Monday Morning Art School: how to do a gesture drawing

Fast, effortless drawing is the artist’s most important skill. It’s easy to learn and lots of fun.

Michelle reading, by Carol L. Douglas

Drawing sometimes seems like the “eat your vegetables” of art lessons. It’s what students need most, but they believe its unpalatable. So we teachers are always hiding it in our painting lessons. Once you start drawing from life, however, you realize it’s tremendous fun. I’m constantly sneak-drawing in unlikely places: the train, waiting rooms, or in church.
The single best exercise you can do to get better at figure-drawing is the one-minute gesture drawing. When I taught figure, I started my class with ten of these, progressed to a five-minute drawing, then to a twenty-minute drawing, and from there to the long pose everyone believed they were most interested in.
Gesture drawings not only free up your hand, they teach you how to measure painlessly. If you’ve never done one, conscript a friend or family member to model. The more twist and curve in the pose, the better. After all, they only have to hold it for a minute.
Gesture drawings are conventionally done nude, but that’s not really necessary. You’ll still benefit from drawing clothed figures. The important thing is that you use a timer and not exceed one minute per drawing.
The paper and pencil you use are unimportant. In fact, gesture drawings of your co-workers are the best possible use for your pre-printed meeting notes.
There is no right or wrong way to do a gesture drawing. On the other hand, the method I outline below is fast, easy and accurate, so why not try it?

Draw a single line indicating the axis of motion. My model had an extreme torso twist, so I got a little more engaged in this line than I usually do. Usually this is just a simple angled or curved line.

Next, scribble in the shapes of the pelvis and the shoulders. One of my students called these “atomic string balls.” The term fits. The two most powerful joints in the human body are the pelvis and the shoulders. This is a fast way of indicating their angle. By scribbling a ball, you also give them volume and energy.

 I then make smaller power balls at each additional joint, locating them quickly in space. I don’t lift the pencil up much, but drag it along between joints. As rough as this looks, you already have most of the essential information about the pose.

From there, it’s a simple matter to add volume. Use the remainder of your time to shade and refine. However, you shouldn’t really take time to erase.

A gesture drawing by nature emphasizes the torso at the expense of details, extremities and the face. Once you’ve mastered the one-minute gesture drawing, you can move along to the five minute drawing, as shown below. That’s a continuation of a one-minute drawing, but it allows time to develop more detail.