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Gestural sketch of red-winged blackbirds by Maria Coryell-Martin

Gestural Sketches

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Art Toolkit Team

Technique | October 03, 2022

Whether you’re limited on time or your subject likes to move around a lot, gestural sketches are a fast and energetic way to capture the essence of a subject in a short amount of time.

Gestural sketches also help you quickly get acquainted with a subject and practice capturing movement. They ask us to find the big shapes and dominant colors, in contrast to detailed drawings where we might take a little more time reproducing precise shapes, textures, and colors. Above all, gestural sketching is great for subjects that move quickly, like birds!

Watercolor artist Maria Coryell-Martin crouches by a pond, sketching red-winged blackbirds

We recently visited a local pond where Red-winged Blackbirds love to flit among the cattails. Their song and short flights always catch Maria’s eye on the way to work, so we biked over to capture these birds in their natural habitat. The Red-winged Blackbirds were active and incredibly vocal, so Maria grabbed her trusty monocular to get a closer peek.

Watercolor artist Maria Coryell-Martin crouches by a pond, sketching red-winged blackbirds

Here are some suggestions for getting started with gesture sketches out in the world:

  • Take a look around your home or neighborhood and see where you might pause for a few minutes to gesture sketch. You may pick a comfy spot and then chose a subject to sketch, or find something inspiring and bring a fold-out chair to plop down wherever is convenient!
  • Observe your subject intently for a few moments.
  • You can imagine taking a “mental photo” to capture in your mind’s eye the position of a wing or head.
  • Dance your pen or pencil lightly on the page and try to complete small sketches in 10-30 seconds.
  • Once you’ve made a few sketches and are feeling more familiar with your subject, start playing with adding some details.
  • Focus on identifying characteristics, such as markings and colors.
  • Adding light washes of color can bring your sketches to life! Think about adding color to the background, too. Remember, it’s okay to use your creative license!

We encourage you to take a little pause in your day, find a spot, and try some gestural sketches of your own. They don’t take long and are a great place to start!