Last weekend I tagged along with a geology class from CSU Sacramento on a field trip to the South Fork of the Yuba River. It was a really great location with lots of interesting rock formations and swimming holes.
Actually it was my son (still a high school student) and a few of his Science Olympiad teammates who were invited to tag along with the college kids, and I was just the driver. But I had been wanting to check out the Yuba River to scout out painting locations, so this was a great opportunity.
Basically, while the class looked at boulders I sat around and sketched them in my sketchbook.
Most of the time, they didn't stay motionless for more than a few moments, so these are really quick drawings. My only aim was to try and capture the gesture, or the attitude of the posture in each sketch.
I used a regular ball point pen and my sketchbook is a Moleskine.
I don't do as many of these sketches as I used to, and I was newly reminded just how enjoyable doing these are, and how fundamental these kinds of sketches are in defining the identity in my art. I think the skills required in capturing the quick gesture is at the core of everything I do; not just when I'm painting the figure, but also trees, rocks, even cars and nonrepresentational abstract marks.
Some thoughts on doing quick captures:
Don't worry about doing good drawings. Just do a ton of them, one after another. You have to let go of expectations and allow yourself to do bad sketches.
It's about the gesture. That means, you need not and should not even think about likenesses. Instead focus on communicating what the figure is doing. And this goes for large overall gesture of the whole body, as well as individual curves and straights. What is that shoulder doing? What kind of curve is that shin?
If you try to follow the precise outline of an arm (or a head or a leg or back or whatever), you're only thinking about shape. Or worse, just the outline of the shape. Shape is going to happen anyway when you draw both sides of the torso (or the arm or the leg or...) so don't worry about the exactness of the shape. Instead worry about what that shape is doing. Is it stretching? contracting? curving gracefully? supporting weight? flowing from one point to another? Overlapping? Obscuring? Turning around? Twisting? Cutting something off? Lining up with something else? What's it doing?
These are the questions that go through my head as I sketch. Likeness will happen on its own when you get the gesture right. It's almost like magic.
Try to see the whole figure at once. If you only look at the tip of your pen or pencil, you're not relating the line you're drawing to anything else. Consequently you will have a hard time with proportions.
When you are seeing the whole figure, big proportional errors are really easy to spot. And when you spot them, you can fix them. If you can't spot them (because you're not seeing the whole figure), you have no hope of fixing them.
With these quick sketches, there's no time for measuring, so seeing the whole figure becomes even more important.
It's easier to see the whole figure when you draw smaller.
Drawing around the form - using cross-contour lines- is just as important as drawing the outside contours. And these cross contours should never be treated as an afterthought to add volume to an otherwise flat drawing. They should be used as you build form on the paper.
Sometimes these lines are clearly visible as hem of a shirt or pants, cuffs of a shirt, brim of a hat, hairline, belt, stitches in clothing, etc. Other times, you just have to put them in to show volume. Think about how you would draw a sphere (a three dimensional form) rather than a circle (a flat shape with no volume). If you could only use line and not rely on shading, how would you do it?
Straight lines are easier than curved lines. If some part of the body has a very straight "attitude", emphasize it by using a straight line. Sounds obvious, but if you look closely, rarely you see an actual straight line on the body so anything you represent as a straight line on paper is you imposing your perception onto your drawing.
Treat curves similarly. Accuracy of the curve is not important. It's how you interpret and impose the attitude of that curve onto paper that makes your drawing come alive with your intent.
When drawing one side of a form, look at what the other side is doing. Does one side echo the other side's attitude? Does it oppose the other side? Does it play call and response? Trying to verbally describe how the two sides of a form relate to one other forces you to consider the intent of your line.
When you draw a line, see if it has a rhythmic quality that flow into another part of the figure. Emphasizing this "flow" will have a profound impact on the gestural quality, and also on composition as whole. This is what we call continuity of rhythm and if you look at old master's drawings, you'll see it used all over the place. And you'll start to notice that this flow is not accidental, but it's actually the intent of the artist.
Anyway, get sketching'!! You can do this just about anywhere, and it takes no time at all to do one or two figures while waiting to pick up your kids at school. And you don't even need your paints. I don't know about you, but I really have no excuse for not doing them. (Guilt motivates me. So there.)