Top 5 Gesture Mistakes

We’re going to see 5 gesture mistakes that come down to our brains pulling us towards the familiar, boring symbol you see on the ground here:

Mistake 1 – Too parallel

I very often see beginner and intermediate level artists lose the variation in the widths going down the figure. Reducing the way the forearms taper off, reducing how much things come in at the waist and bounce out around the hips. So here are some examples of my own drawings when I was learning just a few years ago, you can see I really made figures, even in dynamic poses, have quite parallel sides.


So we want to not just avoid that but go further the other way. In the image below, the ‘accurate’ version is on the left. The version with less interesting, quite parallel sides is in the middle. We don’t necessarily want to just aim for accuracy, that’s hard a puts a lot of pressure on you. Instead you can exaggerate how the forms taper off and widen, so something more like the version on the right (in green). It’s wrong, but wrong in a good way.

Don Gale, an artist whose gesture drawings I like, exaggerates this characteristic of figures and I think it works great.

So next time you do gesture drawings, look for how the forms taper off or curve outwards and exaggerate the interesting characteristics there.


Mistake 2 – Outline focus

So the boring symbol is really just an outline, and that’s a classic issue with gesture drawings – being too outline focused.

When you’re starting out, most people do contour drawing. You try to match what you’re seeing on paper, with a focus on the outlines of things.

As you get better at drawing what you’re seeing, you can start to move beyond that. So you can find the flowing curves that run through the forms. You can find cross contour lines that wrap around the forms. You can also look for curves that run across the figure, for example the bottom of the chest, or through the bony tips of the pelvis, the ASIS points.

Sometimes people say: ‘Well those curves are just made up, they aren’t real’.

It’s worth pointing out that the outline of what you’re seeing isn’t really there either, the outline is a way of interpreting what you see onto paper. There’s light bouncing off the figure into your eyes here and here but not here. The outline is just the boundary we make up between where the figure is and isn’t. We don’t actually have dark lines around us all the time. Focusing on that boundary is just one way to represent the figure.

There are various other, often more interesting, ways to see, and gesture is one of them. We put out a video recently about confidence, and I do think some element of confidence is needed to move on from just contour drawing, because now you really have to have faith in your own judgement because you’re drawing things that are less easily defined.

One note I wanted to make before the next mistakes is that although gesture is a fundamental skill in figure drawing, that doesn’t mean it is a beginner skill. I actually think you only really start to get to grips with gesture after building other skills first. I made a post called the 5 stages of learning to draw figures  and you can check it out.


Mistake 3 – Reducing angle changes and differences

The boring symbol pose we saw at the start of this article is very boring – it’s just standing straight and straightening poses is a classic problem in gesture drawings. I talk about straightening so much, it’s the number one mistake beginner and intermediate artists make I think. If you’ve seen my videos you might be bored of me going on about straightening the pose so I’m really going to expand on this idea now and split it into 3 separate mistakes.

The first is reducing angle differences. So in the pose below (the original pose is the one on the left), the angle across the shoulders is quite different to the angle across the ribcage which is quite different to the angle across the pelvis. But our brains want to draw the figure more straight like the symbol, and makes all the angles the same. You can see in the version in red in the middle – the angle differences have been reduced. The torso is straightened.

What we want to do is exaggerate the differences that are interesting. So push the shoulder angle more, push the pelvis angle more so they are all even more different because it makes the pose more interesting – more like the version in green on the right.

So again, we are not aiming for accuracy or the literal exact truth, that’s really hard. Just go wrong in the more interesting way!


Mistake 4 – Stacking vertically

The boring symbol has the head right above the torso. The torso itself is vertical, if this ‘person’ had a ribcage it would be right above the pelvis.

So the second way that we straighten the pose is to keep the angle changes, but then rotate the whole pose around to make sure the parts still line up vertically. Here the original pose (on the left) has the pelvis pushed off to the right of the ribcage. Our brains will want us to stack them vertically like the symbol, so it’s common to rotate things so that the pelvis is right under the ribcage, as shown by the version on the right:


And you guessed it, I’m going to suggest you just push it the other way. Have the pelvis even more offset from the ribcage, because that’s the interesting thing in this pose. This is shown below in the version on the right:

So below is another pose on the left, and one of our students Susan’s drawing of this pose is in the middle. She has worked very hard and got 95% of the pose right. She got that great angle change here. She got the difference in angle between ribcage and pelvis and it’s very dynamic. What’s happened is her brain still wants to straighten somehow and she is determined to get those angles. So her brain sneakily got her to keep the angle differences but then rotate the pose so that the pelvis is still directly under the ribcage. It’s still all vertical.

So now watch what happened when I rotated her drawing in the version on the right. I also made a few of the changes we talked about in the proportions video, narrowing the ribcage relative to pelvis, and increasing the size of the hands. She had done a beautiful gesture drawing, and it just needed this minor tweak to come through. When I’m giving feedback on student drawings, one of the most common things I have to do is just rotate their whole drawing like this:


Mistake 5  – Losing rotation & Twist

On this pose below, the figure is rotated relative to our eyes, we can see more of the torso on the near side than far side. But our brains want to draw it like it’s not rotated to our eyes, and so it’ll expand the far side in the drawings. This time I’m actually not going to suggest you need to exaggerate things and make it even narrower than it is. Just try not to expand that far side, just try to get it roughly as narrow as it is.

So below is Cheryl’s drawing (in the middle). She’s a really skilled artist already who can paint landscapes beautifully. She wanted to get better at gestural drawing and quicker drawings in particular. As she learned with us, she became really good at simplifying and capturing poses quickly, but she kept expanding that far side. So if the pose was rotated, she’d undo that without realising. 

See what happens when I reduced that far side in the version on the right. It’s closer to the pose, but things make more sense and feel more interesting. If the far side is just a sliver of a shape, capture that way, draw it as narrow as it really is. The viewer’s eyes will pick up on it, even if it’s tiny and narrow, and it’ll add a lot of dimension and form to your drawing. She fixed this issue and has progressed massively towards her goal of fantastic gesture drawings.


Gesture is confusing for a while, but you’ll get there. Don’t draw this symbol but go wrong in the more interesting way! To really progress in life drawing, you need the right learning pathway – get our guide ‘Life Drawing Success’ below!


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