Sketching 101: What is Gesture Drawing?

A Quick Sketch to Express Emotion and Movement

Two approaches to gestural drawing: the same fisted hand.
Two approaches to gestural drawing of a fisted hand. Helen South

Gesture drawing is a loose form of sketching that attempts to capture your subject's basic form and express movement. It is a favorite style for drawing figures that are filled with emotion, though it can also be used for still lifes or any subject you like.

As an artist, you will find that gestural drawing is rather freeing. It is a form of expression that is neither abstract nor realistic. It is, quite simply, a quick sketch in which your hand follows your eyes.

Exploring Form and Feeling

Gesture drawing explores the form and movement of an object in space, as your eye follows its shape. It may look quite realistic, but more often gesture drawings will have just a sense of the overall form.

Gesture drawing isn't an outline, nor is it an abstract drawing. It might not always look realistic, though, because it isn't trying to represent the figure in a photographic way. Instead, it suggests the essential feeling of the subject.

Draw What You See As You See It

Imagine you are describing the object with your hands as you talk to someone. Those hand gestures are very much like those you make when gesture drawing.

The marks are quick and deliberate. You look at the subject and try to sum it up with a few marks, as you might describe it in a few words. Because you don't have much time, each word - each mark - in a gesture drawing must say something significant about the subject.

When creating a gesture drawing, according to Kimon Nicolaides in "The Natural Way to Draw," "you should draw, not what the thing looks like, but what it is doing. You need to 'sense' the thing that you are drawing. Is it fluid and soft, or spiky and hard? Is it coiled like a spring, or off-center and asymmetric, or is it solid and balanced?"

Using Expressive Marks

By nature, gesture drawing tends to be done rapidly. Look at the whole object and notice points of tension, direction of weight or pressure, spaces, and protrusions into space.

Gestural drawing, especially in figure drawing, often uses circular, flowing marks, perhaps because of the rounded human form.You can, however, use other kinds of marks in gesture drawing.

The drawings of a clenched fist are perfect examples of this contrast. In the first, you see the flowing lines and the form is rather obscure. In the second, the artist uses spiky, scribbly marks to express the contained, angry energy in the fist. Lines converge and create shadows that begin to suggest the form in space.

Exercises in Gesture Drawing

Gesture drawing can be done with your favorite drawing medium. For those soft lines, a pencil or ink pen are nice choices.

You can use the side of a piece of chalk or charcoal to create a drawing with a strong feeling of weight and form. Press more heavily on one side of the chalk to create tonal gradation within the single mark.

Try finding a range of subjects to use in gestural drawing.

  • Use this technique to describe a hand expressing different emotions.
  • Draw a hunched figure or someone dancing.
  • Do a gesture still life of a favorite teapot or an unfriendly cactus.

In each of these, vary the types of marks to express the feeling you wish to portray.