Thursday, July 27, 2017

What is Gesture Drawing?

What is Gesture Drawing? 

Gesture drawing is the initial burst of marks upon the page that seek to find the unifying rhythmic energy that exists in any given subject. It relies on speed and intensity. Instead scanning outer appearance, gesture extracts an inner essence. It is NOT a record of surface detail or a expedient outline – it's far more profound and mysterious than that. It IS an intuitive visual impression of energy and empathy born in a flash and bundled together with the major thematic issues to be extrapolated for the course of the drawing.

The Big Bang occurs and only much later, after the building blocks of the universe are stabilized, does life appear in all its wondrous detail. Gesture is that Big Bang. It works best when it occurs so fast that you simply don't have time to process the experience. Niccolaides believed that in this state of intensity it was possible for beginning students, knowing nothing of anatomy, to produce drawings years beyond their current level of knowledge. As if the inability to think, due to the great rapidity of the activity, unlocks an unknown cache of knowledge about a subject. For more on this see the heading "Left Hemisphere vs. Right Hemisphere" listed below.


Materials: Vine Charcoal, 2B Charcoal Pencil, Compressed Charcoal, Woodless Pencil, or essentially anything you can draw very quickly with that does not need constant sharpening.

· The following assumes you are attempting gesture drawing from life. If you are working from imagination you would proceed in exactly the same way with this exception: I would encourage you to close your eyes and attempt to visualize your subject in front of you – to make it real in your mind.

· Setup your materials so that you and your paper are perpendicular to your subject – turn your table or easel to assure this. Next make sure you can see your subject and your drawing in the same field of vision. So that to look between one or the other requires only the darting of your eye & not the turning of your head.

· Since gesture drawing requires a tenacious energy – a whirlwind of force – the posture and attitude of the drawer is vital to the success of the drawing. The room should be conducive to allowing for extreme focus. You should not draw sitting down (it's too casual and comfortable) but instead draw standing up. Even if you are working at a table, push the chair back and stand while making the drawing. Gesture drawing is a full body workout.

· Sense the collective rhythmic attributes of your subject. Those attributes that are unseen but express the underlying music of your subject. Blur your vision slightly so that the basic melody that binds together the forms is not caught or torn on the edges of details. Notice how, before any drawing has begun, your eye darts around and flows throughout the forms. This is basis of gesture. Notice how your eye does not cling to outlines and let this principle guide your hand while drawing.


· Once standing, take hold of your pencil towards the back (not towards the tip as you do in handwriting). When you hold the pencil with reverence in this less familiar position you transform it into an instrument of great sophistication and agility. Holding the pencil in a casual everyday way is what people do who seek to trace outlines and we are seeking something quite the opposite.

· After giving yourself a few brief moments to fill up your senses with the subject – your eye having made a dry run through the forms – try to sense the largest and most essential arc that will support the rest of the gesture. For example, if the subject is a standing figure, begin at the top of the figure and with one quick rhythmic line flow downward to the foot bearing the most weight. This initial mark should take no longer than 1 second to appear on your paper. Your gesture begins as an explosion outward from this one sweeping original mark. The rest of the drawing is a flurry of mark-making seeking out everything except surface detail and outline.

· At this point you are off to the races. Never lift the pencil and keep your eye as much as possible upon your subject (with only micro-glances at your paper). The point of your pencil should be trailblazing its way around the forms with sounds that call to mind some frantic animal burrowing through the surface of your paper. 15 seconds should be sufficient time to complete a decent gesture drawing but I've found that if you continue for more than 45 seconds the gesture needs to shift from a description of inner energy to that of outside appearance. At this point the gesture is complete and a new phase of development takes control. But better to master the vitality of the 45 second gesture than to spend hours on a lifeless rendering.

Right Hemisphere vs. Left Hemisphere

Like all great drawing techniques gesture activates the right hemisphere of the brain by tripping up the often dominant left hemisphere. Since the left hemisphere likes to build a drawing like you make a list for the grocery store (one item after the next) we give ourselves an extreme time restriction. A time so short that no satisfying list could ever be written. Unable to complete the task the left hemisphere reluctantly gives up control to the right hemisphere. Not only can the right hemisphere create a satisfying description of a subject in 15 seconds, it can do so with an intensity and grace that surpasses any string of symbols.

Speed sets us on the right path but we set a double trap by forbidding any outlines. Since all symbols rely exclusively upon them the left hemisphere must completely relinquish power to the right. In gesture drawing we replace outline with a line that moves and probes the movement of a subject in space – there is no stored symbol in the left hemisphere for that!


The main source of inspiration for my writing on gesture comes from Nicolaides' book, The Natural Way to Draw. The inspiration for the neurological aspect of this technique is largely derived from Betty Edwards' book, Drawing on The Right Side Of The Brain.

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