Gestural is a term used to describe the application of paint in free sweeping gestures. Gesture drawing and painting might appear to be a new practice but it was frequently used by Michelangelo – However it is only relatively recently that gestural works have been accepted in their own right and not relegated to the status of a preparatory sketch. There is still a lot to be learned from quick sketchbook drawings, as they reveal traces of the process and adjustments made.
Gestural work requires a confidence and full absorption in the process. It is drawing with your whole body – movements stemming not just from the wrist but from the shoulder, linking the natural gestures of your body with the dynamic shapes of the figure. It helps to hold the brush or pencil loosely and close to the end for freer movement, starting with light marks which allow for adjustments at a later stage.
Michelangelo made quick gestural drawings from life, designed only for himself in order to be worked up into a more laboured and ‘finished’ piece. They capture the essence of his subject in minimal strokes. One of these is ‘Risen Christ’. This study belongs to a set of compositions of the Resurrection of Christ. There are visible traces of repeated changes made to the posture of the legs, before a final composition is settled on. The drawing anticipates the posture of Christ in the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Marks are made in strong gestural strokes with varying pressure to describe the contours of the muscular body. The preliminary gesture drawing enables Michelangelo to carry this dynamism across into the more finished piece.
In 'Little Nude,’ Peploe uses curved lines to describe the figure, made with quick flicks of the brush. These are not restricted to an outline but go within and across the figure. In other places paint is applied in fluid motions with a broader brush. The gestural drawing captures the sense of the curve of the spine as the model reaches out. Once against gestural marks are continued into the background enforcing the impression of a figure occupying a space. Tonal contrast with the background helps to bring the figure out. Peploe’s gestural work associates him with the impressionists with a shared desire to depict the essence of what they are looking at rather than merely represent it.
Frank Auerbach worked in an ‘active, extreme and strenuous way’, emphasising the importance of process. His ‘Study of a Nude’, 1954 is made using only two tones – black and brown. A variety of marks is introduced using a smudging or smearing technique as can be achieved with a putty rubber or the fingers. This has the effect of softening his energetic pencil marks in places. Gestural marks have a directionality to them which gives momentum and takes the eye on a journey around the drawing. In Auerbach’s drawing this directionality conveys the angle of the figure which is moving away from us. His gestural marks continue outside the borders of the figure, however this doesn’t matter as the figure can be carved out of them. It is a process of refining that begins with the biggest shapes. His aim is to create a set of relationships between the masses, the space, the sensations and the tense surface character of the picture. He says ‘There is no one-to-one relation of mark to object’, the goal is ‘to put down the mind’s grasp of their relationship’, in an experience which is more haptic than retinal.
Auerbach uses gesture drawing to capture a moment from the past and reanimate it rather than simply recording it. He aims “to pin down an experience in its essential aspect before it disappears”. This suggests that his work is intuitive rather than pre-planned – he is always in search of the unpredictable.