6. Expression, Energy & All That Jazz! : Jazz For Gesture Drawings & Paintings

I’m at a jazz concert. I am not allowed to take flash photographs, but I can see well enough to draw. This painting is from a rapid gestural sketch of Boney on stage, (helped from an awful photo from a prior concert).  The expression of the music and Boney’s gesture intrigued me the most. (I had him sign it at a subsequent concert for my husband’s birthday present.)

Another birthday present for Larry:  His favorite, the beautiful and talented Mindi Abair! 24 x 18 watercolor on paper.  2012.  From the Sea Breeze Jazz Festival, Panama City, Florida.  I painted this for my husband Larry’s birthday, and had Mindi sign it for him when she came to Dosey Doe’s in December.  She loved it so much, she asked make posters from it! You can buy them from her website www.mindiabair.com (if not yet, stay tuned.)  The photo is slightly more dull than the actual version.  :)

As you know, my education has been largely self-directed.  In choosing my mentors and teachers, a common denominator has always been their ability to capture life, energy, and emotion, causing me to ‘feel’ life in the work, as much as be visually entertained by it.

Producing art and paintings with life and energy has many challenges.  There are guidelines and techniques, but there are no rules.  No certainties.

Focusing heavily upon techniqueswill strangely cause ‘it’ to remain illusive.  The artist must engage one’s body and spirit in the process, allowing the body to be more of the instrument/conduit for making the marks than the mind!  Like the Japanese “shodo” calligraphy master, it is the energy of the artist that makes the mark present in the work that creates the life therein.

So many exceptional, remarkably talented painters produce the most beautiful images of life, but we, the viewer are often left somehow ‘wanting more’.  Often, it is as if the exquisite craftsmanship/draughtsmanship that made the painting ‘perfect’ somehow removed the natural life force from it.  Natural life is more random, less conforming than fine lines and details.  Whilst I admire and have detailed paintings in our collection, it is the life energy that interests me as a painter, rather than the correctly rendered surface appearance of things.

Seabreeze Jazz violinist.  I didn’t care one hoot about ‘getting a likeness’.  I only hoped that the pressure, line and lilt of my pencil could somehow capture my experience of the beautiful, talented musician on stage. White robes fluttered in the sea breeze in perfect rhythm with her graceful arms.  Her eyes were mostly closed, as she made the most beautiful music that rose and fell like the gentle ocean.  Her hair, curled and held up to heaven, her natural crown.  She and her music were just exquisite and I was inspired to draw……. Such is the goal of gesture drawing.

Drawing the ‘life in the moment’ is somehow more intriguing to me…Sometimes it’s mere seconds – a few lines…

1.   Without thinking, I look for a strong, dominant, energetic line that carries the moment.  Often this line is on the inside, rather than outside of the figure, as in here.

2.   One, long, continuous line is recommended for gestural drawing.  However, pressure, changes in direction to emphasize energy over form is recommended.

3.   At times, try to condense the line into the simplest form that remains recognizable with the barest details.  By doing so, we learn to capture those elements that are important to us;  The things one artist notices in a fleeting moment will be different from another.  In this way, we discover our unique point of view and eventually, our style.

Strutting towards us.

Rick Braun danced, while snapping his fingers.  He was watching a fellow performer.  This rapid gesture caught the ‘swing’ of Rick Braun’s body as he was snapping his fingers along with the music.  Watching a fellow musician afforded me a simpler back view which seemed somehow to emphasize the movement of his body, in rhythm with the music, inspiring a lyrical quality to the gesture drawing too.

It is not the instrument being played, but how it and the music affects the player’s body that intrigues me the most. The gesture of music…. A wonderful thing.

Strutting across the stage gives us an opportunity for the same pose x 3 or 4 times.

Wait to see if a gesture is repeating.  You may feel worried at a concert, ..There’s so much going on… Relax.  Everyone is enjoying the stage, and no one is watching you. Repeated.  When you begin to draw life situations, you will soon begin to realize that people tend to favor leaning one way rather than the other, especially musicians that carry their instruments in one hand.

Waiting in the wings

A Recommendation:

Many years ago, during my quest to capture expression and energy in my work, I came across one of the most wonderful books on drawing the world has ever known:

Kimon Nicolaides : The Natural Way To Draw: A Working Plan for Art Study.

(I have found the entire book, along with other great drawing lessons, online free of charge.  Go to:  http://beginningdrawing.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/kimon-nicolaides/)

I faithfully undertook all the lesson plans and exercises recommended therein, training and honing my ability to capture not only my life-drawing skills, but also enabling me to begin to understand the illusive “essence” of life, which I craved to capture and express in my work.

The following is what the Master, Kimon Nicolaides says about gesture drawing:

“You should draw, not what the thing looks like, not even what it is, but what it is DOING."

Feel how the figure lifts or droops, pushes forward here – pulls back there.  In gesture drawing, you feel the movement of the whole.  It is only the action, the gesture that you are trying to respond to here, not the details of the structure.  You must discover – and feel- that the gesture is dynamic, moving, not static.

Jammin with a guitar

What the eye sees – that is, the various parts of the body in various actions and directions, is but the result of this inner impulse, and to understand one must use something more than eyes.  It is necessary to ‘participate’ in what the model is doing; to identify yourself with it.  Without a sympathetic emotional reaction in the artist, there can be no real, penetrating understanding.”  Kimon Nicolaides.

My jazz gesture equipment

My husband can be described as a jazz fanatic, and whilst I do so love going to jazz concerts with him, I have come to realize that my enjoyment of jazz is doubled, in fact trebled, when I can watch the musicians and experience the music first-hand.

When I wish to paint musicians, I find it’s not enough to huddle up with a good photo in my studio, listening to a CD.  It is the gesture of the musician, instrument, and rhythm of the music that contributes to the work, so I always carry:

  1.  A small, retractable pencil.
  2. A water soluble pencil like ‘General’s Sketch And Wash’ or Aquarelle.
  3. A small sketch book that fits in my purse
  4.  A small, portable brush.  I have to say, the latter is not necessary since a finger dipped in your beverage works well too.  (Make sure it’s clean!)

Sometimes you may be lucky to see them all sitting and sharing stories.  You may have more than a few minutes more to develop your gesture into a sketch..

 And sometimes, you may even be able to take your small paintbox into the concert and make a painting!  (Thanks to Smooth Jazz Cruise.)  


A tiny book I created as an anniversary present for Larry.  We were on a great jazz cruise, painting and listening to musicians every day…This is Marion Meadows drawn and painted from life. He later signed the page (top right).


When you don’t have your sketchbook, or your paints, if you have an iPhone or iPad, and a finger, you can always do gesture sketches from life.


iPhone and finger. Wigan Jazz Festival 2009

The app is called “Brushes” and you can download it for just under $5.00 onto your iPhone.  The iPad version is slightly more expensive at $7.99.  I believe there are similar apps available for other smart phones.  We now have no excuse not to be creative!  You can always take a photo, insert the photo into the Brushes app, and play with the photo in Brushes, playing and creating to your heart’s content.

Want to see the process in action? Click below.

Final Word….



My life is a living testament to the old statement “What comes around, goes around”’; or “What you do for others in an act of generosity, comes back tenfold”.  In honor of this code, I began writing down everything I know in these lessons in 2011 and began to offer them out, for free…. But it’s very valuable information.  The lessons constitute a lifetime of learning, and are lent to you as an act of generosity to help you on your artistic journey.  If you find this material helpful, continue to ‘pay it forward’ by sharing this website with others so that they too can be inspired with Art through "Lessons With Lesley."

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