Contour Drawing


Did you know that drawing is the skeleton of a painting?

I would like to introduce you to this wonderful method of teaching your hand and your eye to work together for the betterment of your drawings.

Here is the definition of contour drawing, as described by Wikipedia:

Contour drawing, is an artistic technique used in the field of art in which the artist sketches the contour of a subject by drawing lines that result in a drawing that is essentially an outline; the French word contour meaning, OUTLINE.  1. The purpose of contour drawing is to emphasize the mass and volume of the subject rather than the detail; the focus is on the outlined shape of the subject and not the minor details.  However, because contour can convey a three-dimensional perspective, length and width as well as thickness and depth are important; not all contours exist along the outlines of a subject. 2. This technique is manifested in different styles and practiced in the honor of drawing development.

I studied under Barbara Bassett as a teenager.  She and her teachings are the reason I am the artist I am.  Without her instruction, I would have given up on it long ago.  She combined lessons and instruction with developing the person as an artist.  She believed in me.  While studying under her, I thought she was hard on me.  She would make me do something over and over.  We might have six weeks to do a project and I would finish mine in one or two weeks.  She would make me start over.  Go slower.  Years later I asked her why she’d been so hard on me and she said it was because she saw the potential in me to be a great artist.  That comment has sustained me when I thought I ought to quit.

While studying under Barbara Bassett, I got lots of practice with contour drawing and gestures.  The thing I like about contour drawing is how truthful it is.  Oh, the final rendering may or may not resemble the thing it is.  If you’re drawing a person, the facial features may be so large, they aren’t contained by the outline of the face itself.  A leg may be humongous while the rest of the body is tiny.

There’s a reason for that.

Let me back up, however, and tell you how a contour drawing is created.  You decide what the subject is.  Start with something simple, like a salt shaker or a pen or balled up piece of paper.  You’re going to put pencil to paper, but never look at your paper.  Your eyes will remain on the thing you’re drawing.  Your eyes will follow the edges, the contours, of the thing.  The first time your do a contour drawing you’ll probably find your eye follows the outer edge and you end up with a shape.  Try it again.  This time let your eyes follow edges that leave the outside of the item.  Let your eye follow the edge of a wrinkle, a crease, a shadow.  You can pick up your pencil, but you CAN NOT look at your paper.  So if you pick up your pencil you’ll have to guess where to put it back down.

You have to trust me on this.  Do several drawings.  The more you do, the more revealing it will be and the better your hand and eyes will work together.  You’re training your eyes to really see.  When we first begin to draw, our eyes are prejudiced.  We look at a thing for a moment and then we look at our paper and draw the thing without another look at it.  We’ve decided in our mind what we believe the thing looks like.  Take an eye, for instance.  You’re looking at a face.  You look at the eye for maybe five seconds.  When you turn your attention to the paper, you may draw the entire eye without ever looking back at the eye again.  This is prejudice.  We’re generalizing eyes.  We think we know what all eyes look like.  However, each eye is different.  We must look closer.  Contour drawing teaches you to look closer, to see the differences.  It teaches you to judge how long something is, how far it goes, what direction it takes.

A moment ago, I told you there’s a reason why your finished contour drawing might seem disproportionate.  With the next contour drawing you do, reflect on what you feel as your draw.  Is this part of the item boring to you?  Is it interesting to you?  Look at my sample below, of an calculator.


Do you see how much larger the buttons are than the calculator itself?  This is because as I drew, my mind was rather bored with the shape of the calculator.  It wanted to get on with the details, with the fun stuff.  So without realizing I was doing it, I drew faster when I was drawing the boring parts.  When you draw faster, you make things smaller.  When you’re interested in something, you go slower and thus, the thing is larger.  So this contour drawing reveals how you feel about the thing you’re drawing.

In this next image, I drew my own hand.  I rested my hand on a surface so it was relaxed.  You can also make a fist or hold your hand in any way that you like.  As I drew my hand, I let my eye wander into the crevices of my joints and to follow the shape of the finger nails and thumb nail.  A contour drawing describes what your mind saw.


You’ll laugh at yourself with the first drawings you do, but if you stick with it, you’ll begin to see how true they become and also how interesting and revealing they are.  You’ll find your hand-eye coordination improving in the rest of your drawings as well.

2 comments on “Contour Drawing

  1. Hello! I’m glad you saw things you might be interested in trying. I love doing contour drawing. Even small children enjoy trying it out. I definitely have every student I teach do at least a couple of contour drawings. My instructor used to have us do some sort of drawing exercise as a warm-up at the beginning of each class. I loved doing contour drawings for my warm-ups.

    Thanks again for stopping for a visit!

  2. This is a great explanation / tutorial! I always struggle with getting the shape of my sketches correct, and then even when I do it seems to be missing something. Perhaps this will help. I’ll have to try it soon!

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