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Great animation starts with great drawing. Check-out 3 drawing exercises for animators that are designed to boost your animation skills to the next level.

It may sound like a paradox but the fact is, the better you’re able to sketch a stickman in motion, the more powerful your animation skills will become. Why? Because you’re basically training your brain to simply “see” and to “understand” the motion itself, without any other distractions.

In this article, I want to show you how to use stickman drawing as a motion study practice, that will empower your animation skills. It’s not about drawing skills or animation workflows, it’s about the visual expression of the motion without actually creating any motion (animation)! It’s about capturing real physics required for a believable motion-sketch such as force, momentum, and gravity.

The power of a stickman

The purpose of mastering a stickman figure drawing is to capture the “motion”. Simply put, if you’re able to sketch a complex motion by using a simplified way of visualization, such as a stickman … you rock! You’ll then think as an animator that sees the “reason behind” the action.

Whatever your skill level may be (from novice to advanced) and whatever the animation medium is (2D, 3D, stop-motion or experimental), the purpose of the animation is the same: visual storytelling.

I won’t go into the details of storytelling rules or practices, that’s a different post, however, animation as storytelling means: making your animations more lively, making your characters act believably as individuals meaning, creating the illusion of life through motions and emotions.

So the trick is to use the stickman figure to capture just the illusion of motion? Static, on paper?

The answer is, Yes!

Whichever the animation scenario you’re working on, it’s very important to keep your sketch as simple and as loose as possible. Also keep in mind that we’re using the stickman figure for motion studies, not for anatomy studies, so be creative with it.

Designing a successful stickman

A stickman required for a motion study may vary depending on the need. For example, you may be focused only on a fast-paced motion or, on the force involved in a push or pull action, or pay full attention to the balance of one single pose.

3 key elements of simplified drawing method

Therefore, let’s break down the key facts of a successful stickman figure:

1) Anatomy Elements: head, spine, legs, arms.

  • Ignore all the unnecessary elements which are not important such as facials, fingers, muscles, clothes. For twisting actions, you may add shoulders and hips.

2) Drawing elements: circles, curves, straight lines. 

  • These elements are enough to capture the force and the flow within any motion. Any other geometric shapes are just variations in either 2D or 3D drawings.

3) Motion elements: rhythm, balance, weight interaction, weight shifting.

  • These are the main analysis factors within any human motion in terms of body mechanics. With these elements, you can capture the real physics required for a believable motion such as force, momentum, speed, acceleration, and gravity.

Start with a real-life reference

It’s extremely important to use real references! We first must look at real-life actions to better understand the mechanics behind the motion and then, we artistically capture the essence of it.

The animator’s job is to create something entertaining and believable, this must start from the early planning of the animation. An interesting scene always starts from a real-life scenario, that creates later on the imagination.

Don’t use the reference to “copy” or to “rotoscope” a stickman figure over it, instead try to understand how and why the body moves the way it moves. And maybe push that a little bit more, just enough to capture its essence in a more interesting and dynamic way!

3-exercises progression, from static to a dynamic posture

I’ve organized the sketching practice into 3 progressive exercises, from a simple to a slightly complex in terms of body mechanics of a character (stickman) in motion.

Exercise progression is necessary for any learning process to improve and adapt to information, becoming more efficient.

3 types of practical exercises for stickman drawing
  • Exercise 1. Computer sitting posture. Exploration of multiple poses, in different scenarios, while keeping the same body mechanics.
  • Exercise 2. Box Lift Postures. Exploration of multiple poses, in different scenarios of lifting various boxes (objects) in terms of volume and mass.
  • Exercise 3. Heavy Lift. Exploration of multiple poses, in different scenarios of lifting various boxes (objects) in terms of large volume and increased mass.

Here are just some general questions that will help you analyze basically any reference material. You can think about these questions as factors that determine the difficulty of the exercise.

  • Where is the center of gravity within the body?
  • Where is the maximum tension in the body?
  • What is the body part that leads the motion, and which are the body parts that follow throw that motion?
  • How are the shoulders and hips moving in connection to the spine?
  • How much is the spine twists or bends?
  • How are the feet planted to the ground when dealing with the push or pull forces?

Exercise #1. Computer sitting posture

Theme: sitting in front of a computer

Mood: relaxed, stressed, tired, overworked

Goal: analyze various sitting postures. Look for the tension within the spine and experiment with the spine curve depending on the character’s mood.

Keep in mind: the weight of the body is transferred to a supporting area, mainly the chair. The character is not moving in space at all, however, there may be variations of the sitting posture in terms of body tilt or sitting height.

Exercise #2. Box lifting posture

Theme: lifting heavy objects

Mood: tense, physical force involved

Goal: analyze various heavy lifting postures. Look for the tension within the spine and arms, experiment with the spine curve depending on how heavy the object is.

Keep in mind: the mass of an object is not relative to its volume. There may be a small-size object and yet very heavy or a heavy object with a relatively large weight.

Exercise #3. Heavy lift posture

Theme: power lift of a heavy object, weight lifting sports

Mood: strength, power, force, physical tension

Goal: analyze various lifting weights, from heavy to very heavy

Keep in mind: this exercise it’s about lifting heavy objects only, especially heavy barbells. This time we consider that the larger the volume is, the larger the mass is as well.

Takeaway

The way I define stickman sketching is like the balance of the prior steps in actually starting the animation shot. These key steps are understanding – experimenting – planning. You must understand that planning your desired animation has nothing to do with creating some “detailed” and beautiful planning sheets.

To simply put it, motion sketching using stickman figures means:

  1. Experimentation of an idea.
  2. Broad understanding of the desired animation outcome.
  3. Visualization of the motion in terms of believability and engagement.
  4. Clarity of planning an animation shot.

Learning animation doesn’t mean just practicing animation nonstop, it means all kinds of experiences that you use in order to become a better animator.

By having a broad overview of the motion itself, both in space and time, you’ll be able to envision your desired animation outcome in a simplified way. With that clear understanding, you can then spend time experimenting with various scenarios, it becomes more natural to do so. And then, planning comes easily from all that experimentation.

You must understand that planning your desired animation has nothing to do with creating some “detailed” and beautiful planning sheets. It’s all about trying out and figuring out different things.

Cristina Zoica Dumitru

Cristina Zoica Dumitru

I teach digital art courses online and on-location. My mission is to challenge students to reach their maximum potential for creativity and authenticity.

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