A sense of rhythm is as central to the art of drawing as it is to music. It is the movement of the artist’s hand that gives a drawing its sense of movement and life. Strokes that are fluid and responsive imbue a sketch with vitality.
I run a session at Spring Studio in Manhattan, where beginners struggling to get the hang of drawing from life work alongside accomplished artists who have logged many thousands of hours at the drawing board. If you look at people at work, you’ll notice that most beginners draw tentatively. They measure a lot and try to use intellectual knowledge to figure out what they’re seeing before they make their marks. There is no rhythm or flow to their lines. The parts of the body are drawn separately and never quite seem to integrate into a lifelike figure. But watch a really good artist and you’ll see that the hand is in motion most of the time, moving with the sureness and lightness of a conductor’s baton.
The contours of the body are all curves of various kinds. In drawing, these curves are translated into movements of the hand. I allow my perception to flow along the contours like a skier gliding along the grooves and rises of a snow surface. The drawing hand moves at a fairly constant pace, and those contours become rhythmic gestures traced onto the paper.
In quick drawing, I almost never do any kind of measurement to determine proportions. If the flow of movement is constant, proportions fall into place because of a sense of rhythm in the changes of direction. The movement of the hand continues even when the pencil or brush is lifted from the paper, so that every rounded form is carried through from the front to the back, or from one side to the other. Thus even an unshaded line drawing is given a sense of solidity and connection.
In longer, more finished drawings, I do measure proportional and angular relationships and make corrections, but only after I’ve first captured the feeling of the pose through this rhythmic tracing of contours. Proportions rigidly applied can crush the life out of a sketch, while giving priority to the flow and connection of forms can make a drawing communicate living energy even if the proportions are pretty far off.
Complex shapes like hands, or complex poses that are hard to analyze in terms of straight lines, become simpler when treated as a continuous flow of curved shapes.
The following sketches were done at Cross Pollination at Green Space Studio, a monthly event that offers the opportunity to draw while dancers warm up and move freely in the studio. The dancers aren’t posing – even when they’re stretching or relaxing, they don’t stay in one position for more than a few seconds at a time. The strokes I make are rough gestures, more often responding to memories of fleeting perceptions rather than the simultaneous perceiving and drawing I do in a life drawing session with timed poses.
And here are two large-scale drawings – the first is 30″ x 48″ (76 x 122 cm) and the second is 48″ x 60″ (122 x 152 cm) – that take rhythmic flowing contours beyond the simplicity of the quick sketch:
If you like the movement drawings from Cross Pollination, check out this post for more.