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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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