Dog, ink sketch

'Good drawing is the basis of all representational work and these measured and well-proportioned studies are the bones on which we hang the paint,' says Steve Strode. 'But not every drawing needs to be a lengthy piece of work; we can take an invaluable practice doing drawings that take minutes or even seconds to accomplish.

'This quick execution, or ‘gesture drawing’, is not an exercise in showboating, but a great way of developing our drawing skills. It’s tough at first, as the temptation to create a finished piece can be hard to resist, but not every drawing has to be ready for fame.

'Getting started is cheap and easy; all you need is a pocket-sized pad and a pencil. The thought of carrying an a4 pad or larger will deter you from even starting, so carry a small book that fits in the pocket. I find a 14x14cm hardback sketchbook is small and robust enough for daily use.

'Try different types of drawing implements like graphite, carbon or ink pen and find the one that suits you best. I can recommend the ink pen, as it removes the temptation to stop drawing and erase or modify the image'.

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Rapid sketching

Boy with a Surfboard, 2B graphite sketch

This sketch was completed in five to ten seconds.

I can't state enough that these rapid sketches are meant to capture the gesture and are not an attempt at figure studies or portraits.

The more you do the more confident your touch will become.

It's really important you don't skip these initial studies as they train you to look longer at the subject.

Even when you do slightly longer studies that allow you to snatch a look at the pape, don't desert this execise for good

Sketch moving subjects

In theory these gesture drawings can be used on animate or inanimate subjects alike, but try drawing anything that moves.

People and dogs, cats, cows or any other animals, you never know when they’re going to get up and leave or change position so they make really good subjects for quick studies.

Try extending your drawings to 20 or 30 seconds and remember to glance only at the paper.
The confident line and expressive touch you fostered with the quicker studies will feed into these longer pieces, giving them more life than if you'd struggled with a tentative hand.


You’re on holiday; you have time!

Try sitting in a coffee shop and drawing individuals engaged in conversation or queueing at the counter.

Place the pad on your knee or the table, look to where you’ll start on the page and place the pen there.

Now look at the subject and draw the gesture quickly and look continuously without lifting the pencil. You’re drawing the gesture, not the subject. Do this without looking at the paper, and take no more than ten seconds.

There you’ve done your first gesture drawing. Date it, and do another then another.

Take a seat by the window and draw the public outside who may be standing at bus stops, chatting or waiting around.

As time progresses draw them on the move.

Figures walking towards you are easier than those walking across your path, but try both.

The practice allows you to draw a pose that may not be held long enough for an extended study, and can emphasize movement, action and direction, which are sometimes overlooked in longer drawings.

Capturing an essence

This practice quickly renders the essential lines of a subject and is more concerned with the essence of the pose, rather than a careful study.

It’s really important that you don’t judge these drawings as good or bad. They’re a record of the trial and error of the learning process, nothing more.

Gesture drawing is also a great exercise for looking, because while you’re drawing so quickly you tend to spend more time looking at the subject and not at the paper.

Slow down

Spend some time doing these rapid drawings before gradually working towards studies that take a minute or more.

It should be pointed out that the quick studies are not a stage we should abandon as we improve at the longer works; the time you invest in the shorter studies will improve these longer drawings, so keep going.

Sometimes people on another table in a coffee shop, or riding public transport may afford you more time to draw so you can extend the time even further but take no more than a couple of minutes.

Don’t be tempted to draw at your leisure.

Ask yourself: if they got up and left after ten seconds would I have a basic gesture drawing?

If they stay a little longer then make another pass with the pencil, restating the whole figure. Don’t concentrate on one area alone, this way you’ll get a decent all-round study, and not just an excellent rendition of someone’s ear.

For these slightly longer drawings allow yourself a series of quick glances at the paper to check your progress, but it’s vital you return to look at the model immediately.

We’re training ourselves to reverse the looking process. We want to look at the model and glance at the drawing, not the other way around. The more time we spend looking, the more we’ll draw what we really see.

Sitting in the window on the first floor of a building gave me a different perspective to sketch these figures than from ground level

Set time limits

Spend no more than five minutes or so on any study, any more and they are heading towards a more finished piece, and don’t see these slightly longer drawings as the peak of your progression because they appear more complete.

Keep all the studies flowing thick and fast weather they take seconds or minutes, master this and your work is sure to improve because you’re spending more time looking.

Figures walking towards or away from you are a little easier to sketch than those that walk across your path.

The figure that hangs about gives you more time to make a couple of passes, but use this time to look at the model not the paper

Good practice

We can learn more from a thousand good starts than a couple of finished pieces.

Look at the sketches and colour studies of Constable and Turner; they’re fantastic works in themselves.

Like drawing, imagine how this looser way of working could build up your confidence and filter into your longer studies.

Date all your work and plot your progress.

Constant practice will eventually see you working quickly and intuitively.

The fast pace of gesture poses will help you ‘loosen up’ and avoid a stiff drawing style. This will leave you free to concentrate on the important elements without being overwhelmed by minor details. You’ll also become more observant because you’re taking longer looking at the subject as you draw.

The beach offers you lots of free models to draw and will test your skills with quick gestural studies using just line to the more extended poses that offer the chance to restate the figure and suggest tone.

Be prepared at all times

Carry a small sketchbook with you at all times and aim to fill it by then end of your holiday. But you needn’t stop there; make it a habit you intend to keep. Get out and about and draw in coffee shops, pubs, on the train, the bus or in the car (although the latter works best when you’re parked not driving!).

Time and effort are never wasted when you’re developing a skill like drawing or painting. Kimono Nicolaides, one of the best educators on drawing noted that ‘the only way to learn how to draw is by drawing’ and it really is that simple.

What better use of holiday time than putting down lots of quick studies to seal your happy memories.

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This article first appeared in Leisure Painter.

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