Classic Human Anatomy in Motion: The Artist's Guide to the Dynamics of Figure Drawing (2015)

Chapter 12

Rhythmic Movement

In the last chapter we investigated how to convey a sense of movement in the stationary figure by locating the line of action within a pose. Now we will continue that exploration by finding rhythms within a pose that can give continuity to the various elements—lines, forms, shapes, lights, tones—in a drawing, painting, or sculpture.

Essentially, the idea is to adjust, or “tweak,” the lines, forms, shapes, lights, or shadows to emphasize a directional movement within the pose and, by doing so, to lead the eye along a certain pathway through the figure and its environment. This visual pathway can be angular or flowing and lyrical. Orchestrating the surface forms in a cohesive manner creates a feeling of interconnection throughout the composition; if this rhythmic connection is not achieved, the forms of the figure may appear disconnected and static.

Rhythm can be detected along the contours of forms as well as in the placement of forms. Infusing a sense of rhythm within the forms is similar to creating music—introducing a visual “beat” or “tempo” within a figural composition. Short lines are like rapid syncopated beats, similar to a staccato passage in music. Elongated, curving lines are like a smooth and lyrical legato passage. Methodical meandering of the forms is comparable to adagio, while vigorous, dynamic strokes and tones produce a vivace effect—animated, brisk, and lively.

To convey a rhythmic pulse within a drawing, find three or more repetitive shapes interweaving in alternating patterns throughout the forms of the figure. These might form a pattern of fluctuating, interconnecting arcs or of serpentine “S” lines traveling through the figure. Keep in mind that not every region of the figure needs to express a sense of rhythmic movement. Areas in which there is no sensation of stretching, compression, or tension should be kept neutral. To continue the musical analogy, these neutral areas can be thought of as “rests”—pauses or intervals of silence. If there are no visual pauses between forms, the drawing might become “noisy”—saturated with too many bulges and bumps clumped together in a seemingly haphazard fashion.

Shorter gesture poses offer you the chance to embellish the play of rhythm in the forms, because an exaggerated sense of movement is the essence of such studies. For longer studies, however, try not to distort the forms too much, even though some tweaking is necessary to create a particular kind of movement in your drawing. Establishing a strong sense of the figure’s internal structure will help you avoid unwanted distortion by providing a firm, reliable support for the energetic quality of the forms.

When looking at a pose, ask yourself which elements seem to possess a rhythmic quality. Is an obvious contour in one location echoed in another? Is there an escalating crescendo of lights on the forms? Are there areas in which similar kinds of stretching, compression, or twisting are occurring? Emphasizing these elements and using a strategy for connecting them can create an overall sense of graceful unity or dynamic tension.

The direction of the rhythm greatly depends on the pose of the model and where the light source is, which together determine how the lights and tones are positioned. Look for straight line movements that emphasize vertical, horizontal, or diagonal directions. Curving or spiral movements can give a continuous, fluid sense of motion on the surface of the figure as well as in the background space of the drawing. Shape movements can be detected when geometric or organic shapes (for instance, pear shapes or kidney-bean shapes) are repeated throughout a figure. You might also detect counter-movements, which are secondary movements countering the main overall movement.

Let the energy and character of the pose help you select which areas to focus on. Keep in mind that different poses inspire different interpretations of movement: Some might be dynamic and intense, while others will be gentle and low key. There is no right or wrong way to apply these ideas. It is really a matter of your interpretation of the pose—your choice regarding which elements to emphasize to create a sensation of motion. Sometimes intuition plays a great part in this process.

In what follows, we’ll look at four different kinds of visual rhythm: rhythm of line, rhythm of form, rhythm of shapes, and rhythm of lights and tones. In a given drawing, you may want to use just one of these or two or more in combination. You may emphasize the rhythms strongly or merely suggest them—it’s up to you. But the desired outcome is always a sensation of energy flowing in, around, and through the forms of the figure and the surrounding pictorial space.

Rhythm of Line

Rhythm of line is the accentuation of selected contour lines of a figure study to induce a quality of movement. As you set up your drawing of the figure, search for an obvious curvature in any area on the figure (such as one side of a hip) and see if this curve is echoed in another, nearby part of the figure. Do these two curving lines relate to each other in a continuous motion? If they do, you might need to tweak them to make that connection more obvious. Continue to search for similar curves in the figure, connecting them in a subtle or dynamic manner. What you’re doing is intentionally altering the contour lines to enhance the rhythmic connection.

When working with rhythm of line in a drawing, the quality of your line work itself is important. A “calligraphic” line—one that varies from thick to thin and has lighter and darker values—might work well. So might different lengths of line (short and long) or combinations of aggressive and passive lines, straight and curving lines, or crisp and blurred edges. Any of these can be used, depending on the length of the pose, the medium, and your intention for the drawing.

This simple diagram shows how lines—symbolized by arrows—can have a directional flow indicating a pulsating rhythm.


Rhythm of line

Rhythm of line extended, with continuous movement

The diagram Rhythm of Line on a Cylinder, shows two cylinders, each of which might represent an arm, leg, or even a whole standing figure. The curving arrows symbolize the contour line wrapping around the structure in rhythmic arcs.


Rhythm of line on a cylinder, showing two sweeping arcs

Rhythm of line on an elongated cylinder, showing three sweeping arcs

In the life study Standing Figure Texting, you can see a sweeping play of exaggerated contours moving through the vertical figure. This kind of action, whether subtle or dynamic, helps prevent a standing pose from looking too static. The accompanying diagram shows the basic rhythm.


Sanguine and black Conté crayon on newsprint.


LEFT: Cylinder showing rhythm of line

RIGHT: Rhythm of line in figure study

In the five-minute drawing Figure Leaning Forward on a Ledge, the figure is leaning in a strong diagonal. Selected contour lines are heavily accentuated to induce a feeling of rhythmic movement throughout the pose.


Black Conté crayon on white paper.

In the five-minute gesture drawing Seated Female Figure Looking Downward, the emphasis is mainly on the contours; the rhythm is enhanced by the line work’s calligraphic quality, alternating thicker and thinner lines and darker and lighter values.


Black Conté crayon on white paper.

Rhythm of Forms

Rhythm of forms is the accentuation of muscular and soft-tissue forms to indicate movement working its way across and around the figure. It can be combined with rhythm of line to rhythmically connect any series of overlapping forms. When one form (muscle or soft tissue) slightly overlaps another, and then that second form overlaps yet another, the forms can appear as a series of “stepping stones,” leading the eye in and around the whole figure. Indicating overlapping forms gives the surface of the figure a feeling of three-dimensionality and is especially important in foreshortened views. When using rhythm of form, it’s often a good idea to start your line or tone at the outer edge of a form (the contour) and then take it in an oblique direction across the figure, where it might connect with another line or tone surrounding a different form. The emphasis should stay on the forms themselves, with the lines, tones, and lights playing supporting roles. These same principles can be applied to the folds of fabric when working with a draped, partly clothed, or clothed model.

The following diagram shows three-dimensional arrows moving in a spiraling rhythm. (These examples are only two of the countless ways you might set up the pathways of rhythmic movement.) Spiraling rhythms can be seen especially clearly in very dynamic twisting poses.


Escalating three-dimensional arrows indicating a spiraling movement with a rise, fall, and recovery ascent

Escalating three-dimensional arrows indicating rhythmic spiraling movement

The energy created within the forms can also move past the figure, swirling around it and probing into the pictorial space. Conveying a sensation of spiraling movement is a good choice if the figure is positioned in a setting with a foreground, middle ground, and background. It also works well when there are several figures in a composition. In the study Seated Female Figure with Rhythmic Forms, the forms of the figure are surrounded with tones that continue into the background, providing a sense of rhythmic energy.


Graphite pencil, ballpoint pen, and watercolor pencil on white paper.

In the next diagram, overlapping spheres in various arrangements indicate a feeling of rhythmic movement. This approach is especially useful in foreshortened views, as, for example, when a torso or leg travels back into the pictorial space. The overlapping of forms can also be applied to small groups of forms, such as the toes or fingertips.


Overlapping spheres showing “stepping stone” arrangement indicating depth

Overlapping spheres indicating a serpentine movement

Cluster of overlapping spheres showing interconnection of rhythm

In the life study Seated Female Figure Leaning against a Wall, the whole pose embodies a sense of lyrical rhythmic movement. The two accompanying diagrams show how the rhythm of forms was analyzed. In the first, red arrows indicate the dynamic, serpentine line of action; counter-movements in the arms and the right leg are represented by yellow arrows. In the second diagram, red contour lines represent the rhythmic forms and curving alignments within the pose.


Black Conté crayon on white paper.


RED ARROWS: Primary lines of action

YELLOW ARROWS: Counter-movements

RED CONTOUR LINES: Rhythm of forms

In the life study Horizontally Reclining Female Figure, shown next, the reclining figure is twisting dynamically. The lights and tones on the forms accentuate the rhythmic movement. In the accompanying diagram, the red arrows represent the primary lines of action and the green lines that move along the outer edges of the forms indicate a play of rhythm along the contours.


Graphite pencil, colored pencil, and white chalk on toned paper.


RED ARROWS: Primary lines of action

GREEN LINES: Rhythm of outer edges (contours), indicating rhythm of forms

In Study of Four Arms in Different Positions, shown next, a rhythmic quality is established by emphasizing the tones and selected contour lines. In the accompanying diagram, the rhythm of forms is indicated by the red lines; the red dots and red arrows continue the direction of movement.


Graphite pencil, ballpoint pen, and ink wash on light toned paper.


RED LINES: Rhythmic contours

RED ARROWS: Rhythmic direction of fingers

SMALL RED DOTS: Rhythmic direction of forearm muscles spiraling on lower arm

LARGE RED DOTS: Rhythm of knuckles

Study of Legs in Different Positions, on the following page, shows the rich muscular shapes in four positions of the legs and feet. In the accompanying diagram, the rhythm of forms is indicated by red lines; the red dots and red arrows continue the direction of movement.


Graphite pencil, watercolor wash, white chalk on toned paper.


RED LINES: Rhythmic contours

RED DOTS: Direction of movement continued across forms

RED ARROWS: Rhythm of toes

Rhythm of Shapes

Rhythm of shapes is similar to rhythm of forms. The difference is that I’m using the term form to describe a three-dimensional mass and the term shape to denote a two-dimensional, or flat, configuration. When searching for rhythm of shapes, you’re looking for organic or geometric shapes that recur in the figure’s forms and perhaps also in the configurations of light and shadow. They might also be seen in the folds of drapery. A shape must be visible in at least three locations on the figure to establish a sense of connected movement.

Depending on the pose and the way the light is hitting the model, you may notice organic or geometric shapes arranged in a loose, asymmetrical manner: pear shapes, ovals, kidney-bean shapes, triangles, diamonds, wedge shapes, or other free-form or angular shapes. If you want to introduce a theme of organic or geometric shapes in a drawing, select related forms and echo their shapes throughout the figure and background. But be careful: Too many unrelated shapes, or shapes that are emphasized too greatly, will give the drawing a chaotic feeling.

The following diagram shows examples of such organic and geometric shapes—pear shapes, kidney-bean shapes, triangles, and diamonds. Of course, these are only a few of the many possible shapes that may be seen in a pose.


The life study Standing Female Figure with Right Arm Extended Sideways, below, is a quick gesture study in which the serpentine movement of the overall pose plays against the distinctly angular quality of the arms. I emphasized organic shapes in the forms and lights to create a flowing directional movement throughout the pose.


Black Conté crayon and pastel on newsprint.

The theme of repeated triangular shapes in the lights and shadows of Male Figure in a Posterior View, with Left Hand on Hip, below, underscores the sense of movement throughout the forms.


Sanguine pastel pencils and white chalk on toned paper.

Rhythm of Lights and Tones

The sensation of rhythm can also be indicated by the lights and tones (shadows) on the figure and the pictorial space surrounding the figure.

Rhythm of lights is a lyrical arrangement of lights and highlights. There are a number of techniques for applying rhythmic lights, but they can be dramatically emphasized when you use white chalk or a light-value colored pencil on toned paper. Remember to leave some “breathing room,” using subtle gradations of mid-tones between the lightest passages. These neutral intervals or pauses are equivalent to rests in musical notation.

The pattern of lights can continue into areas surrounding the figure—drapery, the floor, or background objects. This shaping of the lights can be subtle, not deviating too much from observed reality, or it can be exaggerated, producing pronounced organic shapes that appear to dance across the forms. Other elements, such as tones and lines, may be important in the drawing, but the lights are key to instilling the sense of movement.

Rhythm of tones is the intentional shaping of tones and shadows to indicate movement. In traditional drawing, forms are given the illusion of three-dimensionality through two types of shadows: Form shadows usually have soft edges, with an indication of a core (a slightly darker value along the edge of the form shadow). Cast shadows usually have harder, crisper edges. (One way to remember the difference between form shadows and cast shadows is to think of cast shadows as being “cast away” from a form, as when a shadow moves away from the feet standing on the floor or the shadow of a breast moves away from it on the surface of the torso.) When implementing rhythm of tones, you can still have these differing edge qualities, but you also have the freedom to tweak the tones, moving them in and around the forms or continuing them outside the figure and into the background.

In the drawings shown next, rhythms of lights and tones are applied to induce a feeling of movement not only in the figure but also in the pictorial space surrounding it. To underscore the impression that the figures are occupying actual physical space, I included suggestions of the supporting structures they are sitting or reclining upon. Indications of shadows cast by the bodies anchor them to their surroundings.


Graphite pencil, ballpoint pen, sanguine chalk, watercolor wash, and white chalk on toned paper.


Black Conté crayon, black charcoal pencil, and white chalk on white paper covered in pastel dust.


Black, sanguine, and brown Conté crayon (whites lifted with eraser) on white paper smeared with charcoal and sanguine pastel dust.


Graphite pencil, ballpoint pen, watercolor pencil, white chalk, and red marker on toned paper.