The 11 Steps to Great Gesture Drawing

I think there are 11 steps to getting really good gesture skills.

Let’s say you do 10 out of 11 steps, that’s pretty good! That’s about 90% or so. When you’re 90% of the way there with something you can normally really see that you’re getting close. However, in figure drawing, if you’re missing one of these 11 ingredients,  the drawings still might not look the way you want it to. You need all 11 for the drawings to look great. The good news is you don’t need to be really advanced or perfect on all of these 11 things. You just need to have something in place for each of them.

1. Landmarks

So the first ingredient is having an idea of what the important landmarks of the figure are, and then being able to see where they are and see how they relate to each other. Otherwise you’re just getting infinite photons of light coming off this figure into your eyes –  so much detail, so much information! It’s so much more straightforward and simple when you can boil it down to a
few important points. One characteristic of gesture is that simplicity and clarity.

knowing the basic landmarks can help inform our gesture drawings
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Important landmarks to look out for include:

  • ASIS points:  the bony points on the front of the pelvis

  • Sternum: in our ribcage article we explain how the sternum helps you see the whole ribcage form.

  • Collar bones: these help you understand the whole shoulder structure
  • Head: you can look at the brow line, how it relates to the top of the ear and get a sense of the cranium and whether it’s tilted back or tilted forward

Once you notice these fundamental ideas you can start to get a sense of the major forms in the figure.

2. Simple forms

How is the ribcage oriented? This is the second ingredient: understanding the big forms. That is helped when you can see the landmarks, which is that first ingredient. When you can see that ribcage and pelvis, you’ll also start noticing things like which side of the torso is more squashed up, which side is stretched out. With simple forms, you can also see how the head relates to the ribcage.

Without the simple forms, things can easily get straightened. When you see the structure and the forms, you can make your figures more dynamic.  

Now, I’m not saying that a gesture drawing should be like an anatomy study where you’re really painstakingly mapping out every single anatomical point of interest. However, an intuitive sense of the major anatomical forms and how they relate is central to gesture drawing.


3. Intuitive Proportions

The third ingredient is about intuitive proportions. Although you don’t need to map things out painstakingly and get things super accurate, if things are completely out of proportion, it’s going to distract away from your gesture drawing.

For example, often people make that midsection between the rib cage and pelvis too long. In the example below, I’ve tried to show the different that an elongated torso can make: can you see how it dilutes that tension between the squash side and the stretch side of the torso?

Very often people will make the head a bit big and make the hips and legs too small, and that seems to undermine the gesture. You don’t need total accuracy – the key is just to be wrong in the right direction.

Aim for a head that’s roughly the right size – or a bit small, but not too big. For the legs, aim for roughly the right size of a bit too long, but not too short. Just try not to go super long with the legs or it could get distracting.

There’s definitely a range of error you can be in  – you don’t want to be getting things too short in the legs or too big in the head, and you don’t want to go way outside of that range.


4. CSI marks

This is all about c-shaped curves, s-shaped curves and straight lines. This is not a rule, but you may find it to be a handy exercise if you’re new to gesture drawing.

Limiting your marks to c-shaped curves, s-shaped curves and straight lines means the most complex mark you’re ever going to put down is an s-shaped curve. It will encourage you to draw straight through irrelevant details. Try to aim for 15 to 30 CSI marks. 

These are numbers that you don’t need to restrict yourself to, but for the sake of a nice gesture exercise, I’d suggest setting an intention before you start. For example, you could say to yourself, I’m going to use a maximum of 15 lines for the next drawing. That is really going to push you to draw through irrelevant information and find the things that really matter. 

I tend to find that for a lot of the gesture drawings I do, there might be about 30 marks on them. For further reading, check out my guide to flowing curves HERE.

demonstation of using simple curves in gesture drawing

One other tool aside from limiting how many marks or the types of marks you use is a time limit. That is going to make sure that you’re decisive and not getting lost in detail as you’re doing these drawings.

I think often people misuse time limits by rushing through to put as many marks down as possible, trying to basically draw in their normal way but quicker.  When you have a time limit, you need to slow down and draw less. That’s your only hope.

So, if you have two minutes but you’re only going to make 30 marks, that’s four seconds per mark. That’s plenty of time to make all the marks you need for your drawing without rushing. Even if you have one minute, you’ve got two seconds per mark. That’s a leisurely pace.


5. Finding asymmetry

A lot of what makes gesture is the relationship between the two sides of the forms. For example, the squash side versus the stretch side in the torso. It’s that tension between the stretched out smoother side and then the sharp angle change on the squash side. Those two sides play off against each other and it creates a lot of visual interest. If they were symmetrical it would be way less gestural.

Another nice relationship between the two sides of a form is a straight line against a curve. There’s this real simplicity and clarity of the straight line contrasted against the fluidity on the curved side. Another really nice form of asymmetry is offset curves. Unlike symmetrical curves, when you have those curves offset against each other, they create a really nice asymmetrical dynamic.


6. Pre-prepared versus pose specific curves

The sixth ingredient is to have some standard pre-prepared curves and then some pose-specific curves.

left: pre-prepared curves / right pose-specific curves

Standard pre-prepared curves are the ones you know they’re going to be there, so they give you a head start. For example, in the image above (left) on if you see a straight leg from the side, you’re naturally going to find that s-shaped curve down the front of it. If you see a straight leg from the front you’re going to find offset curves going down the sides of it.

Some pose-specific curve examples (above right) are big flowing curves that happen to be created by that pose.


7. Surface lines

The seventh ingredient is surface lines, cross contour lines or wrapping lines.

Often a gestural curve is a big long curve, so when you have an arm, you might have a big long curve to capture the gesture of that arm. However when something is really foreshortened, the edges on the outline of it become short – it’s not a nice big long line anymore, so instead we can find the big long curve that is wrapping around the form. So you can still put lines down around the outline of the form but also add those cross contour lines. They’re going to provide a lot of gesture while also clarifying the forms. 

Another really nice thing is they tell us the direction: they tell us how the form is coming towards us. Changing directions is part of the dynamism of the pose and therefore of the gesture. For further reading on this topic, check out my guide to foreshortening HERE.


8. Mark Making

The eighth ingredient is a mark making strategy. I think that a lot of people think that this is all they need when they see someone doing gestural drawings, but this is just one out of the 11.

For me, my mark making strategy for most of my gestural drawings includes:

  • using an overhand grip
  • using a pencil that is sharpened to have quite a long bit of lead exposed with a little but of a tapering to it
  • drawing onto smooth newsprint. This helps me put down all kinds of different marks in order to capture the gesture the way I want to.

You can use a brush pen, you can draw digitally, you can use all kinds of different materials.

My suggestion for a starting point is to find an artist whose gesture drawings you really love and try to match their strategy. What kind of grip do they use? How do they get the pencil or brush ready? What kind of paper are they using? And mimic that.


9. Risk Mindset

When explaining this step, my head always goes to the ‘leap of faith’ scene from Indiana Jones. He is faced with a huge pit and has to step out onto a path that he can’t see. He’s got to hope that it’s there and commit. There might not have been a path there, and that’s going to happen when you’re doing your gesture drawings.

Just keep taking that step that Indiana Jones takes with every mark. The drawing might not work, but take the leap of faith and commit to every line anyway. You’re not going fall down into an endless pit. If the drawing doesn’t work out, you can just do another drawing, it’s okay!

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Take that risk with every mark. Do it like you’re confident about it. Do it like you mean it even though you’re not actually sure it’s going to work.


10. Quantity of practice

The 10th ingredient is a sheer quantity of practice. You can understand all of these ideas but don’t expect yourself to sit down on day 1 or day 2 or day 3 and just be able to push out a bunch of fantastic gesture drawings. It is a muscle memory thing.

It’s going to take a long time to get to those gestural drawings. You’re putting these bricks in place, brick by brick, and you need to build that wall quite a bit before it’s going to really translate into fantastic gesture drawings.

Give yourself time to make lots of failed drawings. As long as you’re working on these skills and not just mindlessly drawing inside your comfort zone, but really trying to push towards these 11 steps, you’ll get there.


11. The secret ingredient

This final one is a bit vague but I think it’s really important. Allow yourself to be confident. If you’ve done that quantity of practice, if you’ve worked on all of these skills, at some point you’re going to have to think to yourself, you know what? I am good at this, I can do this, I’m confident about what I’m doing.

That confidence is really useful when you’re putting down these gestural marks but you have to allow yourself to believe that. If you’ve done all these other bits of work that I’ve described, you then have to allow yourself to be confident.

As artists, we are often so self-critical and we don’t want to seem delusional or arrogant.  But it’s ok to be confident. It makes a huge difference. The marks will feel confident and the viewer’s eyes are going to enjoy that confidence. It’s strange but it is an ingredient all by itself and it is built by doing the work and doing the practice.


Fresh Eyes

If you really want to work on your skills of bringing things down to their fundamental forms, seeing that squash and stretch intuitively, simplifying while still recognising the structure, bringing out those surface lines, we designed the Fresh Eyes challenge specifically for that. It’s a ten-day challenge that is free to join and it is transformative for your drawings if you work through it. Find out more about the Fresh Eyes challenge HERE


Find out more about the Fresh Eyes Challenge here


How to Draw Any Pose from IMAGINATION During your journey of learning to draw the figure, you’ll probably have pivotal, memorable moments. Maybe it’s a drawing that felt like a turning