How to Practice Gesture Drawing

The term "gesture drawing" means somewhat different things to different people, but the defining characteristics are that the drawing is done quickly and that its purpose is to capture the essence of subject, rather than to present a realistic rendering of details. Gesture drawing is often thought of as a pedagogical tool--it is hard to imagine an art school that does not have at least one classroom packed with students trying to capture 30-second timed poses--but it also has many practical purposes. The speed and style of gesture drawing allow the artist to effectively capture motion and to sketch out the general character of something in motion, indispensable qualities if you want to draw an animal in your nature journal or if you want to make a quick sketch of a runner. More than anything, gesture drawing requires practice, but a few tips can't hurt either.


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    Choose a subject. In most art curricula, gesture drawing is associated with figure drawing, that is drawing the human figure, usually from model's poses. The subject of your gesture drawing, however, can be just about anything, just as long as you have something the essence of which you can try to capture. In the beginning, it's probably a good idea to sketch held poses or stationary objects, but you should also try experimenting with drawing things or people that are moving. This is termed "action drawing." The line between action drawing and gesture drawing is thin. They are both based on quick, fluid drawing, but action drawing focuses on the action of the subject, while gesture drawing tries to capture the subject's essence. Sometimes these seem to be the same thing.
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    Observe your subject. The single most important part of gesture drawing, perhaps of any kind of art, is observing your subject carefully. This doesn't mean just glancing at the subject, but really paying attention to nothing else. Use your eyes as lenses through which to channel the image directly onto the paper.
    • Keep your eyes on your subject. You will, of course, want to glance down at your paper to get your bearings once in a while, but these should be quick glances, nothing else. Some forms of drawing require careful attention to your pencil and what you are drawing on the paper. In gesture drawing, you should keep your eyes on your subject as much as possible. Try to resist the temptation to look down at your drawing
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    Find the line of the subject. It may be said that every subject has a certain line that defines it's essence at any given point. That may sound a little deep, but really all you want to do when you first start drawing is observe your subject and think about what it's doing, how it looks, and what the simplest representation of it would be. Imagine that you can draw only one line to capture your subject, and then draw that line. For a human figure, for example, this line may be the axis of the model's body. It would be curved (or not) in such a way as to reflect the person's posture and motion. Sometimes you may find that two lines are more appropriate than one.
    • Focus on tension. Living things will, at any given point, have one part or group of parts that are most active or that seem to hold the most energy. If you're waving, for example, your hand and arm is probably most active, while if your arms are crossed and you are still, the area where your arms are folded across your chest may seem to hold the most energy, even though you're not moving. Basically, pay attention to what distinguishes your subject from any other subject you could have drawn (or what distinguishes your subject at that time from what it would be at any other time). If you only get one thing "right" in your drawing, it should be this. If you don't have time to finish the rest of the drawing, that's fine.
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    Draw in contour lines. When drawing the human body, contour lines may be drawn to represent the limbs, torso, and even the head. In a way, these are just outlines, but they don't even really have to be outlines. A stick figure is a body drawn with very simple, single contour lines, and because only single lines are used, it's a two-dimensional representation. Because you are trying to capture the essence of the subject very quickly, you don't have time to draw its individual parts in any real detail. Drawing in contour lines simply shows that these parts do exist, and the lines give some idea of what those parts are doing.
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    Draw mass. It can be difficult for any artist to represent mass, to show the heft that a subject has. One technique that is sometimes used in gesture drawings is to represent mass by making circular motions. This is similar to using shading, except that it is very quick and inexact. You can, of course, make darker or lighter circles to show more or less mass, but generally you just want to show that there's something there. Be selective about where you indicate mass, though. All of a human body has mass, for example, but you probably wouldn't want your entire drawing to be a bunch of circles. Use this technique to show muscles, a belly, buttocks, or anyplace that has noticeably more mass than the rest of the subject. You can also use lines (similar to shading) instead of circles or in conjunction with them.
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    Keep your hand moving. The entire time you are drawing a gesture drawing, your hand should be in motion. The idea is that you let the image transfer directly from your eyes to your hand without thinking about it. Stop your hand, and you'll suddenly be separated from the action of drawing. You'll start thinking.
    • Hold your pencil loosely and keep your motions fluid. Artists sometimes use gesture drawing as a warm-up to other kinds of drawing because it gets the muscles of your arm and hand loosened up. It does this because you try to just let yourself go. Relax and let your hand and arm move freely. You're not trying to color within the lines.
    • Limit the time you spend on each portion of the drawing. Not only should you not stop drawing, but you should also not keep drawing in any one place for too long. For practice, try to limit yourself to five or six seconds on any one area. Try to capture that part of the subject as well as you can in that time, and then move on. You could jump from working on the foot to working on the hand to drawing the head. Draw wherever your eyes go, and don't worry about trying to use a logical order or making sure that everything's connected perfectly.
    • Don't edit yourself. It is always a temptation to try to "fix" your work or try to think through your next move. Don't give in to this temptation. If you never stop drawing, and if you keep your eyes off your paper as much as possible, you shouldn't have a problem with this.
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    Set a time limit. When gesture drawing is taught in classes, a model will usually switch poses every 30 seconds to two minutes. This is good practice to push yourself to draw more quickly and, more importantly, to quickly ascertain the essence of your subject. It also has some practical applications, because if you ever try to draw a butterfly in the real world, you never know just how much time you'll have to do so before it flies away and is lost forever. Think of gesture drawing in this way. You are trying to draw a person or thing and represent its very soul in a fleeting moment. Wait a minute, wait a second, or even blink an eye, and everything may have changed.


  • Date your gesture drawings so you can see your progress.
  • When doing gesture drawing, many people hold the pencil further up then they normally would, often halfway up the pencil. This encourages more fluid, sweeping motion while still retaining control.
  • Gesture drawing is a great way to understand the anatomy of a particular subject, whether that's a person, an animal, an object like a moving car or machine. The more often you draw it, the better you'll understand its shape and range of motion, its anatomy. This is why mistakes in early gesture drawings don't matter - each time you do a new one, you become better at observing and getting it right in the first strokes.
  • Just because you want to keep your hand moving at all times doesn't mean you have to keep it moving as fast as hummingbird wings. Relax, and be efficient in your movements. Speed in drawing depends only in small part on the speed of your hand.
  • Gesture drawing can be practiced with a wide variety of media. Crayons, pastels, charcoal, ink, and watercolors all lend themselves well to gesture drawing.
  • Draw lightly. Remember, you don't want to erase anything, and yet you will constantly be making "mistakes." A long, bold line that just isn't right will be hard to ignore as you try to draw. Light lines and circles, however, can easily be drawn over, added to, or simply put out of mind. If you capture the subject sufficiently within your time limit, you can then go back and accent some areas or contours with darker lines.
  • Think of your gesture drawings as independent pieces of art. Do them for their own sake. Many gesture drawings do eventually develop into another work of art, but try not to think of gesture drawing as a prelude to something else.
  • Start copying from pictures in books or from the internet and then try to just draw by yourself and don't forget to draw lightly and then trace to make it darker.
  • There are many different styles of gesture drawings. Look at gesture drawings from an art class, in a museum, or on the web to get some idea of the tremendous versatility of gesture drawing.
  • Many artists find that finding the defining line, as described above, makes their job easier because once that one line is drawn it's easy to see where everything else falls into place. There's no rule that says you have to draw this imaginary line first, though, and many artists don't. If you've captured the essence of the subject, the line will be obvious even if it's not drawn.
  • Try drawing a sleeping pet or dozing child. They move in their sleep, fidget, hold a pose for less than a minute and turn all without waking up. If they move, complete it from memory or just leave the drawing incomplete and start a new one.

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Categories: Drawing People and Features