Sunday, June 30, 2013

Gesture Drawing Notes

Notes on Gesture Drawing

I will talk about the purpose of gestures. I feel that, as a student, if I could understand the function of what I was learning, I was able understand the bigger picture and how it all fit together. It wasnʼt until I came to understand the function of a gesture vs. the function of a long pose did I make progress in my drawing and was able to connect the

Time Is Everything In Figure Drawing!
Golden Rule #1

The time in which we have to complete a drawing determines the approach. There are really only two approaches in figure drawing. Gestural and Measured (or sized). Gesture Drawing is comprised of anything from a 30 second drawing all the way to a 1hour drawing or so. Gestural and Measured approaches are two sides of the figure drawing coin. You need both sides to draw freely and with a confident, well rounded skill set. First we will discuss the purpose of a gesture drawing. It is all abstract thinking. Think of a gesture drawing as a puzzle of sorts. Itʼs where artists get a chance to exercise our patterns of thought and sight. Gesture drawing is a cognitive sport. The reason why we limit the time in which we draw is to keep our brains from getting in the way. We get to practice how we think in a certain order over and over and over again until it becomes natural. We also learn to SQUINT! This is the Golden Rule #1 of drawing and painting from life. It is the “Keys To The Kingdom”! Squinting helps our brains let go of the junk and it lets our thinking simplify. Squinting becomes natural and automatic. Gesture Drawing is an artistʼs “Wax On and Wax Off! Itʼs an exercise that prepares us for thinking our way through a long pose or painting. The gesture is the bridge to long

When I walk my classes through the function of a gesture drawing and through the set up, I relate the drawing to sculpting. You may have heard the term, “General To Specific” before. When sculpting, you wouldnʼt sculpt eyelashes, or a bellybutton, or a nipple onto a block of clay before the other forms, right? (that would be weird) How would you approach sculpting a torso from a large block of clay? Itʼs the same way we look at a torso when drawing it. When I first heard the term, “General To Specific”, I had no idea it was the MOST IMPORTANT aspect of being a representational artist. It is beyond the “Keys To The Kingdom”, it IS THE KINGDOM!!!

Golden Rule #2

Squinting allows our brain to “let go” of the detail, aka, most of everything there. Most of what is on the stage is of no use when setting up a drawing or painting. Our brains really arenʼt that smart when it comes to seeing. Unfortunately, we instantly believe what we see. Squinting helps us not believe so much of what is there and allows us to
be more cognitive. Remember, this is a drawing and you are completely in control of that drawing. No one will ever ever ever see the model. They will only see what you draw, so everything you put down needs to be drawn with intent. General to specific is  applied to the gesture to an extreme. We will refer to general to specific as Golden Rule #2. Imagine that you are wearing a tool belt, and the foundations are your tools. These tools are how we as artists apply the Golden Rule #2.

Below you will find a list of all of the foundational tools on your belt. This is how we apply our Golden Rule #2:
Foundational Tools
1 Big Shape
2 Parallels, alike angles, and Long Lines
3 Negative Shapes
4 Rhythms
5 Patterns of Light and Dark
6 Construction
7 Mannequin
8 Anatomy
(there are many other tools, these are the basics) Some artists will only use a few - this results in their “style” emerging.

Notice, that even the list of tools are in order of general to specific. Anatomy is last, and is the most specific of the tools. I was well into figure drawing and drawing beautiful 3 minute gestures before I could apply anatomy. There are so many other general aspects to set up a 2-3 minute drawing, most artists donʼt get much anatomy in, not because they canʼt, but because it is not essential.

Every pose will give you a puzzle, and each puzzle requires use of your tools. Some poses require #1, #5, and #4. Some will require #1, #2, and #3. A 30 second pose will consist mainly of #1, #2, #4. A sitting pose will be #1, #3, and maybe #5. See the logic? Which tools will you go to when solving the puzzle on the stage?

Personally, I am drawn to alike angles (2), negative shapes (3), and patterns of light and dark (5). This results in the “look” or “style” of my drawings.

Some other artist may really enjoy a more analytical approach including: Construction, alike angles, Mannequin, and Anatomy. They may also draw only in 5 minutes or more to suit their taste. Itʼs how you think when you squint and look at the model. Itʼs all in your thinking.

On the topic of learning

When I went to art school I took classes from many amazing artists. They taught me how they approached the figure. I learned what tools they used, but I didnʼt understand that I was learning their tools. I thought I was learning how to draw the figure. Each artist has to eventually learn to apply the tools in their own way. Learning someone elseʼs particular set of tools only is like learning how they sign their signature. Why would you want to learn someone elseʼs signature? Wouldnʼt you rather learn the alphabet first, then learn how to sign your own name?

Also, the very first years of my figure drawing consisted of brief talk about construction followed by intense study of anatomy. This messed me up, for YEARS. I was under the assumption that I had to learn and understand everything there is to know about anatomy to be able to draw. What I failed to learn, was that the lessens being taught in my Drawing 1 class were the most important and most prevalent aspects of figure drawing and painting. My school just separated the foundational tools and taught them in relation to still life and simple objects. This did not translate over into the figure drawing classes.

I was also under the assumption that I had to draw thousands of ugly drawings to get to the good ones. This just isnʼt true. Learning to loosen the arm muscles does take exercise, but learning to loosen up and properly prepare my tools can be done at the beginning of each session separately. 30 second gestures can be done to loosen up. Once your loose, then on to your approach and being accountable for your marks. I take a slow steady pace and am very aware of my thinking and where my attention is being focused.

I also did not learn how to construct the figure well. It was brushed over and not clearly explained. I did not understand what the function of Construction Drawing was.

Function of Construction

Construction drawing is a tool. Itʼs just one of our foundational tools on our tool belt. It is a particular tool used to memorize the larger aspects of the figure. Construction drawing in figure drawing has two types. Analytical construction and Straight Line construction. What I am referring to is Analytical Construction. We will discuss the other later. Analytical Construction is VERY ABSTRACT. Every generation of figure drawer has a new way of constructing. Da Vinci had his, Frank Reilly had his, Bridgman had his, Loomis had his, Hogarth had his....etc...etc. Itʼs abstract and is only a theory.
Construction is just the idea of simplifying the figure into shapes and connections so we can learn and memorize it efficiently. Construction is the doorway into learning and memorizing anatomy. General to Specific, Golden Rule #2!!! Every teacher will have a way of constructing. Itʼs not THE way, itʼs just their way. Learn all of it, or at least get
exposed to the history of constructing the figure. It goes back to the 15TH Century.

When I am constructing the figure I am using it to learn something about a particular aspect of the form. It isnʼt really a gesture drawing on itʼs own. Itʼs a process to learn. Whereas gesture drawing is a larger process to practice my thinking as a whole. Below are examples of my construction drawing. This is a way to memorize the larger forms so that I can build my anatomy and learn my anatomy better. I get to draw anatomy in depth in long poses. In the below drawings there is a simple construction and the beginnings of a few anatomical forms. When I need to brush up on my learning I will construct the form in a simple way and relearn my anatomy or interlocking forms. I separate my construction drawing from my regular gestures. I find that some students will learn how to construct in a mechanical way and then have a hard time transitioning into gesture drawing. It is best to continually work on your line weight and quality of line to ensure your drawings maintain their artistic integrity whether you are constructing or gesture drawing.

Below are a few pages of construction drawings. The middle drawing shows 2 gestures with their constructions next to them. The left page shows simple constructions and the right page constructs the upper torso anatomy.

Getting Started

Ok, when getting started I sit at my horse or easel and get into my drawing mode. This consists of me having 3 or more sharpened 2b charcoal pencils. You may like conte, or a stick - so be it, as long as itʼs prepared to a long smooth sharp point and you know what it will do when you lay it on the paper. I draw gestures on newsprint, preferably smooth. When I sharpen my pencils or sticks, this calms me and gets me ready. This is one of my favorite aspects of drawing, caring for my tools. Without my tools correctly cared for, forget it - I will not be able to think freely. My thinking will get caught up in how my marks look and I will try to “fixʼ them. There is no “fixing” in gesture drawing. In case you didnʼt catch that - there is no “fixing” in gesture drawing! Our brains love to fix, and from my years on earth I have come to learn that few things can be fixed, usually we end up just making things worse. So..... I stop......prepare my tools correctly, test them out, then start a new page. Easy!

This is the order in which I observe. Head, Angle of Shoulders, Landmarks, Midline, Push of the Form.

I look for the parallel “S” or “C” curve of the torso and the long lines of the legs going to a point and a sharp angle of the direction of the feet. This takes me less than 30 seconds. If this is all you can do in a 2-3 minute, then thatʼs what you do. Make it GORGEOUS. Your lines should come off the pencil effortlessly, and beautifully. Like notes on a scale. If you canʼt get your charcoal pencil to work, go back and warm up your pencil until youʼve loosened up enough and start over. At this point you are practicing getting a graceful start. I work slow and steady in a 2-3 minute time frame. No rushing. Sometimes I will let the time run a little just to remind myself that itʼs no big deal, all I need to worry about is my beautiful lines and my “tool belt”. Easy!

I give myself at least 5 poses to get my mojo going. Below, I have several examples of simple beginner 2-3 minute poses. Notice how Iʼm ignoring anatomical lumps and bumps. No waist, No Deltoids, No anatomy. I refer to the beginning structure of the drawing as the “Mannequin” or “Line 1 and Line 2”. This is very important and very very very simple. So simple NO ONE wants to do it. This stage is actually relevant in setting up lone poses and painting from life too. When there is a problem with proportions in a long pose or issues with structure in a short or long pose, it is related to the “Mannequin”  or “Line 1 Line 2”. Take this step seriously, it is the set up for all gestures and the doorway into your creative freedom. EASY EASY!!!

“Mannequin” or “Line 1 Line 2”

Many instructors will talk about the mannequin, but “Line 1 and Line 2” was a new concept for me. I studied with Glen Orbik in Southern California for a stint at CAI. There, Glen teaches the traditions brought to California by Fred Fixler, who was a student of Frank Reilly. We will discuss the genealogy of figurative approaches later. “Line 1 and Line 2” refer to the parallel structure of the Torso, Legs, Arms, Neck. Any part of the figure that is tube-like in form. Think of it as a steel cage that we will build and wrap anatomy around. Line 1 and Line 2 are parallel to each other ALWAYS, even if
there is a twist or curve. Each tubular form will taper. This is the foundation of the gesture drawing. This is where you push the pose and show off the push of the gesture. It is lyrical, expressive, and loose. It is possible to be loose and exact at the same time.

Plotting Points - Where to Start Line 1 and Line 2

When setting up a gesture, the first 30 seconds are the most important. The set up, or foundation of any art work, is the most important part. When I look at the model in the first 30 seconds of a 2-3 minute pose, I look for this landmark to pull my Line 1 and Line 2 when beginning. This is my most used anatomical landmark. - AC Process (acromium process) This is the small “nub” of bone that straddles the shoulder girdle. It is the part of the scapula that juts out to meet the clavicle. It sits just to the top of the Deltoid. See image.

After Locating the Head, angle of shoulders, and the AC, I look to the Midline for these landmarks.

Mid Line Landmarks
FRONT                            BACK
- Pit of Neck                    - 7th Vertebra
- Nipples                         - Spine Column
- Belly Button                 - Bottom Ends of Scapula
- Pubic Bone                  - Sacrum
- ASIS                              -Pelvic Crease

See Image below

It may not seem as if I am making mental notes of all of these points at first. Remember, this all takes place in the first 30 seconds and I am only drawing a few lines- these few lines are extremely important though. Loose and Exact.

Pulling the Legs and Arms

The legs and arms are comprised of tapering parallels, “S” curved or “C” curved. The arms interlock into the top of the rib cage and many times connect to each other through the top. The inside of the arms create the separation of Pectoralis and Deltoid. Even though we are not drawing anatomy yet, the placement of the Mannequin or Line 1 and Line 2 create the foundation for the Anatomy. One builds on the other - everything we do is used. The legs begin at the top of the pelvis and interlock at the knee joint is bent. These lines are pulled down and are simple, tapered, and give the “gist” of the pose.

Usually the first mistake I see from students is the placement of the AC being too far out and the arms being drawn to far away from the ribcage and shoulder girdle. This gives a disjointed “He-Man” appearance - everyone does this in the beginning.

Simple Construction

From my mannequin, I simply construct the rig cage and pelvis. I do this lightly - all of my simple constructions will disappear under the drawing. For in depth construction, I recommend Michael Hamptonʼs book on inventive drawing. His book is a culmination of many drawers interpretations of analytical construction in Southern California, past and
present, which was mainly developed due to the history of applied arts, Disney, Hollywood etc.. This type of Analytical Construction has been around for a long time, though, few have published in-depth how toʼs. Many of us studied from Bridgman and Loomis in the past, itʼs great to see an in-depth text devoted to this kind of learning.

Building on a 2-3 Minute Gesture

Moving past a 2-3 minute gesture into a 5, 10, 25 minute pose requires the study of Analytical Construction. This is where memorization takes over. I devoted a solid year to this. Pure memorization. I can draw the figure from memory, so now when I look at the model I am using that model only to see at what angle they are in, position of pose, perspective. Is the ribcage pitched forward or backward? Are they above or below my eye level? During my year of memorization I would vignette an area, construct it, then study the Analytical construction, then study the anatomy. I studied lots and lots of drawings. I needed to see what drawings and other artistʼs translations looked like so I could recognize this in my own translations.


I remember when I first started working with a live model. I was told to observe observe observe. Well, all I observed was a series of bumps and lumps. I had no idea of what I was looking at and no idea of what was expected. Now, when I look at the model, I am guided by my thoughts and my knowledge. I have a process which guides me painlessly though and allows me to dive deeper into my creative process. Little did I know that to draw the figure well, I needed to memorize a great deal and be able to sketch out of my head the set up of the drawing. I have fully come to understand my Golden Rules and how to apply them to everything I do in my art making. I continue to study my anatomy and am always finding new ways to translate and interpret the form. If I am having trouble with a painting or drawing, I remember to take a step back and correct the general then the doorway will open up to the specific. This has always been the case. Always. I now understand that my instructors advise to observe was not incorrect, just told to me at the incorrect time in the learning process. Once a solid foundation is built and we are working our way through the Golden Rule #2, I can sit back and observe what makes that model different from others. This is done after I have set up the drawing, usually when working beyond a 25 minute pose.

In the next set of notes I will be covering 5, 10, 25 minute poses, Vignettes, 1 hour  poses, and implementing measuring and sighting techniques and tools which are applied to long poses. Topics on the genealogy of approaches in figure drawing and Translation vs Copying nature will be covered.


Golden Rule #1 : Squint!! The Golden Rule #1 is the keys to the kingdom!

Golden Rule #2: General To Specific. Learn how to apply this rule of thought. It is the Kingdom!!!

Mannequin - This is the understructure for the drawing - all anatomical forms and construction will be built on top.

Line 1 and Line 2 - These are the lines of the mannequin. They are parallel to each other and are in a “C” curve or “S” curve only. These lines give the stretch and squeeze rhythm. 

Construction - There are two types. Analytical and Measured. In a set up of a gesture, we use an Analytical construction method. This is comprised of simple shapes and interlocking forms. Very general.

Vignette - A vignette refers to the overall shape and cropping of the drawing to create a pleasing composition. I will vignette the form when zooming in to construct a particular area of study.

AC Process - Most used landmark on the figure. Boney process attached to the scapula that straddles the shoulder girdle. It is just to the inside of the Deltoid.

ASIS - Second most used boney landmark on the figure. Anterior Superior Iliac Spine is the top front corner of the box of the pelvis. This is where your jeans cut into your hip.

Midline - The midline will control the position of the drawing and all of the landmarks placement. The midline will either be a 3/4, at the center, or facing the profile.


  1. Great article! I wish there are more of these teachings out there.

    But is it me or the images are missing? It will be awesome if the images can be restored.

  2. Thank you for this. The images seem to be missing for me as well.

  3. This is probably the most insightful guidance I have come across on learning to draw the human figure, and I am no stranger to Loomis, Bridgman, etc. Those authors are of course invaluable, but you have put together a very tangible student's roadmap to learning and practice. It will be a big help to me. Thank you!

  4. Thanks a lot for posting this post, Your post has always been an informative source for me.
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