Creating Figures That Look Dynamic, Not Stiff

Do you struggle to create figures that look dynamic and not stiff? Maybe you've applied those 4 Actions for Accurate Proportions, and have measured and re-measured. Everything seems to be accurate. And yet, in your drawing, the figure still looks stiff as a board!

The 4 Actions can indeed help you achieve accuracy. But accuracy and liveliness are sometimes 2 different things. At the end of the last lesson, I mentioned there is actually kind of a 5th action—the gesture line.

Practicing gesture lines is a key to creating figures that look dynamic and not stiff.

What Gesture Lines Are
And Why You Need Them

"Gesture lines" are simply lines that communicate the implied movement or "rhythm" of a person's pose (see the examples below).

Even when a person is holding still, the human body naturally tends to have graceful, flowing lines that imply movement. This implied movement is what the gesture line does a great job of capturing.

Typically, gesture drawing is done from life, and under a short time limit. Each example above represents about 2–3 minutes of drawing. Below, I've spent just a couple more minutes on each drawing (click images to enlarge).

In the extra time spent on each drawing, I simply built more specific shapes on top of my original gesture lines. If you use your initial gesture lines as the foundation for a drawing, they can help your drawing retain some of the energy of those gesture lines.

But your drawing will only be as strong as your foundation. That's why—even when you're gesture drawing—you still need to apply the 4 Actions for Accurate Proportions. Because of the limited time-frame of a gesture drawing session, it may be impractical to always use a measuring tool to apply the 4 Actions, but you must still apply the 4 Actions using your eye.

How This Applies
To You as a Painter

You might be thinking, "That's great for drawing, but I want to paint." Well, it's a funny thing… a disciplined practice of gesture drawing can lead to a command of the gesture line, which in turn can help your figure paintings look more dynamic. I'm not 100% sure why this seems to be the case, but I think it may go something like this:
  1. Gesture drawing can give you familiarity with (and therefore greater confidence in) drawing the basic shapes of the human figure.

  2. This confidence can help you break free from a slavish adherence to static photo references when painting a studio work.

  3. With practice, the energy and liveliness of gesture drawing can be wielded in harmony with the objectivity of the 4 Actions to create figures that are both accurate and artistic.

Did you find this lesson valuable? Watch me paint a figure from start to finish in my upcoming online video course, "Learn to Paint Dynamic Portraits & Figures in Oil." Click the button below for more info!

Learn More About Online Video Course

I'll share more figure drawing tips next time in Creating Figures That Look Dynamic, Not Stiff (Part II).

Until then,

The 4 Actions for Accurate Proportions

One of the most valuable lessons I learned at art school was the 4 Actions for Accurate Proportions. With just 4 actions, you can draw absolutely anything under the sun… with the correct proportions! Yes, I'm being serious.
  1. Compare distances 
  2. Copy angles 
  3. Check alignments 
  4. Consider negative shapes

Now I'll demonstrate each one…

Note: In the following illustrations, I measure the proportions of a painting. However, in real life, I would measure the proportions of my subject first, and then measure my painting to ensure the proportions of my painting matched the proportions of my subject.

1. Compare Distances

A. Hold out your brush handle (or pencil, etc.) against your subject. Close 1 eye so you don't see double.

Choose any 2 points on your subject. Mark off the distance between these two points using the tip of your brush handle and the tip of your thumb. In example "A," I've marked off the distance between the top of the girl's hair and the bottom of her chin.

B. Now, see if this distance compares to any other distance in your subject. In example "B," I've discovered that the distance between the top of the girl's head and the bottom of her chin equals the distance between the bottom of her chin and the bottom of the bowl.

Why this is awesome
Now that I've found where the bottom of the bowl goes,
I will be much less likely to make her arms too long or
too short as I draw them between the head and the bowl.
Continuously comparing distances like this will
help you achieve correct proportions, no matter
your subject's shape or size

2. Copy Angles

Compare a horizontal or vertical brush handle to an angle in your subject to determine how much the angle is tilted. In this example, a horizontal brush handle makes it much easier to tell how much the girl's eyes are tilted.

3. Check Alignments

Use your brush handle like a plumb line to find 2 points that align to each other. In this example, I've discovered that the corner of the girl's mouth (A) is directly below the edge of her eye socket (B). Finding this unexpected alignment greatly helped me to draw the tilt of her head correctly!

4. Consider Negative Shapes

Let's say I've been drawing and re-drawing the arm, and it still doesn't look right. But then, I shift my focus and look at the negative shape–that triangular shape of air between the crook of her arm and her side. I focus on drawing that shape correctly, and suddenly—viola! Her arm looks accurate too. Often, correctly drawing a negative shape will automatically improve a positive shape.

Did you find this lesson valuable? Watch me demonstrate these 4 Actions on video in my upcoming online course, "Learn to Paint Dynamic Portraits & Figures in Oil." Click the button below for more info!

Learn More About Online Video Course

Now, I know I said there are just 4 Actions for Accurate Proportions, but there's kind of 1 more–the gesture line. I'll talk about that next time in Creating Figures That Look Dynamic, Not Stiff.

Until next time,