The Key to Flow, Power and Dynamism – Mastering Gesture

April 15, 2015 in Intermediate, Lvl 1

The Key to Flow, Power and Dynamism – Mastering Gesture

Gesture HeaderYour drawings are solid but all you’re characters look like robots.  They’re stiff and rigid.

They look like a bunch of posed dolls on the page.  They lack power, emotion, dynamism.

They’re nothing natural about the way they’re posed.  You thought that adding solidity to you’re drawings would make you’re cartoons come to life but it’s done the opposite.

It’s made them more lifeless. What now?  How can you give your drawings life and energy? What’s missing?

Don’t worry. I knew this would happen.  You’ll find that it will happen quite a lot as you learn new structural drawing techniques.

It’s okay, because this lesson will help you solve this problem every time it appears.

This lesson will teach you the keys to drawing energetic, dynamic drawings full of life and power.

Let’s get started.

The Key to Dynamic Drawings

The best drawing books and teachers, start with the information I’m going to tell you about right now.

The first thing I learned in figure drawing classes, was what I’m going to teach you in this lesson.

This, of course begs the question, why didn’t I start with this information first myself?  After all, this is the very first thing I tend to do when I draw anything.

The answer is simply that you wouldn’t want to know this information until you needed it.  You wouldn’t have seen how useful this information is until now.

What I’m talking about, is gesture drawing. When I was taught gesture drawing I found it annoying.  I was drawing scribbles and wasn’t given any time to finish a drawing.

I would end up with pages and pages of ugly drawing I couldn’t show anyone. None of the drawings were finished or pretty. But once I was taught more solid kind of drawing, I realized how indispensable gesture drawing is to the preliminary process.

Why? What exactly is gesture drawing? What is it good for?

Gesture drawing is the KEY to giving your drawings life, energy and dynamism.

Perhaps I should start describing gesture by what it’s not.

Gesture drawing is NOT:

  • A pretty finished drawing
  • A tight drawing
  • Stiff
  • Labored over
  • Full of details or textures
  • Thoughtless

Gesture drawing IS:

  • Fast and loose
  • Expressive
  • Dirty
  • Often scribbly
  • Full of passion
  • Often better than a final drawing
  • Unappreciated by beginning artists, amateur artists, and most audiences.

Here’s some examples of gesture drawings done with a ballpoint pen. These were done during a figure drawing session:

Gesture drawings

If this looks like a bunch of scribbles to you, you’re mostly right. Gesture drawing is often very scribbly. Yet, those scribbles are often very clear, to the point, and full of life.

This is because the point of a gesture drawing is to capture life, energy, power and forces. It’s not meant to be a final drawing. You’re looking for the spirit of what you see.

All these things are very nebulous concepts and ideas.  Gesture is less about structure and more about expression.  It’s about feelings.

Thoughtfully, examined feelings.

The purpose of which is to give life to a final drawing. Without first capturing the essence of a pose or power of an object (yes, other things besides figures can have gestures), you will end up with lifeless drawings.

Gesture drawing is the first thing you ought to do before drawing anything.  Every drawing you wish to finish should be based on the foundation of a great gesture drawing.

Yes, including cartoons.  What exactly goes into a good gesture drawing and how does it apply to cartoons?

There are three big ideas you’re looking for when drawing gestures

  • The longest line or biggest sweep of the drawing
  • The forces at work in the drawing
  • The movement between the forms in your drawing

The Longest Line or Biggest Sweep

If you were to only draw one line that represents the essence of your drawing what would it be?  When you can answer that question, you’ve found that longest line or biggest sweep of your drawing.

It’s usually, but not always. a line you can draw from the head to where the foot makes contact with the ground.  Although, sometimes it’s the area in a pose where the most force is emphasized.

Here’s what I mean by longest line. Below are some simple cartoon gesture drawings:

Gesture poses

In each of these poses, you can find one sweeping that defines the major emphasis of the pose:

Longest line

It’s the first thing I think about when approaching a rough preliminary drawing.

The Forces at Work

Forces are working on bodies no matter what pose we are drawing.  Most often, from gravity.

There’s always some element of stress in any pose you draw. That’s what I mean by “forces.” Find the stress point and emphasize it, exaggerate it and make it clear.

Drawing forces can take many forms. Ask yourself:

  • What is getting pulled?
  • What is getting pinched?
  • What is getting stretched?
  • What is getting pushed?
  • Where is the energy coming from?
  • How can I push or emphasize this further? How can I make these things more pronounced and therefore clearer.

For example, say your drawing a contrapposto pose. When a person stands, they often favor one leg over another. This causes one hip to be higher than the other. In order to maintain balance, the body counters by making the opposite shoulder higher while making the other lower.  Like this:

Forces at work

In action poses body parts get pulled and pushed, while everything else compensates. Keep this in mind as you draw:

Gesture poses forces

The Movement Between the Forms

We are soft creature made of water.  As such, our bodies tend to flow and interconnect. Keep this mind when gesture drawing.

Be aware of how forms flow in and out of each other.  Sometimes it’s seen through big long sweeps, and sometimes it’s seen through counter balancing curves.

Here’s what I mean:

Movement between forms

Gesture in Action

Here’s some examples of other types of gesture drawings.

The gesture drawing below is a study I made, copying gesture drawings from one of my favorite artists, Frank Frazetta.


Frazetta gesture copy 01

I also copied a gesture drawing from head Disney animator Glen Keane.  Below you’ll find a copy I made off of a gesture drawing he drew of Tarzan catching Jane, from a scene he animated.

Glen Keane Gesture Copy

There’s also a slightly more advance form of gesture drawing that aren’t as scribbly.  Below you’ll find some slightly “cleaner” gesture drawings I drew during figure drawing.

Figure drawing gesture drawing

But how do you use gesture for your finished drawings?

Well there are two ways.  First you can use them to explore different poses quickly. This is done in order to find the best poses to use in a drawing.

Below is an example of some gesture pose studies I copied from Frank Frazetta. He drew them on a separate sheet of scrap paper before he found the poses he wanted to use in his painting.

Frazetta gesture copy 02

The other way you use gesture drawing is as a preliminary base for your final drawing.

For example, below you will see my drawing process.  The very first thing I do is draw a gesture drawing of the pose I want my character to be in.

This may take some tries, depending on how happy I am with the pose.  Similar to the Frazetta drawings above.

Getting the right gesture is important.  Making sure to push the pose as much as possible is critical.  You will see why with the drawing below:

Gesture preliminary

Once I have the pose I want, I do another pass over my gesture drawing, applying structure to the drawing, clarifying what I want.

But notice that, doing this pass stiffens the pose a bit.  Some of the energy of the original gesture drawing is lost:

Gesture second pass

After solidifying the drawing, I add the final line to it. In this step, I still make some adjustments.

Again, just as before, adding the final line stiffens the drawing a bit more.

Gesture final line art

I’m pointing this out so you can understand the importance of making the gesture more extreme and pushed.

The final drawing process slowly stiffens the drawing up.  If you have a very pushed gesture, by the time you’re done, the stiffened drawing you end up with should feel full of energy.

Your Turn

It’s time you gave it a try.

Exercise #1

The best way to really start figuring out gesture is to be observant.  To do this, find:

  • Photos,
  • Comics,
  • Animated cartoons,
  • Drawings or
  • Paintings…

…that you think have a lot of action or character and draw gestures from them.

Start by finding the main action line. At first, you don’t want to do anything but find that line.  Like this:

Gesture Practice Exercises 01

Photos by buy him a coffee.



It’s harder than you may think. These may take you a few tries.  I had to try about three to five times on each pose before I got a line I thought felt right.

Do as many different poses as you need to until you get comfortable. If you really need a number, I’ll just say, do 20 different poses. Yeah, that’s a lot of reference to look up.

At the end of this lesson, I’ll provide links to sites you can use to help with these exercises in the “Pro Tips” section.

Exercise #2

Next, step it up. Set a timer for 30 seconds.

Then look at your reference and draw it’s gesture.

Like this:

Gesture Practice Exercises 02

It’s really tough.   You’ll find you’ll need to do a few just to get warmed up.

The point is to find the essence of the pose. Do not copy the drawing. You don’t need a finished drawing.

If time runs out, STOP drawing and move on to the next drawing.

Keep the three focuses in mind:

  1. Longest line,
  2. Forces,
  3. Movement between forms.

These exercises are not meant to end with pretty pictures. The timer is there to force you to look for gesture. It doesn’t give you the time to draw details.

Once you feel more comfortable with the 30 seconds, you can do the exercise again but this time, give yourself a whole minute, then two.  It will feel as if you have all the time in the world.

Exercise #3

Finally, once you’ve done enough, try it on your own. Using a colored pencil, start a drawing, gesture first.  Think about the emotion and forces of the pose you want. Once you have that part of the drawing down, draw a cleaner line over that rough drawing, perhaps using one of the characters you drew in the previous shape drawing exercises.

Like this:


Gesture Practice Exercises 03A

Gesture Practice Exercises 03B

Gesture Practice Exercises 03C


Q: Whenever I draw roughs, they are REALLY rough and dark.  So dark that, when I put a tighter line on my drawing, it’s difficult to see them.

My drawings are just a dark mess.

On the other hand, I’m not comfortable drawing lightly.  When I really get into gesture, I naturally draw darker lines.

What can I do so my dark gesture drawings don’t overwhelm the clarity of my tighter line?

A: There’s a simple trick to this. I learned it from a Disney clean up artist when they were still doing hand drawn animated features.

What you need is a kneaded eraser.

Draw it as rough as you like and lighten it up with a kneaded eraser.

It’s really very simple.  When you want to lighten up the drawing, roll the kneaded eraser over the drawing as if you were rolling dough with you’re hand.

Like this:

Using a Kneaded Eraser 01

Using a Kneaded Eraser 02

Using a Kneaded Eraser 03

Using a Kneaded Eraser 04

The eraser will pick up most of the lines leaving you with a lighter but still visible rough to work with.  Simply do this until you get to the level of lightness you want your under drawing to have.

If you need an even lighter line, then simply rub the Kneaded eraser over the drawing until the lines become even lighter.

Pro Tip

If you’re looking for good websites to get pose reference for your exercises, here’s some links that might help you out.

As of the time of this writing, none of these websites contain nudity.

Photo Reference for Comic Book Artists – This is a paid subscription site, but they do give you some free photos that you can use if you’re not willing to pay:
A few Pinterest Boards worth looking at for poses:


I can’t help you if you don’t ask.

What’s your burning under gesture questions?

Is there something you’ve always wanted to know about gesture? Ask.

I’ll give you my best answer and, who knows,  probably write a post about it.

Leave any comments and questions in the comments below.

Or better yet, sign up to receive more information via e-mail. You’ll get extra tips and advice.  You can ask me questions that way also.