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In the two videos linked below, John Muir Laws says that when drawing anything you should start by gesture sketching. What does he mean by gesture sketching: is it the normal sketching that we do when we are starting to draw something? I'm uncertain because I thought gesture sketching is a technique for figure drawing.
And what is the difference between sketching and gesture sketching?

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  • Hi Sarah, welcome to Arts & Crafts! Did you link to the specific time in the first video for a reason?
    – Joachim
    Dec 28, 2022 at 18:51
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    My interpretation is that gesture sketching refers to placing simple geometric shapes, like circles/ovals, rectangles/triangles, and reference lines/marks that serve to locate where features will go and their relative size and basic shape. "Gestures" being simple hand movements that can be applied to any subject; they aren't specific to the details of any subject but more define the space within which you will draw the detail. Those serve as guides for sketching the object features. This is contrasted with starting by sketching the actual features. But I'll leave it to the artists to answer.
    – fixer1234
    Dec 28, 2022 at 19:03

3 Answers 3

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The two words describe two different aspects of the work. "Gesture" describes the technique, "sketching" describes the degree of completion.

"Gesture drawing" is a technique that emphasizes using the motions of larger body joints, instead of just the fingers. It is a popular starting point for the beginning of many types of drawing, but it is also a technique that has been used to execute finished works. Its usefulness as a beginning step is both physical, as well as intellectual. Physically, it is literally loosening joints and warming up muscles to get ready for some serious work. Intellectually, it is encouraging the mind to focus on large-scale light and shadow placement, rather than small-scale details. The result is often characterized by large sweeping strokes, rather than small, precise strokes. (Keep in mind, it's a spectrum that goes from "very tight" to "very loose," not a dichotomy that is either gestural or not).

"Sketching" is a phase of the thinking/planning process wherein you create a small-scale or quickly-executed version of what your final might look like. This doesn't have to be a drawing. Often sculptors make "sketches" that are low-cost (in terms of time and effort as much as money) maquettes or dioramas that are easy to repeat or modify. (Again, it's useful to remember that this is a spectrum that runs from "half-baked thoughts on the back of a napkin" to "highly polished and almost done," not a dichotomy that is either a sketch or not).

"Gesture sketching" then, would be an easily-executed experiment/test/prototype that is executed using a gestural technique. One benefit of doing a gestural SKETCH in particular, is that it's cost is low enough that you can throw it away and do another one, without being too heartbroken about the loss.

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Gestural drawing is making your marks using quick, light, loose and open movements of your hand. Thus more gestural than tight and/or precise. It is not focused on capturing textures or modelling light and shadow. The gestural drawing is about getting a feel for the subject at hand and how it will translate to the page.

The gestural stage can be thought of as a chance to capture the essence of what you are drawing: its overall composition and how it fits on the page. It acts as the spine of a more developed drawing.

Sketching also suggests a more open approach to a subject, something that is not as developed as a highly finished ie. analytical capturing of an object or scene. It really comes down to time spent making the work. A sketch will have less time invested than a detailed rendering of something, and gestural drawing is even more "urgent" and direct. The sketch can stop at a gestural level or be taken further but would still be something less finished looking than a more formal drawing or painting. The sketch can also skip the gestural step, or you can do that part in your mind as you draw more controlled lines on the page.

None of this "less time" or less controlled aspects of making a work are to suggest that the sketch cannot stand on its own as a work of art. The minimalism of using few essential marks to capture the complexity of the world can be quite beautiful and powerful.

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  • fwiw - I didn't watch the videos.
    – rebusB
    Jan 11, 2023 at 14:47
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  • Unlike the other two answerers (and the author of the second linked video), I think gesture drawing has more to do with the subject's movement than with the artist's own movement.

    Gesture drawing emphasises the directions, curves, and large structural lines of the subject. It is often an interpretation of movement (and thus time), rather than a reconstruction of light and shadow, volume, and ratio. This is likely why you thought it was a technique for figure drawing.
    It is also useful for figuring out compositions, and plays a more prominent role in animation, as well as in comic drawing, where movement can only be expressed using stills.

  • Sketching is a much broader term, and might include gesture drawing. Sketching is, generally, the act of any preparatory marking or shaping, be it in pencil, paint, or clay, and gesture drawing can be part of the sketching process.
    Especially when the dynamics of the subject need to be expressed or emphasized, it can be the very first part of the sketching process, so the artist can get a quick notion of the general flow of their work.

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