Action Sketching: How to accurately sketch people in motion

The purpose of this tutorial is to teach you how to quickly and accurately draw active people, without resorting to anatomy lessons or guesses. This method relies on reference photos of active people. After selecting a subject, it requires that you draw two sketches of it (a preliminary and final), each on top of a simple, hand-drawn grid.

Photo of man playing tennisUnlike sketching architecture, where the subject, such as a house, is immobile and constructed from a repeatable plan, active people have wildly different physical features and no shared postures.

Although we can imagine how someone kicks a soccer ball or jumps a hurdle, the only way to accurately draw this behavior is by viewing it as a frozen image through a photograph or stop-frame video.

Learning anatomy helps you understand how physical postures might look when in motion, but it does not inform you about specific postures that take place. Consequently, anatomy lessons are not included in this tutorial as they are too general.

Keep in mind, however, that this method is about sketching, not developing illustrations for art galleries. By using it, you’ll produce very satisfying sketches, and hopefully, you’ll be pleased enough with your results to want to further your skills and encourage others to join you.

Materials and Tools

  • Drawing paper (I prefer Canson Mix Media for a more tactile feel under a pencil, but any paper will do)
  • A pencil (I like a BIC mechanical pencil because they are inexpensive, but better ones exist)
  • A straight edge (a ruler or any straight, hard surface  next to which you can draw a line)
  • A photograph of a person in action from any source. Note that if you are producing drawings for sale or publication, you need to obtain permission from the owner or subject to use it if a copyright exists.

Preliminary Image

Example of a preliminary action sketch by Karen LittleYour next step is to create a preliminary image like the one on the right, drawn in under 4 minutes. This is the first of two images you’ll quickly sketch, from the preliminary to the final.

The preliminary image is your exploratory drawing. It is here where you observe your subject and strive to sketch him or her proportionately, without distortion.

The preliminary image helps you organize what you see, with your final composition demonstrating what you learned.

The grid is made up of guidelines that mark the top, bottom, middle and center of the  subject, such as clearly depicted in the diagram below.

Action sketch grid used to help prevent distortions in drawing by Karen Little

Crucial to the diagram is the Center Point, which falls between the high and low point on the perpendicular line between them.  Measurement units, such as inches or centimeters, are not important.

Before starting to sketch, note the location of the center point on your subject. This point will match the grid’s Center Point.  As you go forward, start sketching at the center, not on the top or bottom. Sketch what falls within each quadrant and how those things relate to one another. Do not focus on the image as a whole.

By working in small, highly-focused areas, you will be less likely to introduce position distortion into your overall sketch.

To demonstrate, below is my preliminary sketch superimposed on the diagram.

Demonstration of a preliminary sketch on the action sketch grid by Karen Little

In this example, part of the face, a shoulder, and hip are in the top, left quadrant. The back of the head, a shoulder, and two arms are in the top right. Each leg is in its own quadrant, but such even distribution is not always the case.

Rapid Sketching

Starting at the Center Point, rapidly sketch what you see, going in any direction you please, but focus on what falls within each quadrant, not the whole image. Consider such things as:

  • Shoulder positions
  • Neck placement
  • General head placement, especially observing the relationship of the chin to the shoulders
  • Elbow and knee relationships
  • Hip placement and direction
  • Angle of extremities from their origins
  • Foot and hand angles

Final Sketching

After completing your preliminary sketch, draw the grid for your final work on a second piece of paper.

Again, measurement increments are not important. Use what you learned when doing your preliminary as a guide for developing your final.

In the following example, my preliminary sketch helped me form my final and while constructing my final, I made corrections that I did not initially see and improved upon its overall look.

Even if you do not understand anatomy, the grid forces you to focus on positional relationships, enabling you to sketch the final with more confidence and fewer distortions.

Sketch of many playing tennis to illustrate action sketching by Karen LittleYes, there is more to learn about sketching than what you see here. Even studying anatomy is very helpful. Most important with this technique, however, is that you learn how to quickly and accurately plan and sketch relationships between body parts in action.

Date your final sketches and keep all of them.

Refer back to your sketch library to see your own growth, identify areas you’d like to improve, and/or use poses for future projects.

Photo and Illustration References

The photo used in this article is by Bogdan Glisik as originally posted on

Illustrations by Karen Little.



This article was written and illustrated by Karen Little as part of an ongoing series of blogs on Action Sketching. Published on January 4, 2020.

Reproduction of this article is free for non-commercial websites (or other media) with permission and attributes to and the article’s author.

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