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Friday, May 11, 2012

In Praise of Gesture

Gesture drawing is our most direct tool for absorbing the essence of what we see.  Simply defined a gesture drawing captures the movement the artist feels within the subject.  It is the artist's rapid response to what the subject is doing, not how it appears.

Artists have been doing gesture drawing for centuries, but not until the early 20th century did it get its label, thanks to Kimon Nicolaides who left for us a comprehensive study program in his book, The Natural Way to Draw.  (First published in 1941 and available free in a PDF file HERE.)

We are accustomed to contour drawing where the shapes' edges are meticulously followed, our more deliberate or cognitive approach.  Gesture drawing does just the opposite, following the movement of the subject--a more intuitive approach.  Nicolaides taught that both are necessary, each balancing the other.

Here's how he introduces the comparison:

Below, from Nicolaides' book, student drawings illustrate the power of gesture drawing to express what the subject is doing.

Three of our historical masters--Rembrandt, Leonardo and Michelangelo-- each left us volumes of drawings with copious gesture studies among them.  Most often these would be quick studies, responding to something that caught their eye or towards an upcoming painting, but sometimes they would flesh out the gesture drawing with values, as Rembrandt does with his lion sketch.

Rembrandt van Rijn  "Lion Resting"    c. 1650
At other times, we get to see the pure gesture itself, exampled in these Rembrandt studies of a baby nursing and "St Jerome Reading to a Lion".

Rembrandt van Rijn   Study:  Baby Nursing      c.1635
Rembrandt van Rijn   Study for St. Jerome Reading    c. 1652

And among the hundreds of Leonardo da Vinci's scientific and analytical drawings are many gesture drawings.

Leonardo da Vinci   Study for the Trivulzio Monument, c. 1508
 Leonardo da Vincin     Study for the Sforza Monument, c. 1488-9 

Even among the many beautifully formed drawings of Michelangelo are his gesture studies.

Michelangelo Buonarroti   Sketches for two separate projects    c.1503

My favorite drawing of all times is Michelangelo's study of Madonna and Child where we see all the gestural lines and restatements along with his beginning to flesh out the form within the gesture drawing itself.
Michelangelo Buonarroti  Madonna and Child Study  c. 1525
One of the most intriguing and exciting uses of gesture I've seen lately is that of artist Omar Rayyan.  His paintings begin with a gesture drawing.  (You may click on any of these to get a larger view.)

Within this drawing, Rayyan searches for the image and begins to develop it in paint.

He continues by refining the drawing and adding more paint as the piece develops.

This process continue until the piece finds its conclusion.

 Omar Rayyan   "The Duel"   Watercolor, 11x17      2011 

Gesture drawing is the closest thing to meditation an artist can experience:  it is drawing without thought, responding with the senses without making judgments.  It is the purest form of observation, taking the artist directly to the essence of the subject. It requires letting go and taking in the world as it is without any intention other than experiencing the subject.  It is fun, relaxing and gives the artist a refreshed sense of renewal.



Anonymous said...

Hi Dianne,
I just found your blog through Myrna Wacknov's blog. Your articles are well written, interesting and enlightening! I look forward to reading through your archives.

Kathleen Kreidler said...

And I found you through Peggy. I'm subscribing to your blog and look forward to learning from you.

Anamaria do Val said...

You are a great teacher, Dianne! Thanks for sharing your knowledge