The Right Gesture

Cheap Joe's Artist Tip: The Right Gesture

by Skip Lawrence and Toph Schink adapted from The Palette Magazine
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Drawing and painting people should be easy. After all, there's nothing we're more familiar with than the human form. If we have no trouble drawing and painting flowers and trees and barns, then we should find painting people easier still. But we don't.

We may not know a lot about trees (unless, of course, you happen to be a botanist), but we do know exactly what people look like. And that may be our problem. For example, because we know that everyones walks upright and has a neck (if you exclude professional football players and wrestlers), we want to always draw everyone with their backs straight and their necks in clear view. Even if they're sitting down or bending over.

When painting figures, we often draw not what we see, but what we think we see - our general impression of what a person ought to look like. We fail to capture the distinguishing gesture, attitude, or expression that would give our figure character.

Here are some tips that will help you to convey the right gesture. Before you draw a generalized figure or fill in all the interior details, you should look for three important guidelines ( as illustrated below): A the angle of the back (or spine) of your subject, B the position of the chin to shoulders, and C the angle of the eyebrow line. If you carefully note and describe each of these, you can convey a convincing and expressive gesture. Here are some tips that should help you to capture the right gesture when drawing and painting the figure.

Angle of the Back

The Angle of the Back

There is a reason why we have such difficulty getting the angle of the back right in our figure drawings and paintings. We have an unconscious urge to make people stand upright; it's called the "righting instinct." No matter how bent the figure may be, how far it is leaning over, we try to straighten it up in our drawing. More often than not, we don't notice our error until we attempt to add the arms to the figure. Either they are too short or the result looks suspiciously like an adult orangutan or maybe something from another planet.

To overcome this unconscious urge, you must learn to carefully observe and record the angle of the back or spine. Hold your pencil or brush up vertically to the figure and note the angle of the back ( or, if the model is facing you, the spine).The angle may be far greater than you thought, but you must draw it as accurately as possible. The whole gesture and all subsequent additions depend on your getting this angle right. When you get it wrong, everything goes out of whack.

Position of the Chin to the Shoulder Line
When viewing the model from the front or when the model is wearing loose clothing, you may find it difficult to see the angle of his back or centerline. For example, in the painting above I chose a high, frontal viewpoint that makes the exact angle of the model's gesture hard to see. In the sketch to the left I took a side and eye-level viewpoint that reveals how far forward the model is actually leaning.

Angle of the Back #2

The Position of the Chin to the Shoulder Line

Everyone has a neck; we need one so that we can look both ways before crossing the street. But not everyone's neck is the same length or shape. And, although we know everyone has a neck, we can't always see it when they are leaning forward or slumping or have dropped their head. So, everytime you draw a head, you can't simply add a standard, one-size-fits-all neck. In order to capture the right gesture and the character of your subject, before drawing the neck, you must accurately note and record the position of the chin in relationship to the shoulder line.

Getting this relationship right is just as important as getting the angle of the back right. The method is just as simple: line your pencil (or brush) up horizontally at the bottom of the model's chin and note where it hits the shoulder line. Is it above or below the shoulder line? How much neck do you actually see? Be observant.

A Common Problem

One of the most common problems in figure painting is to approach the head as a "separate project" to be undertaken after the rest of the figure has been completed. We're tempted to ignore the pose in front of us and instead fasten a standard head and neck unto the body we've drawn.

In the near left sketch I have carefully noted the position of the chin to the shoulders. In the far left sketch I simply added a generic head and neck. The result feels awkward and unnatural.

Head and Neck - A Common Problem

The Angle of the Eybrow Line

Most of us tip our heads-forward or backward or to the left or to the right–unless we're having our photo taken for our driver's license.

We often express our emotions by tipping or turning or nodding our heads. It's part of our body language. By capturing these subtle angles, you can add greatly to the expressive quality of your painting; and again, it's simply a matter of getting the angle right. You can easily do this by lining your pencil up with the eyebrow line of your model and noting the angle. This is particularly important in a profile view where the tip of the head is less discernible.

Note in the painting on the right how the tip of the head adds to the expressive quality of the painting. In the illustration below I have sketched three heads tipped at three different angles (shown with a red line). You'll find it easier to get the tip of the head right, if you start by drawing this line before you begin filling in the features.

Try This . . .

Using Angles - ExampleDon't be embarrassed to be seen holding your pencil up to measure the angles and position of the features of your model. Unless you're wearing a smock and beret, nobody will think you're a phony artist. If you're working from a photograph, you can draw directly on the photograph (or on tracing paper) to determine the correct angle. Getting these angles right will help you get the right gesture.

A Note

Accurately drawing and painting the position and gesture of your subject is important, but it doesn't by itself make a work of art. Creating a strong, imaginative design or conveying a meaningful pose or convincing situation are more important considerations in figure painting. But getting the right gesture certainly helps.

If you liked this tip, you'll love the magazine. The Palette Magazine is a quarterly publication written by Skip Lawrence and Christopher Schink. Sign up to receive your copies today at:

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