The first and most important task in beginning to draw the figure well is learning to respond to the impact of the whole figure, or what has come to be called "the gesture." Gesture drawing is not a technique, it's a shift in attitude. Daniel Mendelowitz, in his influential book, A Guide to Drawing, characterizes the practice of gesture drawing, quite simply, as a search. When we are in a searching frame of mind we are open to what we might find, having no concept of what that will be before we start. Consequently we adopt a looser, more free-ranging mark. Gesture drawing is like asking a lot of questions and leaving the question marks on the page. Each line we draw compounds with other lines and assists us as we calibrate our movements toward a final resolution.
Looking at great master drawings such as those of Jacopo Pontormo (above) reveals how a searching attitude plays out in a drawing. Like most of the old masters, Pontormo's drawings were not intended for public display but were rather like soliloquies. He was simply trying to get clear about the truth of his subject and to render it up in a way that would not just record the appearance of external features but capture a living, breathing, animated being. His drawings are full of inefficiencies - lines that are drawn and later abandoned or supplanted with newer, ever more concise and astute lines. The resulting miracle is that all of these lines, the first and the last, all become necessary to the final statement. Beginners' figure drawings by contrast often start by fixing a concrete detail, an anchor point, usually the head, and moving off from this station to enumerate the many parts in a top to bottom and back again sequence. The casualty of this sort of approach is the sense of life. Like Dr. Frankenstein's monster, this sort of drawing is more like a stitched together corpse than a living thing.
In gestural figure drawing the visible surface of the body is not the primary resource. As Nathan Goldstein, another great teacher, states, we're not drawing what the figure looks like, but what it's doing. In a sense, we are making a drawing out of verbs, not nouns. Before an arm becomes an anatomically believable thing, it is, fundamentally, a direction. The same with the torso, the head and neck, the legs, and all of the myriad parts of the human form. What does it profit us if we succeed in creating a smooth, detailed anatomical resemblance of the body's parts but fail to see their basic directions? We lose the vital sense of movement of the living body in favor of a cold kind of reportage.
So, if the outer appearance of the body is not the primary resource for the gestural search, what is? If we look at this x-ray of Degas' sculptures we can clearly see the wire armatures that form the structural underpinning of the outer forms. The armature is the axis that establishes the fundamental direction of the form, as well as its basic proportion. Proportion is simply what we might call the scale, or relative size, of one part to another. A third fundamental fact that the armature establishes is simply where things are in relation to other things, or their essential spatial location. In a nutshell, a gestural drawing is all about these three fundamentals: location, scale, and direction. In the limited time frame of the typical drawing class exercise, often less than a minute, there's little time to deal with anything more than that. The surprising thing is, that's enough to capture a very powerful evocation of the essential spirit of the pose. The mind of the viewer supplies the rest.
Another important resource in gestural drawing is the action of the eye itself as it confronts the forms of the body. The eye tends to follow along the long axis of any form, as these famous eye-movement studies by Alfred Yarbus demonstrate. When our hand is engaged with our eye the lines we draw materialize these basic movements on the page and a crude but compelling resemblance to the reality of the model begins to build.
In this little study by Pontormo you can almost sense the artist's hand following the dance of his eyes as it travels over the figure. The lines are, in a powerful way, the visible traces of those movements. You can see how, like Yarbus' studies, Pontormo returns to certain key points of interest, reinforcing and emphasizing them to the point that they become rhythmic moments in the larger composition of the whole.
In summary, a good gesture drawing is all about asking incisive questions, searching for the answers, and leaving traces of our path to discovery. The three most important questions we can ask are: where are the parts relative to each other (location), how big or small are they (scale), and finally, what direction are they going. With these questions in mind, and putting pencil to paper, we're no longer held to just following contours and edges. We can travel through the axis of the form, note relative positions of articulating joints, and circulate freely and repeatedly over the whole body, leaving tracks of our growing grasp of the interrelationship of all parts of the figure into a single, magnificent whole.
For inspiration, check out this album of great gestural studies from Michelangelo to the present.