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Add Life To Your Drawings

Make your drawings life-like by focusing on what adds life.

Learning to draw… it isn’t easy, is it?
I’ve been drawing all my life. I was about 9 years old when I got serious about it, mainly because I loved to draw. And because I loved it, I wanted to get better at it.
I was 10 when I started taking art lessons… mostly painting, but that included the need to draw. In junior high and high school I took every art class I could.
Why am I telling you these things about my history? Because you need to know that I began learning to draw when I was a kid, and although I draw and illustrate professionally, I’m still learning to draw. Everything I wrote about in this article (which is the most popular article on my website) I still do. I teach drawing, but I also continue to learn how to draw.
Through all my experience of learning and teaching and learning, this is priority:
Learn to draw accurately. Make that effort first. Then you can draw expressively and inventively.

Draw accurately first. Then get inventive.

Drawing accurately begins with your first stroke… the first line you make.
Paying too much attention to detail when you begin a drawing — especially as a beginner — causes you to lose perspective. Why? Because you ‘re not focusing on the bigger picture which is the entire form — the whole story.
Keep your drawings life-like by focusing on what adds life… movement, direction.
Anatomy is absolutely necessary to know. The proper mechanics of drawing (holding the pencil, pen or stylus; sighting; mark-making; shading, perspective principles, for example) are absolutely necessary. But they’re facts. They don’t add life. When you’re communicating through drawing, knowing what muscles look like is less important than understanding what they do.
Observe the differences between these two quick gesture sketches. Which communications the action better?
communicating action by emphasizing diagonal angles

Draw verbs, not nouns.

To keep your drawings vital and imbue them with life-like qualities, keep action words in mind. Verbs such as: run, lean, jump, stare, stretch, squeeze, twist, bend, reach, stand, sit, lean.

Even when drawing portraits, think of action and movement.

Nouns are facts: Strands of hair. Wristwatch. Hat. Eyes. Shirt. Earring. Nose.
Verbs  communicate life and vitality.
To communicate life build your drawings from the core outward by starting with gesture, movement, and direction. These will anchor your figures in reality and provide a reason for being. Concentrate on the action and the preparation for action before adding descriptive details. If you follow this sequence your work will be more animated.
In this sketchbook session I develop a portrait drawing from photographic reference, beginning with the basic forms and gestures before moving into the details:

Juxtapose contrasts.

Avoid using directly parallel movements which can result in a static drawing. Instead, play up contrasts. Use opposing directions to help tell the story, as demonstrated in this series of very simple doodles:
communicating action through axis and direction
The etymology of contrast: Contrasts are what is different. Contrast is defined as the state of being strikingly different from something else in juxtaposition or close association.
The key is juxtaposition. So, what does that mean? Put two things side-by-side. You’ll notice the differences first. What’s unlike — not the same — will become more apparent. This is how we human beings see and understand what’s in our visual fields.
If you have only one thing you don’t have anything to contrast it with. Add two or more additional forms and contrast starts to liven up the drawing.
Even within the same form you can use contrasts:
  • light – dark
  • straight – curved
  • rough – smooth
  • long – short
  • red – yellow– blue
  • near – far
  • small – large
  • diagonal – horizontal
  • diagonal – vertical
  • horizontal – vertical
  • warm – cool
You get the idea…
Emphasizing these and other contrasting relationships infuses the sense of life and personality into your work.

Ask the viewer to respond.

How do you want your viewers to respond to your work? What do you want them to know about your subject?
Perhaps you’re painting a portrait of a popular celebrity (fan art). What do you want to communicate about that person and the way you understand them?
The idea is to create an emotional response in your viewers. Your goal is to elicit an Aha! moment, make them smile, entertain them, cause them to stop, think, consider… You do this by considering the pose of the figures… their emotions and thoughts as they’re moving through space. What are they doing? How are they relating to their environment? What’s impacting them?
Illustrators are not observers. They are orchestrators of ideas. They’re illuminators. Therefore strive for and maintain accuracy for recognition and understanding. But also animate —infuse life into — your drawings through tension, imbalance, counterbalance, exaggeration anticipated movement, to depict action.
Inventive drawing in realism and animation starts with the reality of an action or pose, and then overstates the idea to become something more vital. Is your subject reaching for something? Depict them really reaching for it. 
Exaggerate contrasts: curve/straight, stretch/squeeze, angles, axis, action and reaction, and opposites. You’ll still maintain accuracy in form, proportion, contours, structure, but what you’re communicating will be clear.
Form stories with your drawings so that they become meaningful. Make them compelling through interesting poses and provocative movements.
Draw things that are worth drawing — for you. Draw things that you can depict better than reality.
Ways to add life to your drawings
Start with gesture. Plan the movements, directions, and proportions before diving into contours. 
Even if you’re drawing a single object or person,  think about where that person is. What’s their context? Where are they? What are they doing?
Because environment provides the basis for story, and your viewers should get a sense of the story even if you’re not including any background elements.
Draw loosely. Start out sketchy, with loose lines. Then apply more control as you construct the form and add details.
Incorporate implied lines to relate parts to the whole. Implied lines are repeated directions and alignments of forms and shapes. They lead the viewer’s eye over and through your drawing or illustration.
Frame your subject. In portraiture, hats, hair, hands, and clothing can be framing devices. Pieces of the environment can be composed to frame the action. Note in this George Bellows lithograph how the horizontal ropes draw your eye to the three figures in the center of the composition. Notice how diagonal directions are used in the central figures. Observe how Bellows connected the referee to the corner post by how he positioned the figure’s hand.
George Bellows. A Stag At Sharkey's. 1953.
George Bellows. A Stag At Sharkey’s. 1953. | Andrew W. Mellon Fund.

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Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.