So…you’ve picked up a pencil and have a piece of paper. Where exactly do you start to draw and what does this thing called the contour line have to do with anything?

That blank piece of paper looks large and daunting. What is the logical order in which to get going?

The first of the basic 5 drawing principles is known as the contour line. What does contour drawing mean and when should you use it?

If you’ve ever joined me in person you will know that I pretty much start every drawing session with the contour line in my page, whether fast or slow. I lay down the entire shape on my paper first by capturing its contours.

It’s my number one, go to action point when I get started.

Contours are the skeleton of your artwork and if you reach the end of your drawing and feel dissatisfied it is often as a result of the first few strokes of the pencil on the page.

The dictionary definition of a contour is as follows;

“an outline representing or bounding the shape or form of something.”

I’d also add that we must not confuse the concept of an outline with a contour.

An outline is flat and 2 dimensional. Imagine placing your hand down and drawing around it. That is an outline.

A contour conveys the shape, width and thickness of the object it surrounds.

In addition, our perception of edges, (in the case of drawing), where two things come together and the line that depicts this shared edge is known as a contour line.

Grasping the importance of contours is fundamental in moving you beyond childlike drawings. Kimon Nicolaides in his famous classic book “The Natural Way to Draw,” is a staunch advocate of placing your pencil on the paper whilst imagining you are physically touching the object in front of you, keeping your eyes on the object as opposed to the paper. “Be guided more by the sense of touch, than by sight.”

An interesting concept.

Many of the comments and feedback I regularly get is “I’d love my drawing to look a little more realistic as opposed to childlike.”

Well, read on. Mastering and understanding the concept of a good contour is step 1 in developing a good drawing habit that, within the first moments of your drawing sets out the shape and feel of what you are trying to draw.

Of all the basic principles, contour drawing, in my view, is worth spending more time mastering when you are first learning to draw.

But before I do so I want to take an even further step back.

Understanding the physiology of drawing.

Have you ever stopped to wonder about what happens in your body when you draw? I’m not talking getting relaxed, I’m talking about how your eye, brain, and then body respond to the act of drawing?

Did you know that becoming conscious of how your body responds to drawing will support you learn to draw?

We all assume that the act of picking up a pencil and placing it to the paper is the first step.

There is a pre-step.

This pre-step is the activity that takes place between your brain and your eye or vision. How does your eye communicate the visual to your brain?

Have a think.

How do you process what you see? How good are you at looking at your object? Do you get curious about it? Do you ask questions about what you’re looking at? Do you de-construct the image and take it to pieces in front of you? Do you imagine what it would be like to get the 3D onto a 2D shape?

At the risk of sounding romantic about this the great nineteenth century romantic poets were acutely connected to the impact that their surroundings had on their “mind’s eyes.”  One of my favourite texts is The Prelude by Wordsworth. This famous text revolves around the power the poet’s natural surroundings have on his “mind’s eye,”

“The mind of man is framed even like the breath / And harmony of music. There is a dark / Invisible workmanship that reconciles /Discordant elements, and makes them move / In one society…”

If only we were so finely tuned when it comes to learning to draw!

In order to master the basic techniques of drawing, you must first become highly sensitised to  what is going on in your “mind’s eye,” and how you are processing what you are seeing. The faster you become aware of this concept the easier learning to draw will become.

This should ALL be happening as you look at your object, even before you take pencil to paper!

Once you have mastered and become aware of the eye to brain connection and this process you can then proceed to develop your brain to hand activity.

Your brain to hand activity emerges through the first contour style I discuss, blind contour drawing.

In my “Learn to Start to Draw in 30 Days course” I spend quite a lot of time exploring different types of contour drawing. There are many different ways in which we can initially start our drawings.

Contour drawing is born out of how you perceive the object in front of you. This is why contour drawing is so important to master as a first step. Our aim, as Nicolaides so aptly puts it is to draw as if we are running our pencil along the edges of our object. Wouldn’t it be great if the way we see something could translate neatly onto the paper without us even having to worry how we do so!

That is at the heart of great drawing practice!

Blind or Pure Contour Drawing.

Imagine for a moment placing a box over your hands and only relying on the visual in front of you to draw. Drawing blind means you are not allowed to look at your paper. Set yourself a time limit of 5 minutes and draw what you see. Don’t worry if it looks a hot tangly mess when you finish.

You can also attempt to do this with your non dominant hand.

The more you do this exercise the quicker you will connect your “seeing” to your “doing.” The emphasis you once placed on your pencil is no longer the focus of how you draw!

Modified Contour Drawing

Next, allow yourself the luxury of glancing at your paper as you draw. This is a blended type of contour drawing which I personally use. I take elements of pure contour drawing where my gaze is focused on the object most of the time. I then glance at my paper to ensure I’m setting down the right lines. I keep my line work minimal and work quickly if I can.

Gesture Drawing. 

As a sketchbook artist most of my time, I take great delight in being able to draw quickly depending on where I am. Gesture contour drawing is one of my favourite types of contour drawing as you take no longer than a few minutes to develop each one. You have to capture your object and what it is “doing” as opposed to what it is. Try to keep your pencil on the page at all times. Whereas in pure contour drawing, your focus is on the edges, in gesture drawing your focus is on touching the whole form and how it moves. This type of drawing is brilliant when you’re sketching out and about. It is also great for capturing the essence of your subject.

If there is anything you take away from this article today, it is a renewed interest in your approach to where and how you get started when you draw.

The second thing I’d like for you to take away from this is an acknowledgement that in grasping this process you will ultimately need to set aside the perfectionist in you and push through many mistakes as you learn to master these techniques.

To learn to draw means that you need to get curious and focus more on the external in your practice. If you need an excuse to do so make sure you check out the “Learn to Start to Draw in 30 Days Course,” enrolment for which will open up again within the next few weeks. In it we run through all the basic building blocks and components you need to draw well! An entire module is dedicated to learning about the foundational principle of how to draw a contour line.

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Learn to Draw in 30 Days!