Lesson 6 Life Drawing

Introduction to Gesture

Gesture could be defined as a general movement, intention or alignment of elements.  It is the implied pattern of energy that connects things throughout nature, from clouds to trees to water.  That is to say: there is certain logic to the growth of trees or the billowing of clouds due to a consistent, if complex, set of natural forces.  We sense, within a static image or a glance at one of these types of subjects, the type of physical forces and dynamics that shaped it.  We thus experience a static image of such a subject as having a history as well as the future - we are seeing one frame of a movie.  

Gesture is particularly applicable to animals since we constantly organise and reorganise our parts according to the intention of our actions and emotions.  So, in this case, there are not only the physical forces of gravity and interacting objects, there is also the force of our will, to perform certain actions, or relax out of them.

Emphasising active, less balanced relationships tends to add dynamism and drama (see Rubens, Michelangelo, Gericault), and at an extreme becomes the caricature of action seen in animated cartoons.  On the other hand, emphasising the opposite, ie stability and balance will magnify these qualities, as seen in the regal dignity of some ancient Egyptian sculptures and hieroglyphs. Yet even in more stable poses, a certain amount of animation is inherent in natural form, particularly living things, and without it they can look quite odd.  Gesture exists in the whole figure and in the parts of the figure, eg a leg, foot or even toe.

In the images below we see a beautiful hieroglyph from the Temple of Hatshepsut, with its frontal, non-foreshortened viewpoint, has a grid-like rhythm that unifies the complexity into a stable, dignified gesture.  This is contrasted to the painting by Rubens, in which he took the writhing vital energy of his figures to an extreme in this depiction of the Massacre of the Innocents.  He uses anatomical biodynamics, spatial movement, as well as dramatic abstract sweeps to express the tortured drama of the scene.

Capturing gesture, to me, is the ultimate goal of free hand drawing.  The other qualities of accuracy, form, anatomy, and design relationships should be unified by the central melody of the intuitively felt gesture, a vision of the overall story arc of the piece.    Developing sensitivity and facility in this field is the goal of the activities contained in this lesson.

Note that there is an important distinction to make here: the term “gesture drawing” is often used today to refer to very short pose - ie 1 to 5 minute drawings, that heavily priortise a sense of action.  This is one application of gesture - but gesture is not confined to short, exaggerated studies - it can exist in a fully rendered drawing or painting.   

And it is also not limited to the visual arts: in the video below, Benjamin Zander describes the "line" of music in this fabulous Ted.com talk, the capacity of this line to move us and the idea that this line is really the whole point.

Here's to one buttock playing:

Abstract versus Biodynamic Gesture

Though the two are intertwined, for the purposes of clarity we will consider abstract gesture distinct from biodynamic or anatomical gesture:  

- By abstract, I mean capturing movement or stillness through the quality of our marks, or the arrangement shapes. 

- By biodynamics, I am referring to the arrangement of masses that imply an intention or quality of movement, and to the patterns of anatomical cues that can reinforce this quality.

Abstract Gesture

 Benjamin Zander describes in the video above some of the musical abstract relationships in the Chopin piece that cause the psychological effect.  There are visual analogues to this that psychological effects that occur through line, shape and their arrangement.  Some of these have been touched on in Lesson 5 as design - see particularly the diagrams of the paintings at the end of the section.

Abstract Gesture 1: generalisation of edges 

(Design Long Lines - see Lesson 5 Life Drawing): 

The alignment of points into a general line.  This means the “design long lines” we met last chapter. For example the S curve on the front of a straight leg viewed from approximately the side.  Also, the pose specific alignments that mysteriously manage to connect these types of alignments into longer lines still, for example a leg s curve projecting across the torso into the c curve of an arm. 

These lines I have been calling “Design long lines” or DLLs and have been treating them in a fairly simply geometric way (ie the curves are relatively even - mathematically simple - rather than accelerating) but they can have greater dynamism if the acceleration is emphasised.

Geometric versus accelerating lines 

Abstract Gesture 2: Shape

Where two lines are related by a shared gesture but varied so as to not be parallel, which usually means some variant on a flame (tapering s curve) or tapering c shape seen in limbs in particular. 

Tapering C- curve shapes

Tapering S - curve shapes

The mark or brushstroke as a gestural shape

 Brushstrokes themselves can capture gestural energy through the tapering of their shape, as in these pen and wash drawings, and can be a lovely way to begin a drawing.

Even the weighting of pencil lines is an example of gestural shape at work.  This is part of what is sometimes called giving “swing” to your lines, a combination of accelerating lines, gestural shape in the relationships of lines, and gestural shape in the lines themselves, as their weighting varies.  It is something one gets the feel for over time , and can be a powerful way tap into the vitality of a pose that might only last 30 seconds or a few minutes, as you can see in the linear gestural drawings at the right.








  1. Examples of movement in brush stroke shape in ink wash painting (in Japanese called Sumi-e, in Chinese called shuǐ mò huà )

Left to Right below:

Ke Jiusi (13th-14th century Chinese Artist)

Gu An (13th century Chinese Artist)

Peter Blyth (contemporary American painter)

Yeh Fei Pai (contemporary Chinese artist)

Yuan Bo (contemporary Chinese artist)

Cai Yu (contemporary Chinese artist)


The figure consists of rigid, bony parts and very deformable soft tissue parts.  The bony parts have structure, often symmetrical - that must be observed and conceived of as such to maintain the integrity of their form.  The fleshy, soft tissue parts are much more forgiving structurally.  That is to say, these regions can be exaggerated or not drawn accurately without looking obviously wrong, which can allow us to get away with quite extreme exaggerations of gesture, if we choose. These regions can be stretched, compressed, and, in the case of muscles, relaxed or contracted.

Whether we exaggerate dramatically or just subtly emphasise the cues of gesture, we need both parts to work together to create an authentic sense of gesture.

(I should note here that it is possible to bend the structural forms somewhat without them breaking, in order to conform to a general gesture of the pose - but this requires care, and I recommend conceiving of them separately first and then working towards this). 


Biodynamic Gesture 1: The arrangement in space of structural elements

This means taking notice of the cues of centreline or angle across/ around that define the orientation of one mass compared to another, and the principles of engineering at work in the way the figure is holding itself up and in balance, or otherwise exerting force.  For example, a simple contra-posto pose is defined by a certain relationship of the masses of the torso and the distribution of weight on the legs.  

Lines of action versus 3d sweep as statement of this arrangement 

The concept of the “Line of Action” is widely used by animators to organise their gesture into one large sweep. This is a useful idea, with the advantage of simplicity.  However, it is limited as a concept by being two dimensional - often it is movement in space that is dramatic and interesting.  The diagrams below introduce the concept of a “3d sweep” based on the the orientation of masses

The more that the pose is unified into an active flow or sweep, the stronger the sense of action that will exist.

Activity 9: Line of Action / 3D sweep of pose

1. Using a broad media such as conte, charcoal, or graphite block, attempt to capture the general dynamic of the pose, with focus on the torso.  The relationship of the masses - how they are located above each other, and whether there is a tilt, twist or bend between them - can inform the type of movement you attempt to express through the mark.

2. Using a finer media or mark, try to place the torso masses overlayed on this mark - this can also inform you about the aptness of the original mark(s)

3. Returning to a broader mark, try to capture the gestural energy of the limbs.

4. Attempt to define the masses of the limbs and their connection to the torso further, with reference to the original gestural marks.  The idea is to exaggerate things in the direction of the gestural energy you have sensed and attempted to capture.


A variation on this that you will see in the graphite version at right is to start with light, general lines to look for the gesture, rather than the broad media.


The key is to find a way to look first at a big general intention or energy to the pose - to find it and keep it as you begin to develop subforms further.  Whether you wish to exaggerate or not, the subtle emphasis of relationships of the body will be an important thread felt through the figure.  If you are working from life for a long (or even a short pose) it is likely that the model will change to some extent, sometimes dramatically.  You need to have an idea of how you want to organise the pose because you can't simply rely or being accurate.




Biodynamic Gesture 2: Balance under gravity


Biodynamic Gesture 3: The local anatomical cues associated with certain gestures

This could be as simple as the pattern of skin folds that indicate a smile or a frown.  Or, for an example involving a larger form of the body, we could look to the characteristic way the skin stretched taut across the ribcage on one side, with the skin folded and compressed on the other (for example in a contra-posto pose).

-Stretch, compress and combinations of these.  Eg the torso in contra-posto, the buttock compressed in a seated pose.

-Flexion and extension - which muscles are engaged? What would the model be feeling?

-Soft tissue pulled around joints, eg the quadriceps pulled toward the knee relative to the hamstring group in a bent leg, as opposed to a straight, extended leg, in which the quadriceps group is contracted away from the knee, while the hamstring group is relaxed lower down the leg

-The way flexible sections can be slung between supported points

-Bony landmarks pressing through the skin - for example the ribcage pressing through the skin on the passive side in a contra-posto pose

Exaggeration of Gesture

Suppose we wished to exaggerate or emphasise the gesture of a pose.  Therefore we are changing the image from what we see - but what should be changed? 

By clarifying what the overall “story” of gesture in a particular pose is, by considering what is most interesting,  we can help ourselves determine what we are aiming to exaggerate. 

- Gesture of the whole figure - two questions can help to articulate the gesture of the whole figure:

    1. What is the model doing? ie what is the intention of the pose - reaching, repose, slumping, turning to look, pushing on something are all examples.

    2.  What is the model feeling?  What muscles are they contracting?  What areas are relaxed?  What points on their body will start to get sore as the pose goes on?   What emotion is felt through the pose?

   3. Space: Is one part of the body more foreshortened than another? If so can you push the difference a bit further.  Can you apply a bit more recession in space through the use of perspective?


Knowing what this central intention is, provides the content for exaggeration or emphasis. The key is to ask the question!

Activity 10: Starting a figure with Design Long Lines

With and without exaggeration of gesture

 Note I often start with a line that incorporates the side of the ribcage, then “bouncing” to the other side

Activity 11: Starting a figure from building the torso

With and without exaggeration of gesture


Gesture and composition

One of the lessons from the old masters is the use of gesture as a central organising principle of compositional design.  A focus on gesture in figure drawing is traditionally the training ground for developing the intuition for gesture, a gestural sensibility, that is key to this way of composing.

By focussing on the gesture in one figure, we can develop the capacity to gestural relationships between figures and other elements.  

See Lesson 5 Life Drawing at the end of the section for examples of design in composition, which is also related here. 

Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” integrates the multiplicity of figures into a grand sweep of desperation - creating unity and a large movement from amongst the chaos.  By contrast, Ingre’s “Jupiter and Thetis” uses a more symmetrical arrangement of the main tonal shapes to create a stable, dignified, calm impression for the King of the Gods.  (Well, as dignified as you can be with some insolent goddess playing with your bottom lip)