Gesture, Part 1 – What is Gesture?

The action of a figure is usually expressed as “gesture.” It means the movement and attitude of the figure. It is body language and all of those subtle differences that characterize individuals, whether they are human or animal. In this regard, when I refer to the model, I mean not only a model posing for short poses of thirty seconds to three minutes, but also people who are not posing and are in real life situations. We use essentially the same learning procedure in what is referred to as the “quick sketch.” It will be assumed that for the sake of learning, at this point, they are the same. Other terms used for what we call gesture are “attitude” and “body language.”


Gesture is the single most important element in the drawing.

No matter how well a drawing is rendered, without that feeling of individuality that we experience in looking at real life, the drawing is nothing more than an academic exercise. Long before we can actually see a person’s face, we can recognize him by all those elements that make up that individual, such as his general bearing, proportions of his body, how he dresses, how he walks, and holds his head.

I am going to present this material in a series of steps stopping to explain and clarify points as I go. In reality, of course, it is never quite this neat or simple. Many of the steps are actually done simultaneously. The total is a summation of the action in simple terms and is essentially what this lesson is about. The illustrations are examples of this total which is what you should, in a sense, see before you start the drawing.

You are not only learning to draw but to see.

Practice looking at your subject and then drawing it from memory. When doing gesture sketches, you do not usually have the luxury of models holding still while you draw. Practice this skill continually wherever you happen to be – on the bus, watching television, or in the shopping mall. In looking at the action, or gesture, it is important to try to grasp the total before you put a line down. Practice looking at your subject and then drawing it from memory. This exercise is particularly useful when you don’t have your sketchbook with you (which should never happen), or are in situations where it is awkward for one reason or another to be drawing. When drawing in your head, go through the same steps and use the same imaginary lines you would if you were drawing on paper. You draw with your mind, not your hand. Then when you can, redo the drawing on paper. With practice you will be amazed at what you can do, but it takes practice.

By Glenn Vilppu

Glenn Vilppu teaches life drawing at the American Animation Institute, the Masters program of the UCLA Animation Dept., Walt Disney Feature Animation, Warner Bros. Feature Animation, Dreamworks and Rhythm & Hues Studios. Vilppu has also worked in the Animation industry for 18 years as a layout, storyboard and presentation artist, most of this time was spent working at Disney. His drawing manual and video tapes are being used worldwide as course materials for animation students. Glenn Vilppu has, in effect, either through teaching them directly or teaching their teachers, trained an entire generation of professional animators.

This article first appeared in the June 01, 1998 edition of Animation World Magazine. It was taken from the first in a series of articles on drawing for animation. The lessons are based upon the Vilppu Drawing Manual and will in general follow the basic plan outlined in the manual. This is the same material that I base my seminars and lectures on at the American Animation Institute, UCLA, and my lectures at Disney, Warner Bros. and other major animation studios both in the U.S. and in their affiliates overseas.

To be continued in Lesson 1: Gesture, part 2...

P.S. To watch a preview of the Chapter 1 Gesture Video, go here.