Gesture drawings are usually quick sketches that are produced to help artists capture the movement, poses, and expressions of their subjects.
Gesture drawing can be a helpful tool for artists of all levels, from beginners who are just starting to learn how to draw figures, to experienced artists who want to warm up before starting a larger piece. In this guide, learn what gesture drawing is and how to use it as an exercise in your drawing practice.
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Gesture drawing definition
Gesture drawing is a method of capturing the form and gesture of a figure quickly and expressively. The artist will focus on the pose and movement of the subject to draw the shape of the figure, rather than focus on drawing the subject accurately or rendering any details.
This is a freehand drawing method and can form the first step in the drawing process of a figure. Usually in a gesture drawing, the whole figure will be included, rather than just a face or bust.
This drawing exercise can be helpful for portrait artists wanting to warm up before starting a larger piece, or for artists wanting to improve their accuracy at portrait drawing.
Gesture drawing tutorial
Here’s a step by step guide on how to complete a gesture drawing:
The first step is to place marker points on the page, to measure the height of the figure. You can also draw a marker for where the middle of the figure lies, around the hip section. Also, optionally draw the centreline of the figure, so you can see clearly how the figure’s weight is displaced and how this affects the gesture and positioning of the torso, arms and legs.
Step two: Draw the line of action
Draw a curved line, from the top of the figure to the bottom. It should run down the spine to show the curvature of the figure and the centre of gravity. For example, if the figure is resting their weight on their left leg, the line of action should curve down through the left leg and towards the left foot.
Step three: Mark body positioning
Draw lines across the figure to show how the figure is positioned. The horizontal lines should specify the angles and movements of the body’s joints. Draw one across the shoulders, two across the torso to show the curve of the spine (one on the breast and one on the waist), one across the hips and finally draw a line across the knees to indicate the angle they are pointing. From this, you can determine the positioning of the body and draw the main features.
Step four: Outline the figure
Now you know the positioning of the main features of the figure and the angles that the arms and legs are pointing, all that’s left to it is join the dots. Draw the angles of the outer edge of the body and how they connect the line directions. Optionally, you can then draw around the larger shadow shapes. You don’t have to be as precise as you would with a contour drawing, the finished gesture drawing will usually look like a quick sketch.
Gesture drawing references
Artists can find a variety of figures in interesting poses on stock image sites. Simply type in ‘figure’ onto a site like Unsplash to find references to draw from.
Alternatively, you could try drawing from life! Life drawing is a great experience, as rendering the light and form in front of you is trickier than drawing from a photo. Many life drawing classes will have timed segments, where you have a few minutes to draw each pose. It’s a good way to practice drawing on the field and drawing figures accurately away from the comfort of your studio space.
There are various resources online that offer packs of figure drawing references to download. Here’s a figure drawing pack by Proko.
Gesture drawing poses
Some ideas for gesture drawing poses are:
– A figure in motion, like a dancer or martial artist
– A figure doing a challenging yoga pose
– A person sitting down with their legs crossed
– Two people hugging or holding hands
When you’re starting out, it can be helpful to use gesture drawing prompts. These are simply ideas or scenarios that you can use as a starting point for your drawings. Once you get more comfortable with the process, you’ll be able to freehand your own poses! Use a mannequin to position the figure into your imagined poses.
Here are some gesture drawing prompts to get you started:
– A figure reaching up to touch the sky
– A person diving into a pool
– Someone walking through heavy rain
– A figure climbing a mountain
If you practise drawing a greater variety of poses, you will feel much more confident in accurately rendering any type of subject that comes to mind for your final pieces! It will allow you to make figures appear more expressive and fitting within the scene you place them.
Gesture drawing tips
- Mark the top and bottom of the figure. This helps to prevent the head or feet being cut off by the paper by mistake. If the figure is lying down, you will need to place markers to show where the figure should be placed on the page and how the rest of the figure’s features fit within it.
- Work through drawing the figure in a logical order. The next port of call, after marking the top and bottom of the figure, should always be the line of action. This forms the base for then determining the body’s positioning.
- When starting a gesture drawing, it can be helpful to start with the largest shapes and work your way down to the smaller details, like hands and feet.
- When drawing the outline of the figure, start with straight lines to connect the angles of the body, then when you’re sure of the proportions of the figure, smooth the lines so that they curve.
- As you’re drawing, look for areas where shapes connect and use these to help you place the next line. This will give your drawing a more fluid feel and make it look less like a series of disconnected lines.
- Think about the weight of the figure. Where is the weight of the figure shifted? Most figures will often have their weight shifted to one side which will cause the body to lean in that direction.
- Don’t get too bogged down in details. Remember, the aim of gesture drawing is to capture the essence of the figure, not to create a detailed rendering. If you find yourself getting caught up in the details, take a step back and ask yourself if adding that detail will help to capture the gesture of the figure.
Gesture drawing benefits
Use gesture drawing as an exercise to warm up before starting a larger or more important piece. It draws the focus of portrait drawing to translating the movement and action of the pose of a figure, rather than getting stuck with drawing details that end up looking disjointed.
Another benefit of gesture drawing is that it is a great exercise to use to improve freehand drawing skills. It’s a different way of approaching figure drawing, rather than just drawing what you see directly, or using an aid like a grid to achieve accurate proportions. The more you practice gesture drawing, the better you will become.
Gesture drawing examples
Many famous artists used the gesture drawing method to plan for larger pieces and paintings. The old masters used this exercise, including Michelangelo and Rembrandt. A gesture drawing has been used as a method by portrait artists to study their reference and quickly draw the pose before filling in the details.
This video gives some great examples of how to complete a gesture drawing and gives some advice on the dos and don’ts of the exercise.
Gesture drawing practice: How to improve
To improve drawing, the key is to set up a regular drawing practice. Get a sketchbook and reserve 10 minutes a day to the practice. Focus on capturing movement but also accurately portraying the proportions of the figure.
If there is an area of drawing that you struggle with, then focus on this more when practising. It could be that you struggle with measuring the proportions, or it could be that you struggle with drawing the figure symmetrically. Practice what you struggle with again and again until it starts to feel easier.
Another way to improve with gesture drawing, is to draw from a range of references and subjects. For example, if you mainly draw from photo references, challenge yourself and join a life drawing class.
Supplies for gesture drawing
Charcoal is a great drawing tool for gesture drawing. Its soft nature allows you to make sweeping and marks. Plus, you can create a large value range, to establish the darkest shadows early on in the drawing, if you choose. Nitram charcoal is less prone to breakage compared to regular willow charcoal. Work with sharpened charcoal stick upright at an easel, with your charcoal paper taped to a drawing board. This will give you a greater range of motion when drawing, and help with accuracy.
Sketchbooks are a great tool when practising gesture drawing and using it as an exercise to improve drawing skills. Stillman & Birn sketchbooks are high quality, with thick pages and they come in a variety of different formats. The Gamma series book is great for use with dry media.
A manikin will help you to understand how the human body works and moves. Move the manikin into different poses, and use it as a reference to draw from. This is a practical tool for using as a quick reference for when you can’t find the right photo reference to draw from, if you want the subject of your drawing to strike an unusual pose, for example.
If you’re interested in stocking up on drawing supplies, read our best drawing tools guide first! In it, you’ll find everything you need for your drawing practice.
Next steps after gesture drawing
After you’ve completed a figure drawing, if you like how it turns out, of course you can take it to the next level to make it appear more like a finished piece. The next step would be to outline where the shadow areas on the form are. Then shade the shadow tones and half tones to create subtle and soft transitions between the dark and light values. Use the tonal shading technique to achieve smooth gradients. It’s a process of modelling the figure, focussing on hard and soft edges, shadows and highlights. The final step of the figure drawing process is the details. Use a fine tipped eraser to lift highlights and a sharp pencil to refine the hard edges in the drawing.