Painting Gestures in Humans and Animals

When preparing for a figure painting session, many artists use the popular warm-up exercise of gesture drawing and painting.

This helps to loosen up the arm and the mind, and helps artists to get acquainted with action, motion and the general “essence” of a subject.

To start off with, you need to find a subject to paint. You can find animals at home (pets are useful for more than companionship!) or at the zoo. You can also find people at home and at the zoo, but luckily for all figure painting artists, these are not the only places that you can find them.

Pick up your sketchbook, paints and brushes, and wander into crowds, shopping centres, parks, and wherever your feet lead you. If you’re painting late at night, or if you live in the middle of nowhere, you might not have any live subjects to paint.

This is nothing to worry about, as you can always collect energetic images of people and animals from the internet, magazines and books, which you can use instead. Don’t allow yourself to take too much time on each image, though – just because your subjects are nice enough to stay still for you, doesn’t mean that you should work on them for too long.

Sketches that you make shouldn’t take very long – between 10 seconds and a minute. If you’re painting, spend a maximum of 15 minutes on each subject. Don’t aim for perfection in these exercises; try to capture the feeling of the subject in the given moment.

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It’s almost impossible to draw an entire animal or person in the time that you have, so don’t become frustrated if you don’t finish your drawing. Focus on the basic lines and shapes that create the poses in the animals and people that you study, and don’t worry too much about the rest.

First, try to find the one line that defines the essence of the subject (for example, the line in a ballet dancer would be from the fingers where they reach into the air above the head, to the toe where it’s pointed on the floor). Quickly paint this line on your sketchbook while looking at your subject. That line in itself could be called a gesture drawing, but taking things further to convey character in your sketches can be lots of fun.

Paint secondary lines that show the contours of your subject. Use these lines to represent the torso, limbs, head and so on. To show mass in your subject, (especially if working with a small, thin brush) use hatching, cross-hatching, squiggles and circles, or just fill areas with paint. Work very quickly and fluidly, if you don’t want anybody to see what you’re painting, then you don’t have to show them, so don’t worry about what other people will think and just paint.

Gesture paintings of people and animals can be more than simple warm-up exercises. Once you’ve spent a while painting, you can use your works as reference material in paintings. You’ll have paintings to refer back to while working and you’ll feel more at ease while tackling your final artwork.

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