The magic of Line and Gesture

I absolutely love this topic, as I find gesture is one of the most exciting things about illustrating a story. Whether it’s subtle and heartfelt or loud and expressive, gesture is what brings a character to life.

As an illustrator, non-verbal communication is essential to telling a character’s story, so understanding body language, gesture and emotion, and then knowing how to convert these feelings into lines on paper, is key to expressing or conveying information about a particular character or story.

My illustrations for ‘Possums Big Surprise.’

Using samples of my work, I’m going to show you what a difference line and gesture can make. I’ll share some tips that I use to bring more gesture and movement to my character drawings and then, I’ll share my favourite illustrators that hero line and gesture. And if thats not enough, I’ll also be giving a two month FREE link to Skillshare, with access to my latest class ‘Draw a Circus of Line & Gesture’.

My sketches for ‘Good Dog Hank’

Finding Movement in Boom Bah!

Take for example my first attempt at drawing the illustration for ‘Nod the head, Tap the toe…’  for Phil Cummings story Boom Bah! Here, I was happy with the little chics bouncing around and dancing with the mice, but I wasn’t convinced about the mother hen…the composition was looking too ‘quiet’ and static. So, I decided to have another go … this time focusing on movement and gesture.

My first attempt at sketching the hen illustration for ‘Boom Bah!’


I decided to use exaggeration to make it very clear what the mother hen character was doing. You can see how I dramatised the head-nodding, toe-tapping and wing flapping to capture the rhythm and movement of the story. The diagonal wing-span and the feathers exploding across the page, only add to the energy and movement of the illustration.

My hen sketch for ‘Boom Bah!’

So rather than drawing from photographic reference (the outside in), I prefer drawing characters from the inside out. To do this, I like to walk in my characters shoes. Meaning, placing myself in the same situation as the character in the story – their body posture, stance, gestures and facial expressions are all clues to how they are feeling and what they are trying to convey. And to actually feel what it feels like to re-enact their movement and situation really helps when it comes to drawing.

Because Boom Bah! is a loud, noisy, marching book for preschoolers, my intention was to transfer the high energy and enthusiasm of the young reader onto the characters in the story. Now, if you’re not ready to start marching around your living room to the beat of a drum, at least try to imagine what a pre-schooler would look (and feel) like if they where to playing and marching around to music.

My sketch for ‘Boom Bah!’

Finding Movement in Line

When it came time to illustrating my first watercolour illustration for Boom Bah!, I really wanted to focus on expressive line and gesture as this would bring a playful movement to the illustrations.

My first attempt

With a looming deadline my first illustration attempts for Boom Bah! where too tight and careful (see above…yikes!). So I decided to stop worrying about the end result and instead, enjoy the process. Dancing around my studio to Aretha Franklin was the first step to finding movement. I also found that standing instead of sitting, allowed for more movement in my arms. Drawing with gesture requires the careful balance between organised chaos. After much planning, it was time to let go and enjoy the spontaneity of each mark. The result is one of my favourite paintings. This simple illustration of mouse, hen, pig, cat and goat marching across the page, is a great example of line and gesture playing a key role.

My final illustration for ‘Boom Bah!’

See how it's Done

I always find it helpful to see how other illustrators interpret line and gesture, so here, I’ve put together a selection of picture books that show a variety of styles that focus on gesture.

Top left, Emma Quay’s Rudie Nudie is a gorgeous use of gestural line and expressive body movement. Next we have, Freya Blackwood’s illustration (top right) from Margaret Wilds Harry and Hopper showing a bold use of line and movement. For a more realistic style, you can’t go past Shirley Hughe (above, centre) and her expressive ink line that always manages to capture the tender moments of her characters. Compare these to the whimsical style of Charlotte Voakes illustrations in Ginger Finds a Home (above, bottom right). They all have their unique style, but with the underlying theme is line and gesture.

Top left, we have Gregory Rogers and his playful character drawings in The Hero Of Little Street (top left), his cartoon-like drawings are full of movement and energy. Top right we have Emily Gravett’s heartfelt art in Monkey and Me. And of course you can’t discus line and gesture without mentioning Helen Oxenbury. Her illustrations in Micheal Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (bottom right), manage to capture real life family moments with a tender, considered line.

Isabelle Arsenault’s renderings in Jane, the Fox & Me (top left) are drawn with an eraser as much as a pencil and display a variation of line and pencil techniques. Isabelle depicts characters that are not always pretty, but are always beautifully authentic. Top right, Quentin Blake is a magician when it comes to line and gesture. Deceptively simple, he expresses feeling with every master stroke. The girl in the yellow dress (above centre) is one of Lisbeth Zwerger illustrations in The Wizard of Oz. Her soft, playful line always captures the essence of her characters. And finally, Armin Greder’s illustrations in Libby Gleeson’s Uncle David, is the perfect balance between child-like fantasy and artistic mastery.

Whether you’re drawing with a pencil, a brush, charcoal or a stick dipped in ink, keep in mind that the important thing is to know your character inside and out. Once you truly know them, you can then use body language and movement to express information about them and their story.

Drawing with gesture is what brings your characters to life.

My illustration from ‘The Grasshoppers Dance’ (Juliette MacIver, Scholastic)

Now it's your turn

If you want to try this out for yourself. I’ve published a new Skillshare class Body Works Part Three: Draw a Circus of Line and Gesture, where I take you step-by-step through the process of designing and drawing a picture book character from start to finish.

Following Body Works Part One: Draw a Circus of Characters and Body Works Part Two: Draw a Circus of Movement.

Body Works Part Three: Draw a Circus of Line & Gesture shows you how to develop a picture book character from ideas all the way through to finished art. Designed as a stand-alone class means that you can jump right in, without having to take part the previous two classes. However, I do recommend that beginners take all three classes.

As always, I offer loads of handy printables to help you transform your ideas into a character map reference of your picture book character. Then, using the character map, I show you the easiest way to bring your character to life, by placing them in multiple poses and drawing them with line and gesture.

Picture book characters are used to carry the plot, theme, mood, ideas and emotions of a story, but they don’t exist until we draw them. So, if you have an idea for a picture book character that you want to explore and develop, why not join me in class using this link.

You can also check out my other eleven picture book illustration classes with Skillshare, working your way from the bottom to the top strung together, my Skillshare classes are designed to take a complete beginner through the entire process of developing a character for a picture book. You can also join me on Instagram and follow me on Facebook for illustration inspiration and class updates. And if you subscribe to my blog, I post less than once a month, sharing any illustration information or inspiration to help you on your creative journey.

I hope your inspired to try your hand at drawing a picture book character using line and gesture! Bye for now.

Nina x


Join my free mini-course

As my gift to you, here is my character design mini-course. All I need to know is where to send it. Valued at $20, it is 100% free. No credit card is required. You will also receive Nina news – I love to share, but not too often, not too much, and always in support of your creative journey. And you can unsubscribe at any time.