Capturing the Essence: Gesture Drawing for Writers

Not too long ago, I took an informal class on the art of storyboarding. (I say informal because my buddy was going to be teaching an online class and he needed some guinea pi-, er, volunteers to help him on the trial run.) I learned a hell of a lot about the underlying principles of visual storytelling, even though I studied film in school and have worked in the biz for fifteen years. There’s no way I can distill his (very thorough) seven-part class here, but there’s one thing he taught that has definite relevance to the sort of writing most of us do at Inkpunks: Capturing Ideas.

You can see the zipper on this idea...

Ideas are sneaky things, and it’s hard to predict when an award-winning* idea will jolt you from your fitful sleep, or some story insights might jump you in the shower. You may not have much time to grab the idea before it vanishes, and you can’t always know if it’s worth capturing. They are sort of like Bigfoot: they don’t stick around long, and you can never be sure they’re not just some dude in an ape suit.

Many artists use a technique called “gesture drawing” to capture the essence of a character or form in mere moments. Sometimes these quick little doodles are known as “thumbnail sketches” and may serve as blueprints for a larger work, but the artists and animators I know rely on the exercise as a way to build up their drawing skills. Rapid-fire studies of a person (especially in strenuous or dynamic poses) builds understanding of not just the underlying structure of the human body, but also how it appears in motion. There are more technical lessons, too, such as the weight and thickness of line and how the way you emphasize some details over others tells the story of that figure.

My gesture drawings

In a formal studio setting, a live model will hold a dynamic pose from several seconds up to two minutes, and the artist will draw the pose as quickly as possible. In less formal settings like sitting on the bus, or sipping a latte in a cafe, you might have only a few seconds to sketch the slouching grizzled dude with the knit cap and hollow eyes, or the harried server balancing too many dirty dishes on her tray, or the angry customer in his dripping wet trench coat yelling at the confused barista.

Note that each of those characters suggests a story, as I hinted above. What have those dude’s eyes seen to make them so empty? Why is the server in such a hurry to overburden her tray? Is the customer angry about his coffee order or did he get splashed by a passing bus?

The artists I work with take pains not just to capture a person in a given moment, but also to hint at a story, too. That seems like a lot to capture in just a few seconds (and it is!) but do this a few thousand times and it won’t seem so hard. I urge you to try it next time you’re out, especially if you’re a doodler like me. Don’t worry about proportion or even accuracy. Concentrate on the shapes, the lines—like you’re drawing a caricature, if that helps. You’re trying to capture something essential, not render a perfect drawing.

Rembrandt's gesture drawings...

Now, before you think I’ve borrowed Galen Dara’s artist bailiwick for my post today, let me tell you how I apply these same techniques to words.

After my friend’s class, I started carrying around a small notebook in pocket at all times, prepared to sketch any interesting people who came my way. I quickly found that my notebook became more of an idea book, however, with rough sketches replaced by descriptive phrases and bits of doggerel. We writers are no strangers to our journals and diaries, but the tiny pocket-sized notebook is easy to grab when you only have a few seconds to capture that funny looking businessman or bored security guard.

My recent trips to the L.A. Country Museum of Art gave me plenty of opportunities to observe not only the art installations but the people too. I just sat in the corner and scribbled quick, visceral impressions in my little notebook. It was fun!

Your pocket notebook doesn’t have to be fancy (and it probably shouldn’t be). You could even just cut some copy paper down to size and staple it together. Just mind the staples when you dig into your pocket! If you must, you can type on your smartphone, but I discourage this: they take too long to power up/unlock and sometimes get in the way of fluid, seat-of-the-pants creativity (especially if someone mentions you on Twitter while you’re writing…)

Your homework assignment, then, should you chose to accept it: carry a little notebook around in your daily life, and whenever you can, try to capture the interesting people (or things) you observe with the most essential details you can. Museums and cafes are good places to have a notebook out and not attract too much attention if you’re worried about keeping a low-profile. Don’t worry about writing award-winning prose—go as purple as you want—no one but you is going to read it. Draw a little, too! Have fun with it, push yourself, but don’t spend too long on each scribble. Do this for a week, or better yet, a month.

My (weary) pocket notebook

Report back here and let me know how the exercise goes.

(Waits at least a week…)

Welcome back! What did you learn with these quick studies? What details stood out on the people you observed and how did you capture them? Keep experimenting!




*Or at least it seems that good at 2 a.m. 

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  1. Paul Weimer
    18/05/2012 at 9:07 am Permalink

    Ideas are sneaky things, and it’s hard to predict when an award-winning* idea will jolt you from your fitful sleep, or some story insights might jump you in the shower. 

    For me, it often happens when I am exercising–and NOT listening to podcasts. Podcasts kill the Muse

  2. Jeff Petersen
    18/05/2012 at 1:28 pm Permalink

    That’s great advice. I used to carry a notebook and pen until I washed the notebook and never remember to get another. I’ll have to get back in practice. Thanks for the nudge.

  3. Andrew Penn Romine
    18/05/2012 at 2:45 pm Permalink

    You’re welcome Jeff!

    I should have probably added that notebooks won’t help you much if you’re in the shower. The pages get soggy and the ink tends to run….

    But they work out pretty good for sitting in cafes and the like 🙂

    21/05/2012 at 9:18 am Permalink

    Thanks for sharing! Great advice!


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