Give Your Poses Clarity and Interest

I have a confession to make: Lately I’ve been getting lazy in my drawings. When designing a character I’ve been so focused on the overall design that I’ve completely neglected the importance of good posing. My designs have been improving in recent months but my characters wind up mostly just standing around (at least in the concept phase of a design project). That’s a missed opportunity because a good pose can say a lot about a character’s personality.

Recently while watching some classic Popeye cartoons on DVD ( link) I was reminded of the importance of adding interest and clarity to my poses. So I went through one of the cartoons (“Flies Ain’t Human”, 1941) and made screen grabs of each of Popeye’s major poses so I could study them and get inspired.

The premise of the cartoon is simple. Popeye is trying to take a nap but is annoyed by a buzzing fly. A battle ensues between Popeye and the fly. In each round the action escalates and eventually Popeye destroys his entire house. The end.

As you look at these poses from “Flies Ain’t Human” notice three things:

Clarity. In each pose the viewer can instantly read exactly what Popeye is doing. A clear pose will pass the “silhouette test”: If you colored in the entire pose solid black you could still tell just from the silhouette exactly what the character is doing and/or thinking.

Physicality. Notice how every movement Popeye makes involves his entire body. For example, Popeye doesn’t just swing a punch. He hunches into it and then stretches and twists everything from head to toe as his arm flies through the air. Even with a simple napping pose the whole body gets into it. Instead of laying flat with his arms at his sides, his back arches onto the pillow with his arms are folded over his chest and one leg resting on the other knee. Every pose is pushed for maximum visual interest.

Line of Action. In almost every pose you can draw one smooth imaginary curve from Popeye’s head down through his torso and into his leg. Cartoonists call this the “line of action”. In a good pose the line is one simple and clean swoop (mimicking a “C” or an “S” shape). In a bad pose the line is twisted and kinked. Every Popeye pose has a simple and clear line of action.


As I said before I’ve been getting a bit lazy when posing my characters. I was thumbing through my portfolio recently and I was amazed at how often I’ve drawn essentially the same stock pose: One arm bent slightly, the other arm gesturing at nothing in particular. In his book How To Draw Stupid ( link) cartoonist Kyle Baker calls this pose the “hand of death” because its so common (and boring). My friend Tom Bancroft (who wrote a terrific book on character design) once made an observation I need to start heeding again: “Your character must always have a reason for striking the pose in which you draw him.”


7 thoughts on “Give Your Poses Clarity and Interest

  1. Hey Cedric. Great post, as always. Sorry I missed it when you first put it up. Thanks for mentioning me in this (and remembering what I said, my wife doesn’t even do that). So I don’t sound as perfect as that one quote makes me, I did want to add that I break that rule all the time also. You brought up the one area I do it the most: when designing a character. I must admit, I do think those first designs it should be “allowed” then. It’s the time to be thinking of the shapes and, at least for me, is nearly impossible to think about a great pose at that moment of pure design inspiration. ‘Course, then I try to pose the character for the drawings I show the client. Second time’s the charm, I guess.

  2. The “hand of death” is basically a dull, meaningless pose where the character is just gesturing at nothing in particular while speaking a line. Kyle Baker points out (rightly) that it is always much better and more visually interesting to have the character doing something specific whith his/her hands while talking, preferably something that adds to the story or reveals an insight into the character’s personality.

    Here’s a few images that use the “hand of death” pose:

  3. Pingback: Evangeline Than » Cedric Hohnstadt on making your poses interesting

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