Section 2. The Comprehension of Gesture

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Section 2. The Comprehension of Gesture

The Impulse of the Gesture

The study of gesture is not simply a matter of looking at the movement that the model makes. You must also seek to understand the impulse that exists inside the model and causes the pose which you see. The drawing starts with the impulse, not the position. The thing that makes you draw is the thing that makes the model take the position. To make clear what I mean, I will describe a model posing. He is standing with his right foot on the ground, his left foot resting on the seat of a chair directly in front of him. He is bent at the waist so that his left elbow rests on his left knee. His chin is cupped in the palm of his left hand. His right hand is on his waist. You now have a picture of this man’s action, but it is entirely a mechanical picture. Although I have described him at some length, I have not given you the primary impulse. I have not supplied you with the material for the very first feeling you should have had, which was also the first feeling the model himself had. That feeling, the first impulse, was whether he stands quietly or alertly, tense or in repose.

This is where I should have begun:

A man stands tired, at rest. Then I might have described the various details as much as I chose. And it is in this manner that one should attempt to see and draw. The fact that the man was alert or tired is of more importance than the angle of his legs or arms or the position of his hands. In fact he stood so, or so, because he was tired or alert. What the eye sees — that is, the various parts of the body in various actions and directions — is but the result of this inner impulse, and to understand one must use something more than the eyes. It is necessary to participate in what the model is doing, to identify yourself with it. Without a sympathetic emotional reaction in the artist there can be no real, no penetrating understanding. If the pose springs naturally from life as you know it, or from a strong and sincere emotion, you may more easily seek for and find the impulse. Do not make the mistake of thinking of this impulse only in terms of clearly defined or commonly recognized emotions, such as weariness and fear; when you say you ‘feel’ a thing, it is not necessarily something you laugh or cry about.

What we seek is not so much an intellectual as a -physical response. The model may take a pose in which he reaches down to tie his shoe. His impulse is merely to tie his shoe, a simple and everyday wish, but that is the cause, the reason for, the action which you see. As you draw from hundreds of action poses, you will become aware of a wide range of impulses. Many of them could never be put into words, although you can respond to them in drawing. The specific directions given in Exercise 2 for gesture drawing were planned to open up the way for that response. As you draw, your comprehension of gesture will grow and naturally your way of drawing will develop and change. This should be a natural and entirely unconscious development. In all these exercises, the ‘rules’ are temporary ones, to which you subject yourself in order to get back to the laws of nature.


Half Hour Ex. 2: Gesture (45 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (45 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (45 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (45 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (45 drawings)
Half Hour Ex. 3: Cross Contours (one sheet of drawings) Ex. 3: Cross Contours (one sheet of drawings) Ex. 3: Cross Contours (one sheet of drawings) Ex. 3: Cross Contours (one sheet of drawings) Ex. 3: Cross Contours (one sheet of drawings)
Quarter Hour Ex. 4: Potential Gesture (15 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (15 drawings) Ex. 5: Flash Pose (15 or more drawings) Ex. 2:  Gesture (15 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (15 drawings)
Quarter Hour Rest Rest Rest Rest Rest
Half Hour Ex. 4: Gesture (45 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (45 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (45 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (45 drawings) Ex. 2: Gesture (45 drawings)
One Hour Ex. 1: Contour (one drawing) Ex. 1: Contour (one drawing) Ex. 1: Contour (one drawing) Ex. 1: Contour (one drawing ) Ex. 1: Contour (one drawing)

* Draw from objects.

Alternate male and female models by schedules if you can.



This is an exercise I have occasionally made use of in trying to explain what I mean by the impulse of the gesture. The model takes one-minute gesture poses as usual and you make scribbled drawings. Instead of drawing the pose you see, however, draw what you think the model may do next.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
A Clown by Daumier
Keep the whole thing going at once


Of course, the pose you draw will seldom be the pose the model actually takes. But the effort to realize how the model could move from his present position — what it would be possible for him to do and what he might want to do — will help you to understand the forces at work behind the action you see.

Draw for three hours as directed in Schedule 2 A.


Extracting the Gesture

Try for the present to think of the gesture as a thing in its own right, distinct from the form which your eye sees as it moves. You can become aware of a gesture without seeing it. If you hear someone clap his hands loudly, you can draw the gesture from the sound. You can draw something that you do yourself, because you feel the impulse even though you do not see the movement. You can see the gesture of an object without seeing any of its details. Make a dot on a piece of paper and ask a companion to fix his eyes on it. Stand beside him and make a motion with your hand. He will be able to duplicate the motion, although he cannot tell whether the hand wore a ring or whether the fingers were long or short. Your signature is never the same twice, but it is always unmistakable because it has a characteristic gesture. When people use rows of large circles and pointed lines to practice penmanship, they are really ‘extracting the gesture’ because they have selected for practice the significant movements of the letters. One can sometimes read an illegible word by making the gesture of the handwriting, which will then suggest the letters to the mind. This thing we call gesture is as separate from the substance through which it acts as the wind is from the trees that it bends. Do not study first the shape of an arm or even the direction of it. That will come in other exercises. Become aware of the gesture, which is a thing in itself without substance.

Gesture is intangible

It cannot be understood without feeling, and it need not be exactly the same thing for you as for someone else. To discover it there is required only practice and awareness on your part. You learn about it more from drawing than from anything I can say.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Dancing Figures by Romney


From the Sachs Collection
Studies for St. Sebastian by Tintoretto
If you think of the whole figure, gesture becomes three-dimensional


The Unity of the Gesture

Try to grasp the unity which is inherent in any pose of the figure. Imagine that the model has jumped back and thrown her hands forward as if to protect herself from some strange animal. That particular thing which has made this pose a unit is the gesture caused by fear which takes place in every part of the figure. The gesture is the cement, the unifying element, that holds the various elements of the pose together. By gesture we mean, not any one movement, but the completeness of the various movements of the whole figure. That is why in the beginning I told you to keep the whole thing going at once. The awareness of unity must be first and must be continuous.

The eye alone is not capable of seeing the whole gesture. It can only see parts at a time. That which puts these parts together in your consciousness is your appreciation of the impulse that created the gesture. If you make a conscious attempt merely to see the gesture, the impulse which caused it is lost to you. But if you use your whole consciousness to grasp the feeling — the impulse behind the immediate picture — you have a far better chance of seeing more truly the various parts. For the truth is that by themselves the parts have no significant identity. You should attempt to read first the meaning of the pose, and to do this properly you should constantly seek the impulse. If you think of the whole figure, gesture becomes three-dimensional. It is not merely the direction of line but the essential action, the full form in space. Do not think too much of surfaces because the surface is only a part of the figure just as an arm is only a part and not the whole.

Draw for three hours as directed in Schedule 2B.



Even in the short space of one minute, it is possible to see a great many things about a model and a pose. The flash pose is to be tried as an experiment in which you will be forced to see the whole pose as a unit because there is not time enough to see more. The model does not stay on the model stand. He rushes to the stand, does one thing in a flash of a second, and then leaves the stand again as quickly as possible. His action should be a simple one such as putting his hand to his forehead or raising his arm. When you draw, you make a ‘flash’ scribbled drawing, recording only your basic reaction.

Draw for three hours as directed in Schedule 2 C.


Gesture and Action

By gesture we do not mean simply movement or motion or action. A thing does not have to be in motion to have gesture. You seek for it when the model is relaxed just as much as in a very active pose.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Tobias and Sara by Rembrandt van Rijn
There is gesture even in the way a curtain hangs


Gesture, as you will come to understand it, will apply to everything you draw. Even a pancake has gesture. There is gesture in the way in which a newspaper lies on the table or in the way a curtain hangs. Gesture describes the compound of all forces acting in and against, and utilized by, the model. The term action is not sufficient. We may think of gesture, rather, as the character of the action. Look at two vases — one tall and graceful, the other fat and squat. They are as different in character as two people might be. The similes in which our language is rich often aptly summarize the character of an action or a thing. We say that we felt ‘as limp as a dishrag,’ that he sat ‘as stiff as a poker.’ That quality which makes you compare the way the man sits to a poker may give you some clue to the gesture of both the pose and the object. The key to the nature of a subject is its gesture. From it the other aspects of drawing proceed.

Draw for three hours as directed in Schedule 2 D.


Gesture in Things

Look at a lamp and think of what it is doing. It spreads out to hold a certain amount of kerosene. The glass chimney holds back the wind from the flame. A chair invites you to sit in it. If it is a stiff straight chair it will hold you erect. If it is an ample easy-chair it will sink under you and make you relax. The man who made the chair was aware of the different needs of the people who would sit in it, and the chair reveals the mood or the character of the person who chooses it. By using your feeling or imagination you can relate the gestures you see to those which are more universally understood. For example, the base of the lamp may have a sturdy, smug look which suggests to you a well-fed prosperous business man with a neat collar holding his head straight up. From an impression of that sort you get a very clear picture of the lamp so that when you see it again you instantly recognize it among twenty similar lamps not exactly from the same mold. Such observation is more instructive, as well as more interesting, than an observation of static lines and planes, and it results in a kind of knowledge that can be recalled ten years from now even though you have forgotten all about the act of observing.

Naturally, the impulse of the gesture in inanimate objects cannot be considered an emotional one, although we sometimes transfer our own emotions to things. This is common in literature and in the very phrases of our language, as when we name a certain kind of tree a ‘weeping willow.’ But to seek the actual impulse of the gesture in inanimate things we go back to natural causes. A plant grows upward toward the sun and the blossom begins to droop when it becomes too heavy for the stem. A bent tree-trunk may have been blown by storms, or blocked at some point in its growth, as by another tree. Water flows because it is liquid and the law of gravity urges it into a downhill path. Objects are made for a certain purpose and that purpose determines their shape and gesture. An auger is made to twist, a knife to cut, a ball to roll. A tree does not grow from the top down but from the bottom up. Start then at the bottom, and in a loose, easy, tentative manner allow your pencil to move upward as you can feel that the tree moved up — upward and out along the branches. Let your pencil follow the sense of movement through to the leaves. Do they spread like bursts of flame from a skyrocket or do they fall down, dropping like water? As the tree reaches upward, it moves out from its core into a three-dimensional form.

Student Gesture Drawing


The clouds in the sky are practically all movement. They reflect the movement of the wind. They may swell out at the top or be cut flat at the bottom. The grass has within it the movement of its own impulse to reach the sun and is pressed forward or downward by the passing wind. Stone walls can be seen as having been built by men, each stone lifted and fitted into place, where it now presses sideward and downward because of its weight. Roads move up over hills, down again into valleys, through forests. They were created by movement and exist for the purpose of movement. Through your ability to grasp something of this, you will begin to understand other things like proportion and perspective, for the truth is that those things are caused by movement and are a part of it. It is far more important that your studies contain this comprehension of movement, of gesture, than that they contain any other single thing.

Draw for three hours as directed in Schedule 2 E.