Drawing Science in Sign

Drawing Science in Sign

Dec. 6, 2012

Sign language is the body in motion, which makes it interesting to draw – especially when pared down to minimal lines.

My colleague Sergio Peçanha saw me watching videos for an article about signing complex science terms, so I recruited him as a model for the print graphic.


Line drawings of sign language often lack contrast, and use the same shade and width of line for the entire body.

I wanted to highlight parts of the body in motion, with prominent arms and hands in front of a muted torso.

I traced photographs of Sergio in Adobe Illustrator, using red for outlines and orange for internal lines and folds in the skin. His rolled-up sleeves helped make a clean division between body and forearm.

I tried to pick interesting and memorable signs that readers could easily mimic around the breakfast table.

After filling in the lines I realized the photos had too much perspective. When Sergio’s arms reach toward the camera they look too big for his body.

In the original photographs the eye compensates a little for the foreshortening, but in flat color some of the hands are obviously oversized.

My first attempt at reducing the arms was too drastic and made them look scrawny. Later versions found a better balance, and a consistent body shape helped minimize unnecessary variations.

The final graphic included a faint background and minimal red arrows to indicate motion. I considered using a generic round head, but couldn’t resist keeping the hair style, which one reader compared to Mark Ruffalo in Zodiac.

Extra credit

Some of the poses seemed dynamic enough that they might benefit from a little embellishment.