The Art of Scribbling | by Greg Albert

Often, we associate scribbling with negative habits: It’s out of control, childish, messy, sloppy or wasteful. But it’s also fun. And, as a drawing instructor, I can tell you that scribbling is one of the best ways to improve your drawing skills.

Everything Has Gesture: In this gesture drawing of a statue, I worked loosely, keeping the marker gliding over the paper. I responded as naturally and automatically as possible, recording my understanding of the energy “trapped” in the statue.

The type of scribbling I’m talking about is part of a technique called “gesture drawing.” Its purpose is to help you capture a subject’s unique quality or its “gesture.” It’s often hard to describe gesture drawing without resorting to almost mystical terms, because gesture drawing records your impressions, thoughts and feelings about your subject, and these things aren’t well suited to verbal (left-brained) expression. But once you get started it will all come together.

Gesture drawing can be done with a lot of different materials. Drawing tools that make decisive marks rapidly are the best. I recommend that your first gesture drawings be done with a soft (6B) graphite stick, but later on you can try other drawing implements. (Keep in mind that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get started.) Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Soft graphite stick (6B or 4B)
  • Newsprint or large sheets of scrap paper (Whenever possible, use paper larger than ordinary typing paper.)
  • Black India ink and cotton swabs
  • Crayons
  • Markers

Playful Drawing
Take a large sheet of paper and a soft graphite stick or marker and cover the paper with scribbling. Make big swirls, tight curls, loops and zigzags until the paper is covered.

Ready, Set, Scribble!
Before we get into the nuances of gesture drawing, let’s have some fun. Place a large sheet of paper on an easel or table, and grab your soft graphite stick. Now cover the paper with scribbling as in the example above, right. Make big swirls all over the paper. Draw from your shoulder, not from your wrist. Don’t stop your hand and don’t lift the graphite from the paper. Make some tight curls; then make some jagged zigzags, loops, coils and points.

Notice how this process feels. Do you feel any resistance in your muscles? Do you feel that there’s something slightly wrong with scribbling? Do you feel the need to have permission to let go? Or is it liberating and fun? However it feels, do it! Ignore any residual bad feelings about scribbling or any resistance from the left side of your brain. Give yourself permission to let go. Scribble until the page is dark with marks.

Gesture drawing is similar to scribbling in that you should never lose the loose, almost unrestrained quality of scribbling. But there are a few simple and important differences between the two that will help you improve your drawing.

1. Draw what your subject feels like or what it’s doing. When you do a gesture drawing, you’re not only making a loose, scribbly sketch of what the subject looks like, but you’re also trying to determine what you feel is the essential character or action of your subject.

2. Don’t stop the pencil, and don’t pick it up off the paper. Gesture drawings should only take about a minute or two to complete. You don’t work at gesture drawings—you let them happen. Just put the pencil to paper and begin to draw loosely and spontaneously with an uninterrupted movement of your hand and shoulder. When you’re done, someone should be able to “grab” the end of your gesture stroke and pull the whole thing off the paper like one long piece of yarn.

3. Always draw the whole thing on the paper. Make your scribble fit the paper so no part of your subject matter is left off. If you start too large, just scribble it smaller right on the paper. This is one of the most important parts of gesture drawing. If you need to make a mark on the top of the paper for the topmost part of your subject and then make a mark on the bottom for the lowest part, do it. By consciously trying to make whatever you draw fit on the paper, you’ll get in the habit of seeing how the size of the various parts of your subject are related. You’ll also develop an instinctive sense of proper proportion and composition.

Subjects to Scribble
By its very nature, gesture is ideally suited for drawing people. But you can draw just about anything with it: stuffed animals, telephones, toasters, gloves and so on. In fact, I recommend that before trying gesture drawings of people you try doing gesture drawings of statues or figurines. You can look for interesting statues to draw in antique shops, flea markets, secondhand stores or thrift stores. Playthings such as dolls and large toy soldiers will also provide great practice and will help prepare you for drawing real people. Ceramic supply and craft stores also carry many other statues that make great things to draw. You can even go to a museum and practice gesture with some of the sculptures there.

Once you’ve had a little practice drawing inanimate objects, you’ll want to draw living, moving subjects. Your family and friends can be your first models, even if they’re unaware of it. But the best way to learn how to do gesture drawings of people is to work with a cooperative model. All you have to do is give good instructions. Begin by asking your model to assume poses based on everyday activities such as sitting on a chair, standing in a subway or bus, leaning against a wall, and so on. The poses should last a minute to a minute and a half—never longer than two minutes.

Then request that your model “play statue” in a pose based on ordinary activities such as swinging a bat, tennis racket or golf club, chopping wood, and sweeping or raking. (This can be a lot of fun, by the way, and if you’re alternating between being artist and model for friends, posing will give you a lot of insight into what gesture is all about.)

The Gesture of Animals
Pets like cats and dogs are good subjects to try for rapid gesture drawings. It’s essential that you look for the most expressive lines of action when you do this. With each drawing, you gain a little more knowledge about your pet’s personality.

And if people are a little harder to come by, family pets are good subjects for rapid gesture studies. You do have to work fast, unless they’re sleeping. And if Spot begins to move, study how he moves while you keep the graphite stick moving. Pay particular attention to the long curves in the body—the uniquely feline arch of a cat’s spine, or the inimitable droop of a slumbering dog.

Or you can practice on your own gesture: Draw the image you see in the mirror as you take different poses. You’ll be surprised at the number of poses you can assume and still see yourself well enough to draw. Try standing, sitting on a chair or on the floor, resting one foot on a stool or box, or posing in different coats or hats.

Tips for Scribbling Success
Since gesture drawings are so quick and you don’t get into any detail, there’s really not much to them. But learning to make your gesture drawings of people more penetrating and expressive can only help your drawing in the long run. All of these suggestions may not be appropriate for every drawing, but from time to time you may want to incorporate them into your drawings.

Look for the big curves. Look for and draw the large curves of the human figure. The body contains some beautiful, uniquely human curves. In particular, look for the sinuous “S” curves of the spine. The lithe curve of the spine often determines the action quality of the pose. Many times this curve is echoed or repeated in other curves of the figure, especially in the long bones and muscles of the arms and legs.

Exaggerate the action. It’s better to accentuate or even exaggerate the feeling of action in your gesture drawings rather than to reduce it. Most of us have a natural tendency to understate the sense of life and movement in our gesture drawings, so we must consciously emphasize it whenever we can.

Include props that are part of the action. If your model is using something that’s an integral part of the action, draw it. If he’s sitting, draw the chair; don’t draw him hovering in midair. If he’s swinging a tennis racket, draw the racket.

Draw groups as a single unit. When you have occasion to draw people in groups, first draw the group as a whole, then draw the individuals. Always look for the biggest unit.

To keep yourself challenged, vary your procedure from time to time in small but significant ways. For instance, every once in a while switch hands and draw with the opposite hand. Also, try starting at the bottom of the paper and working up. This procedure is contrary to your normal habits of vision, but you’ll naturally be more mindful of fitting the whole image onto the paper.

The Spirit of Scribbling
Drawing gestures of people can be one of the most exciting and rewarding ways to draw. Just remember that when drawing the figure, gesture wells up from the core—it’s the “spirit” of your subject, it’s in the muscles and bones, not on the skin or clothing.

Keep in mind that your first gesture drawings might not look like anything at all—at least not like anything you might want them to look like—and the experience might not be all that satisfying. That’s because the left side of your brain may be uncomfortable with the whole notion of gesture.

But keep drawing them and do as many as you can. Experience, not the finished product, is your goal. With enough good experience, all your drawing—gesture and otherwise—will become interesting, expressive and satisfying.



Step by Scribbly Step
1. Make a scribble that’s the initial gesture impulse and makes up your entire subject. You should know after five seconds whether it will fit on the paper.

2. As you continue rendering your subject, keep the graphite stick or marker moving and don’t pick it up. Work in a rapid, flowing style. Let it happen. Gesture is an image of action, or implied action.

3. Draw what your subject feels like as well as what it looks like. Draw what it is as well as what it’s doing.

4. Finally, as you add smaller forms and details, keep them in the context of the large, all-encompassing gesture.

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