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Defining the Art: Gesture Drawing


Ask just about any animator in any field of animation and they’ll tell you just how valuable the art of gesture drawing can be. Though this is especially true for 2D hand drawn animation, it applies to every type of our art form, as getting down the essence of ideas quickly and accurately is useful for all animators. In this article we take a closer look at Gesture Drawing; what it is and how to master it.

What is a Gesture Drawing?

For starters, we need a definition for gesture drawings. Though there isn’t a specific entry in most dictionaries, here is the heart and soul of it:

A gesture drawing is usually a quick, often simple drawing that captures the essential feeling, energy, movement, action, or pose of the subject. It contains a minimum amount of information (line, tone, markings) to achieve the maximum results of the essence of the subject. It can be realistic, but is not always. It does not try to capture anything “photo-realistically” but instead alters reality down to its purest form to tell the story of the scene being drawn.

Since we work in a visual medium, the best thing to do is take a look at examples of gesture drawings:


Though the gesture drawing examples above are all figures, gesture drawing isn’t limited to just the human form. Animals, Objects, and even Scenes can be captured in the style of gesture drawing.

In the book Drawn to Life, Walt Stanchfield spends hundreds of pages explaining the importance of gesture drawing to animation and how to go about doing it properly. One line in particular is very crucial to keep in mind:

“We must be emotional about our subject whether it has to do with serious matters or with humor. We cannot back off from our emotions – if we do the result will be a mere anatomical reproduction.”

Gesture drawing is about emotion, feeling, and instant understanding. It is telling a story in a single image. That story can be as simple as “This woman is bored” or as complex as “Here is a man upset about a scratch on his car which he blames the other man for who clearly has no idea how the mark happened.”

Doing a Gesture Drawing

When you sit down to do a gesture drawing, several things are important to keep in mind:

-You are not studying anatomy. That is for another drawing session. The gesture drawing doesn’t allow for that type of study because you may have only 30-60 seconds (sometimes less) to get the marks down on paper.

-It is important not to lose your “initial impression” that popped into your mind the split second you saw the image you are going to draw. As artists we can quickly become absorbed in details (especially delightful folds in clothing and wrinkles along bending torsos). Unless the detail adds to the story of what you are drawing, it is not essential for your gesture drawing.

Once again from Drawn to Life:

-”A sure way to keep from making static, lifeless drawings is to think of drawing verbs instead of nouns.” Look at the photo below:


The first way to approach drawing this image might be to define it as “A man playing golf.” That is, in fact, what is happening. You could look at the angle of the torso, arms, legs, and club. You might try to find the spacing in relation to the forearm and the thigh. With careful observation, you could end up with a very accurate drawing of this gentleman as he appears in the photo.

There is nothing wrong with the drawing above. It is very accurate. However it is not “all it can be.”

Instead, the alternate way of analyzing the photo and pose is to consider the actions involved. The clearest and most apparent is “He has just swung a golf club.” Look deeper, though. His torso is bending and twisting as the force of the swing carries his momentum around. His left leg is planted as his hips shift to the left, and his right leg curves until the toes just kiss the ground. (That may be getting a little poetic there, but remember, this is about EMOTION, not heartless anatomy!) His fists clench around the handle of the club and, though we cannot see it in this photo, you can almost sense the tension in his face and eyes as he gazes towards to horizon to pinpoint where his precious golf ball is headed.

Now THAT is a description!

Using these verbs as a platform, we can create a gesture drawing from the reference. It’s key to remember that the photo is just that: Reference. We are not copying it. If you want a copy, take it into Photoshop, change the image mode to grayscale, and run a Sketch filter over it for good measure. Our job is to take what is in front of us and distill it into its purest form. If our drawing barely looks like the reference at all, but captures the feeling and story, we have succeeded.

Analyzing Without Over Analyzing

There is a careful line to walk when you attempt to draw gestures, between analyzing a drawing for the verbs, emotion, and essence and thinking so much about the individual aspects that you lose sight of the big picture. Remember that the big picture, the story you are telling, is the most important thing. With practice you will be able to keep that story in the back of your mind while you analyze more deeply and not lose the feeling of the drawing. That’s something that takes a lifetime to master, and now is as good of a time as any to start. So get to drawing some gestures!

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17 comments

  1. [...] over at Animator Island there's an article on gesture drawing, and since I'm on and on about that subject here on my blog I thought I'd share a link in case [...]

  2. Amy says:

    Wow, that’s really great stuff thanks! I have a quick question. Is there a length of time in particular where it isn’t considered a gesture drawing anymore? Because I’m really slow at drawing and if I only have 60 seconds I won’t even barely be able to get the face done probably!

    • Tom says:

      I can’t answer the specific time thing, but having done a lot of gesture drawing this past month I will say that, if you are slow at drawing, it doesn’t matter, just keep trying to do the 60 second ones and eventually you should begin to get it.
      Quite often when you begin you’ll end up not finishing a drawing, don’t worry about that, just wait for the next one, then try again. There are a few websites around which help, with timing and finding the images, but they do have nude models on them so I’m not sure if I can post them here.

      • J.K. Riki says:

        I agree with Tom. Keep at it and you’ll get quicker. Remember to loosen up if you’re going very slowly. These aren’t meant to be masterpieces, but stepping stones to improve your work. If no one but you sees them, that’s okay.

        It’s like baking a cake. The people you serve the cake to don’t see you measuring out the flour and eggs and mixing everything, but you HAVE to do those steps to produce that beautiful desert to share.

        And Tom you’re welcome to post links as long as they aren’t pornographic and you make note that they contain nudity for artistic purposes. (I know the ones you’re speaking of, and those are fine to post here. We’re all artists, and the human figure is something we need to analyze thoroughly!)

  3. The Independent Animator says:

    I’d wager the gentleman above is referring to: http://www.pixelovely.com/gesture/figuredrawing.php

    Personally I’ve always found gesture drawing to be a chore and not worth the time. You don’t have enough time to study anatomy and that’s what’s missing in so many amatuer animators’ work. They put stubby little legs on too big bodies. And slap on some anime eyes and they all sit around congratulating each other on their terrible crap.

    • Interestingly, I also go by The Independent Animator, which is the name of my US and UK companies. However, I feel that gesture drawing is highly effective, and I don’t believe it is constructive to label anyone’s artwork as “crap.”

      Jeremy Fries
      The Independent Animator LLC
      The Independent Animator UK Ltd

  4. J.K. Riki says:

    Well, Independent, I think it’s important to use gesture for what it IS. It isn’t a study of anatomy, but quick glimpses into the “essence” of the action you’re drawing. So you aren’t drawing, say, the external oblique or illio-tibial band, but “running” or “jump.” If that makes sense.

    I understand your frustration about less experienced artists not revising, but remember we’ve all been there at some point. :) Eventually with practice they’ll get better, it’s a process.

  5. Jann Turk says:

    Excellent information, I am browsing back on a regular basis looking for updates.

  6. dave says:

    The site is cool, very helpful article. Thanks.

  7. Brendon says:

    I feel like I never have enough time doing gesture drawings. Even two minutes isn’t enough time! I will try to think of it as actions instead of people tho. Thanks!

  8. Janice says:

    A better gesture will make any animation look nicer :)

  9. Sona says:

    Thanks for the details it makes a lot more sense now.

  10. Zoof says:

    I think it’s a lot harder than what you say here. I can never get them to look right and a minute isn’t long enough for a good enough drawing!

    • J.K. Riki says:

      Quite right, Zoof, it IS a very hard thing to do! But with some practice you’ll find that 60 seconds is plenty to get a solid story down on paper (which is the whole point of gestures!). Just keep at it!

  11. Jane says:

    You have done an excellent job describing the essentials of gesture drawing. I have been teaching figure drawing for more than 30 years. All of my classes begin with 40 minutes of gesture poses. I use “The Natural Way to Draw” by Kimon Nicholiades as my primary source. His statement that gesture drawing is like flying over a mountain while contour drawing is like climbing it is one of his gems. I’m glad to be able to offer blogs like yours to my students. Thanks.

    • J.K. Riki says:

      Thanks Jane! I haven’t read that book, I’ll look into it ASAP. That’s a great analogy. I just finished some gesture drawing myself, and when it goes well it does indeed feel like flying. Unfortunately the rest of the drawings were much more like the mountain climbing, ha ha! Oh well, that’s why we keep at it.

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