Drawing characters in action poses is actually one of the hardest things I can think of. Doing it right, however, can be very rewarding. While having a cool character in a standing pose is fine for... well, character design... the character can't really come to life unless you can draw it in action. So what is an action pose? It's basically a character DOING something. Don't confuse that with a cool stance, although I'll touch on that later. A real action pose requires movement, force, intent, emotion, and a great deal of artistic knowledge. Going from just drawing standing poses to drawing action poses can be intimidating, but I'm going to try to break things down to help you create your own dynamic action poses.
So ok, here we have two figures. One is obviously a basic standing pose, and the other is in more of an action pose. I don't want to get too crazy with the pose just yet, but I want to illustrate how mixing up some basic things can really bring a character to life. First of all, I changed the camera angle from a front view to a 3/4 view. We're also looking down at the character, so there are a lot of different surfaces being shown on the body. From there, I exaggerated the position of the arms, bent the torso forward a bit, and bent the legs into a squatting position. Even for such a simple drawn, there's a lot going on.
Here's another pair of figures. On the standing figure, the horizontal lines of the eyes, shoulders and hips are all parallel and level. This is fine for some things, but not for action. The second figure is showing some body language, and appears in a more natural pose. Notice what happens to those lines now. The opposing angles of the eye line, shoulder line and hip line is visually interesting. The center line of the figure also changes from a straight vertical line to an S-shaped curve. With these changes, something is actually happening within the figure. When a person views the image, there's more to observe and think about. You want people to look at your drawing for as long as possible, so it's up to you to give them something interesting to look at. Complex angles, curves and body language will do the trick.
The torso is pretty much the first thing you should draw when drawing an action pose. The position of the arms, legs and head are totally dependent on the position of the torso. In the center of this image, I drew a front shot of a simple torso, split between the rib cage and pelvis. In the surrounding shots, I tried to show a variety of ways you can twist and turn the torso to create a more interesting pose. Always remember you can move the camera (so to speak) around the figure, drawing it from above, below, behind or from the side. The ribcage and pelvis don't have to face the same direction. In fact, having them face in different directions creates a lot of movement within a figure. When a person walks, their ribcage and pelvis rarely line up perfectly, so you should actually try to avoid that unless the character is standing perfectly straight on purpose. Practice drawing these torso shapes. If you have trouble visualizing the movements of the torso, try to picture it like a pillow that can be folded in half. Remember, the center of the torso is soft, so a lot of bending and squishing can go on in there.
Here we have two poses. The top figure is walking, and the bottom figure is putting itself on display, almost dancing. Of course, in the first shot of each pose, there's not much movement going on. These are way too stiff to be called action poses, so what can we do to improve on them? In the second shot for each pose, the main change is that I arched the backs. Putting your shoulders back creates a strong look, and the curve of the torso suggests forward movement. I also added curves to the arms and legs to give the figures a more natural look. Notice how the bottom figure's side is pinched in a V-shape as she lifts her leg. In the 3rd walking shot, I really exaggerated all the elements of the figure. The head is pointed up, the torso is twisted so the chest faces us and the pelvis faces away. The arms and legs are in more extreme positions, suggesting a big bounce in the character's step. He's basically jogging at this point. You can always overdo a pose, but this is just an illustration of the idea. In the 3rd lower shot, I again tilted the head upward, and made the limb positions more extreme. Notice how the upper leg attaches to the pelvis. The round attachment gives us a sense of depth. The side pinch is also more extreme here, which makes it appear as if she's just lifted her leg to the side quickly. This pose could be taken further, but then this would become a tutorial on animation.
Something interesting I wanted to mention is the connection between dancing and battle poses. I remember being surprised when I heard guys like Jet Li actually studied ballet. What? It actually makes a lot of sense. A choreographed fight is a lot like a dance. So if you want to draw a fight scene, or just learn how the human figure works, you might want to put down the action movie and instead watch some stage dancing for reference. Cirque du Soleil is always fun to watch and can give you some great ideas regarding movement in your figure drawing.
When I'm going to start a character illustration, I usually do some kind of exploratory sketches before starting the final image. Some people do tiny thumbnail drawings. I like to do a lot of messy sketching to feel out the figure and find shapes and lines that look and feel good. These sketches aren't always successful. Actually, more of them are failures than successes, but that's why it's good to explore and experiment before starting the final image. You don't want to commit a lot of time and effort to drawing something you're unsure of. Do some sketches to get a clear idea of what you're going to draw. You might even stumble upon something better than what you originally had in mind. For this image, I drew some different punching poses. Notice how the torso position changes from pose to pose. Each punch has a different feel to it, and that's because of more than just the arm position. When you draw a character throwing a punch, the entire body is a part of that punch. Figure out where the force is moving, and the body parts will follow in that direction.
Here are some more punching poses. I actually got some reference for these because I wanted to have some really strong poses to show. Look at how the head and arms relate to the torso, and note the twists and angles of the torso itself. Try to picture the movement of each action. Picture the fighter leaning into his punch, or leaping up with his swinging uppercut.
Here I've laid some ridiculously bulked up muscles on top of the base drawings. Something worth mentioning is that you won't always see a character's face in an action pose. This is especially true in animation or comic books and manga. When you're trying to tell a story with pictures, it's the action that's most important. Sometimes an arm or a foot is more important to an image than the character's face.
Here are some more wire figures, but this time we're going to look at kicking. We have one standing kick, and one jumping kick. I squeezed the jump kick onto the bottom of the image, so I apologize for that. The two figures weren't intended to be interacting. Anyway, the position of the ribcage and pelvis tell us a lot about the actions taking place here. The top figure has a twist to his torso, which indicates a swinging roundhouse type kick. The lower figure has a straighter torso because it's following the action of the leg. The body is traveling in the direction of the foot. Notice how the head is turned to look where the attach is aimed. Keep your eyes on the opponent! It's good advice for both fighting AND drawing.
More ridiculously large muscles. The strange thing about action poses is that a lot of the "cool" parts of the body tend to get covered up or hidden. What's cooler than pectoral muscles, right? Right?? Well, in both of these kicking poses, the chest is pretty much covered up by the arms. I think there's a tendency to want to show off the entire body in every pose, but that's not how it works in real life. Another thing to note is how the lower leg disappears on the lower kicking pose. This drawing is a bit extreme and cartoony, but it's another case of body parts obscuring one another. In some poses an entire arm or leg may not be visible. Again, it's not intuitive, but if you look around and get some reference, you'll start to see and absorb when it happens and when you can take advantage of that while drawing.
Cleaned up the line art and decided to add some colors for fun. Even though I only used a little bit of clothing here, you can still see how the fabric is affected by the body's actions. Wrinkles and folds in clothing can help reinforce the action taking place in an action pose.
Here's a mini tutorial for you. This one deals with foreshortening. It's related to what I was saying about body parts covering up other body parts. In this case, it's objects closer to the camera that cover up objects behind it. Next time you look in a mirror, look at what happens to your arm when it's pointed straight at the mirror. It basically gets shorter. The hand starts to obscure the forearms. The forearm obscures the upper arm. The upper arm obscures the shoulder. This is foreshortening. In this mini tutorial, I've used EXTREME foreshortening for the sake of a cool pose. What we get is a giant claw hand in our face, which covers up the entire arm behind it. The body position and the size and position of the hand indicate the action of this jerk trying to hit us in the face. There's an illusion of the figure coming straight at us. Other examples of foreshortening here are seen in the right arm and the torso. The rear forearm covers up most of the hand and one finger. The upper chest covers most of the stomach and pelvis. When drawing something with lots of overlapping body parts and accessories, ALWAYS start with the foremost object FIRST. Then draw the secondary objects and move your way on to the background objects. In the case of this guy, Step 2 shows us the hand is the first thing to be drawn. Step 3 shows the head as the secondary object. Step 4 has the torso and rear arm being drawn. Finally, Step 5 has us drawing the legs, which are drawn much smaller than usual in order to push that sense of depth.
In the center of this image, we have a little dude in a battle stance. It's not EXACTLY an action pose, but I picture him bouncing around a little bit, maybe like Bruce Lee. In the surrounding four shots, I've drawn the same pose from different angles. Learning how to draw the body from all angles is difficult and takes a long time to master. I still have a long way to go, but every drawing helps you improve a little more. So basically I've redrawn this pose from the top, bottom, side and back. The camera angle you choose can really affect how your character looks. Choosing an extreme camera angle can make for a difficult drawing, but it's good to challenge yourself. Notice how different body parts become visible or are obscured when the figure's drawn from different angles. The four corner drawings are there to illustrate the effect of cropping the image when drawing an action pose. I really like the top right and bottom right images. Picking the right camera angle can actually transform a relatively generic pose into an action pose. In the bottom right image, note how the shadows fall on the character. I actually did that as a trick to get out of having to draw the chest details. Talk about lazy! It turned out nicely, though. Drawing complex action poses can be exhausting sometimes, but using shadows and other tricks to cover up hard-to-draw parts can make it easier. I know it sounds terrible, but sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to make the image work and get the job done. *nods* That being said, don't use cheap tricks too often, or else you'll find yourself ten years down the road without knowing how to draw some very important things. No, of course I'm not talking about myself. What? Moving on!
Ok, enough lecture. Now let's get to some traditional tutorial action. I didn't want to hit you with anything TOO complex, so I just made this pose up on the fly and I think it works. This is a guy with a magical sceptor. See the sceptor? *nods* Ok, what I've gone for here is a jumping pose. This guy is sort of coming at us from the far right. His left arm and shoulder will be facing us. The torso is bent forward a bit, but we're drawing it from the side. The head obscures the rear shoulder. One fun trick I did here is crossing limbs in front of one another. Your drawings can get boring if you're always drawing arms and legs in their standard positions. Crossing an arm in front of a leg, or vice versa, can make for a very interesting pose. In this case, the angles actually create a little geometric shape -- a square -- framed by the left arm and right leg. I think it becomes a triangle later, but you get the point.
We want to draw the foremost object on the figure now. Hmm... it's a toss-up, actually, between the head and arm. Since those body parts don't cross each other, we can start with the face and hair.
The right arm obscures part of the chest, and crosses the right leg in two places. That's why we draw it before everything else. I'm tired of drawing near-naked muscle guys, so I'm going to give this guy a fancy coat cuff thing on his shoulder and a fighting glove. Notice how the hand tilts back, and the fingers point out in different directions. This is MUCH more interesting than if I'd just drawn a closed fist. Fists are easier, but this is more interesting. Use your own hand for reference if you need to, but challenge yourself to draw the open hand. Hands are extremely expressive and can add a lot of movement to your action pose.
Ok, time for some fabric. Start this step by drawing the collar wrapping around the back of the neck and down the chest, disappearing behind the arm. The collar extends down and appears again on the other side of the arm, ending at the bottom of the coat/vest. The vest is flapping in the wind a bit, and just that little bit of movement (combined with the direction of the hair) is enough to show us which direction the figure is moving in. Use wrinkles to indicate the shape and angle of the torso. Wrinkles here are wrapping around the back, and bunching together at the back/bottom of the coat. Notice how the wrinkles start and spread out from the armpit area.
Now we'll move on to the left leg. Due to some slight foreshortening, we can see a shadow beneath the kneecap. The most important part here is the curve of the leg, which gives a sense of direction, and the wrinkles around the crotch area. These spread out from the center like a spider web, traveling out to the hip, and down toward the outer knee. I also drew the wrinkles running down the right leg. This will help us add detail to the outline of that leg in a moment.
As I said, we can use the direction of those crotch wrinkles to draw wrinkles on the thigh of the right leg. The fabric below the knee is more loose and the wrinkles are smooth and more curved. Note the different angles of the feet. This should really show how the legs are pointed in different directions. Those crotch wrinkles stretch in the direction in which the knees are pointed.
For the final drawing step, we'll take care of the remaining arm and the headband flapping in the wind. Since the right arm is in the distance, we'll draw it smaller than the left arm. Look at your own hand for reference when drawing the hand holding the sceptor. The angle of the sceptor is perpendicular to the left leg, creating a large 90 degree angle. Well, almost. The point is, it's another fun visual trick that adds to the overall pose. The angle you draw an accessory or weapon in can affect how the entire pose looks, so play around with it and choose whatever you think looks most dynamic. The ribbons of the headband are flapping in the same direction as the hair and back of the coat/vest. This detail really helps add a sense of movement to the character. One of the ribbons actually forms an invisible line with the right arm. Hopefully that makes sense. It's just another fun visual trick. Actually, the sceptor lines up with the right thigh the same way, and we get another square-ish shape in the negative space under the right arm. Pretty cool.
So here's the final, inked artwork. There are a lot of places for the eye to travel around this figure. Those crossed limbs and the negative space shapes I mentioned actually create a sort of train track for the viewer's eye to follow.... so their eyes keep moving around the figure, and they keep looking at your drawing. That's exactly what we want.
I added some color and a few cartoony mountains to frame the figure. All in all, I think it looks pretty good. I hope this tutorial and the lecture steps from early have given you some ideas to keep in mind when drawing characters in action poses. The final piece of advice I can give is that when you've finished drawing a cool action pose, take another piece of paper and try drawing it again, pushing the pose even further, making it even more extreme. Change the camera angle. Add some accessories. Just try to improve upon what you've already done. Being able to look at your own artwork and make improvements is an important part of being a good artist and creating something visually unique. So I hope this was helpful and entertaining for you. Be sure to post the results of your drawing, and check back for more tutorials soon. Thanks for viewing!
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