How to create dynamic drawings from reference

Artist Tony Foti reveals how to add movement and interest to lifeless reference-based illustrations.

flapper main image

Don't actually copy your reference, use it as a guide. I know this can be daunting when you're just starting out, but the key to creating a dynamic pose from a model or photo is being comfortable pushing, stretching and moving bits around to make the drawing say what you want.

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Part of this is just something that will come with time as you build up figure drawing mileage, but knowing what to strive for is half the battle. For this example, I want to really emphasise energy and motion, so I'm drawing the singer, dancer, actress, military spy and Legion of Honour recipient Josephine Baker.

Hopefully the second drawing has a bit more gusto in it than the first, which copies the source directly

The first sketch I've made – the left-hand one of the two drawings above – is a direct copy of the reference photo. Though I'm still making a lot of design choices in regards to line weight and what I leave out, shape-wise I've made no attempt to stray from the source image.

With this as a starting point, I'll show you how I push the pose to convey an idea. My goal is to use gesture, structure and technique to tell a bit of story with the drawing.

01. Decide on style

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Decide how cartoony you want to get, what aspect of the model you want to communicate (personality trait, physical feature, particular motion and so on), then try to tell that story with the pose. In my case, there is an excitement to Josephine Baker's live performances (or videos of them, at least) that I don’t see in most posed photos. Conveying that will be my goal.

02. Stay loose

Technique and varying line weight can go a long way, but the foundation of a vibrant figure drawing is a descriptive gesture. Stay loose, experiment and have a clear centre line before adding in the limbs. Use fast, simple strokes to try out different ways of bending and stretching the body. Don't fuss with any single gesture, try out options until you find a pose that works for your theme.

03. Add fluidity

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Partly because it's better for a tutorial and mostly because it's my favourite, I'm going with the pose that strays furthest from the source material. I've used a lot of fluid, curved lines to get that bubbly mood, so it's important to now sketch in anatomy and make sure everything is still working proportionally. When you bend and twist the body, it's vital to double-check your structure.

04. Focus on line work

flapper step 4

As with the gesture and structure, you can push the character of the drawing by using thematically appropriate line work. An angry bouncer, say, might be drawn with short, straight, hard strokes. A drunk man stooped over a bar could be drawn with wavy, slightly disconnected lines. For this piece I'm focusing on smooth, jazzy curves that reinforce the happy mood I'm going for.

Artist's secret: shoot more reference

flapper secret

If a gesture drawing really captures the mood you're going for but strays too much from the original reference, just shoot or find some more. You don't need to redraw the gesture, just use the new reference to fill in any spots where you don't feel comfortable improvising.

Words: Tony Foti

Tony is a freelance illustrator who regularly contributes to Dungeons & Dragons and Fantasy Flight Games’ best-selling Star Wars and Lord of the Rings lines. This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine issue 121.

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