Signs of Life

The Figure in Motion: A Balancing Act
Human figures are dynamic—almost always in motion. Even in a relatively static pose, for instance, when a figure is seated, the posture is not always upright, and adjustments have to be made to account for natural movements, such as relaxing, slouching or leaning on a table. Subtle gestures, such as a figure’s outstretched hand or a face turned to the side, suggest motion and act as a guide for the viewer’s eye, drawing attention to other important elements in the painting.

Just remember that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When you use a figure as a guidepost, you need to counterbalance it with another element elsewhere in the painting to maintain balance in the overall design. That doesn’t mean if you have a figure on the left side of the painting, you need to add another figure on the right. Generally, because of the dynamic nature of moving figures, they carry a heavier “weight” or importance in comparison to any other static element. Following this guideline, you could counterbalance a small flock of pigeons with a tall, brick building.

Action! Three Important Points

To create a sense of motion in your figures, you could use one or more of the following techniques.

1. Use body language. A figure who is standing straight and lifting his head implies that he is going to move in the direction he’s facing even though he hasn’t yet taken his first step.

2. Anticipate the action. The greatest force of motion exists just before an action is carried out, for example, when a baseball player is taking a swing. The sense of motion is weakest during the point of execution, in this case, when the bat meets the ball. Painting the figure in the process of an action rather than at the point of execution will create greater visual tension and better suggest a sense of motion.

3. Apply principles of abstract painting. Even in a representational painting, principles of abstract painting apply. Certain colors, shapes and lines suggest motion more than others. For example, an acute angle or a bright yellow shape will create greater visual tension than a perfect right angle or a dull blue shape.

Artist Cathy Johnson has found an endless treasure trove of subjects in her backyard, from which she’s created such books as Painting Nature’s Details in Watercolor (North Light Books). To see more art from her sketching retreats, check out

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