point on the horizon, the marks more spaced out as they get closer. It’s enough for your eye to get it, even though your brain doesn’t know how it’s working.

Don’s sees the points and major anatomical shapes of the figure and the pose he needs to look for, his hands know how to get those points and shapes down on the paper. With those skills in place, the essential points and lines will be captured and our eyes will understand the figure. On top of those essentials, he’s free to express the emotion of the pose, the visual sensation that the pose gives.

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So you could think of the drawings as movement built on solid foundations, or as emotion expressed through skill and muscle memory.

Exaggerating the form

A common technique in gesture drawing is to exaggerate the pose. That is a useful skill because we are often inclined to reduce the movement, straighten out the angles and make things safer and less extreme. So exaggerating things helps to counteract that bad habit.

But sometimes exaggerating the pose can kind of Disneyfy the figure, make it cartoonish. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s a particular style. One thing I really like about Don’s drawings is that he does exaggerate, but I think he exaggerates the figure itself, the form, more than the pose.

So look at this lower leg, how the tapering of the model’s calf is turned into these more extreme curves, really exaggerating the shape. Lets look at the calf on this model. Things start thin at the ankles, and then become wider at the calf. But it’s not a uniform shape, like a triangle. It gradually tapers outwards, but then quickly gets more chunky when you get to the meat of the muscle. Don’s drawing has that, but it’s exaggerated.

You can see this throughout the figure. The pose doesn’t look exaggerated, but every curve of the figure does, giving it extra volume. Anatomically, it feels ‘extra human’. We’ll go through the characteristics of body parts like this that you can start to look for and make sure you’re getting in your drawings in a future video. By the way, don’t forget to subscribe, we are always coming out with great videos you don’t want to miss!

Distilling the pose to pure movement

Sometimes Don provides a sequence of the drawings. The first starts with an expressive figure drawing full of the movement that defines the pose. And the subsequent drawings strip away more and more of the figure, and leave just that movement that defines the pose, expressed as almost abstract shapes. It’s really interesting to study these and see how the pose can be captured without capturing the figure.

Because they’re presented in a sequence like this, your eyes can take in the recognisable figure on the left, and that allows you to see the figure in the abstract drawing on the right. Doing a sequence like this is kind of similar to our ‘Filter Further’ exercise in our gesture drawing series, where you draw the figure with simplicity and movement, but then try to go further with a second and third drawing, each one even more simple and with more movement. I’ll link to that video below.

These drawings by Don are more like filtering out everything to distill things down to just the movement, just that visual sensation from the pose.

Form not light

Some figure drawing artists are most concerned with capturing the light. I would say that Lane Brown’s drawings that we have looked at before are guided by light. Don’s drawings on the other hand are all about the form of the figure – the actual shape. The drawings are mostly about the lines that help explain the form, the shape, and the movement created by it, to our eyes.

Drawing like Don

As with all the artists we feature in these videos, their drawings were preceded by many years of practice. A lot of this drawing style requires that your eyes see that movement and the big shapes, and that your arm is full of muscle memory to rapidly get it on paper without having to overthink everything. So as usual, the main thing will be tons of consistent practice.

But here’s some specifics to start to move towards this fantastically expressive figure drawing, on top of the things we’ve already talked about so far:

  • Try a material that will flow across the paper – softer pencils for example will work better than hard pencils
    Don’t just try to analyse the pose or copy it down, but allow the emotion your eyes feel when looking at the pose to come through your arm onto the paper. I don’t mean some specific emotion like sadness or something, I mean find that visual sensation that the pose gives you.
  • Try copying some of Don’s drawings as an exercise. Start with the more down to earth ones, and look at what shapes are important enough for him to include. Notice how he’s capturing these back muscles, the lines he uses to get the tricep. From there, move on to some of the sequences, and see how a figure can be filtered down to almost pure movement.

Here’s an interview Don Gale did for Artists Network.

If you haven’t already checked out our guide to life drawing success, which is about the mistake that led to most of my other mistakes, get it here. We’ve had really great feedback on it. We’ve done analyses of other great artists, so have a look at the playlist, and also our gesture drawing series if you want to draw with more gesture. Thanks for watching!

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