A contour drawing is, at its core, about using the fewest lines possible for the maximum effect. Yet there are different types of contour drawing, so what do they mean?
A contour drawing is a technique that is used to study the shape and volume of an object and calculate the correct proportions. The artist draws or traces the outline of the object and fills in the interior shapes of the object by progressively adding detail, shading, and/or color.
I’ll begin with the basics to confirm what I mean by contour drawing, then list the different types of contour drawings, and end with related questions.
This is a comprehensive post, so let’s crack on.
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What is a Contour Drawing?
A Contour drawing is the initial outline of an object or sketch before anything has been added. Think of the outline as the scaffold, or skeleton, upon which the form, or body, is constructed. The outlines are the reference points you need in order to accurately add the detail.
The contour comes first and the detail comes later. It all starts and sometimes finishes, with an outline. There are no rights and wrongs, only best practices. Rules are there to be broken, but it does help if you know what the rules are in the first place!
In many ways, it’s the most important element of a drawing. The artist must hone their observational skills to distill the drawing down to the essential lines, drawn in the right place, to the right scale, aligned, and in proportion.
A contour drawing can be the initial sketch or indeed, in the hands of a skilled artist, it can be the final drawing. Less is often more, and it’s a rare skill to be able to reduce a drawing down to its elemental lines and still carry a punch.
Beginner artists are tempted to skip the drawing basics and get straight on with the fun bits. This nearly always backfires.
To coin another cliche, ‘Less haste and more pace’ should be the golden rule.
The purpose of contour drawing, in the main, is to construct an accurate borderline before attempting anything more detailed. Think of it as the foundation.
In the long run, and with regular practice, outlining your drawing properly, will save you a lot of time trying to correct mistakes later on.
7 Kinds of Contour Drawing
Below is a list of 7 types of contour drawing, but I’m conscious that they are somewhat artificial distinctions. They feel a bit artificial to me.
They describe some minor exercises and different techniques, so I’ll go along with others and give them a name. I wouldn’t even use the word contour, normally. I’d say outline or linework. Do contour artists even exist? I will use the term because it’s used by others.
1. Freehand Contour Drawing
A freehand contour drawing is created without any mechanical guidelines or drawing assistance. The artist relies on his/her observation skills alone to create the outline.
This is the romantic drawing method and how the public imagines it’s always done. Little do they know.
In truth, only the best artists rely solely upon sketching freehand. Most commercial artists will use shortcuts that will speed things up, including using drawing instruments, aids, and tracing.
The freehand drawing technique is mainly used for quick sketches of objects or scenes where strict accuracy is less important. An artist who draws this way is really demonstrating their drawing skills.
It takes extra talent to draw by eye alone, but when it’s mastered, it’s a style of drawing that’s far superior to anything else. It’s almost impossible to replicate the fluidity of movement by measuring and mapping.
Freehand drawing involves using the arm, as opposed to just the wrist. It’s fast and loose, and a great way to draw. The artist sketches several lines and gauges which one is the most accurate.
The results are lively, stimulating, and very pleasing to the eye. Gesture drawing usually falls into this category.
2. Graphic Line Art Drawing
Describes the use of bold lines, usually, but not exclusively, drawn in pen and ink. The artist will typically sketch the outline lightly in pencil before drawing over the lines with ink.
Graphic line art is notable for dramatic contrasts and dynamic poses. Manga and Marvel comic hero illustrations fall into this category.
It’s a technique that was widely used to illustrate children’s literature in the early 20th century and reached its peak with the magical illustrations of Arthur Rackham.
He was a British illustrator famous for his bold pen and ink drawings, and sublime use of watercolor washes. His style and technique have never been surpassed.
3. Blind Contour Drawing
Blind contour drawing is an exercise that helps with good hand-eye coordination, or so the theory goes. The idea is to draw an object without looking at the paper, preferably without lifting the pencil from the paper.
Many beginners know this exercise from reading ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ where it’s described as ‘pure contour drawing’.
I haven’t done this simple exercise consciously since I was a child, and only then as fun. That said, I am aware that I often continue drawing while I’m glancing at my references. I even find myself drawing left-handed if it’s too awkward to shift myself to the right position.
The purpose of blind contour drawing is to train the right side of your brain. It’s the right brain that processes visual perception and spatial awareness. The left side of the brain deals with logic and reason and is supposedly dominant.
The exercise is intended to oblige your brain to use the right side and suppress the left brain’s tendency to override the visual information.
Does it really work? I’ve no idea. I have my doubts that it makes any noticeable difference. Sounds like a gimmick to me.
4. Continuous Line Contour Drawing
Similar to blind drawing, continuous line drawing is an exercise that requires the artist to draw the contour of the subject without lifting the pen or pencil from the paper. This time, however, the artist can look at what they are doing. That’s a relief.
This short drawing exercise is a good way to train the artist in the economical use of line work. It encourages a fluid approach to drawing. It compels the artist to use line weight, from light to heavy, to achieve a dynamic sense of movement and drama.
It’s a fun thing to do, and in the hands of an accomplished artist/designer, it’s possible to produce line work of stunning simplicity. Think how hard it is to draw a strong and meaningful logo with just one line, and realize how hard this type of drawing really is.
5. Mechanical Line Drawing
Mechanical, or technical drawing is usually associated with detailed plans, diagrams, or mapping with precision accuracy. It’s used in industry, engineering, and architecture. Mechanical drawings have more to do with design than art.
Take your drawing to the next level. Read this and get excited: Can You Draw With Mechanical Pencils?
It’s a largely obsolete practice with the advent of digital software. Why measure and draw straight lines when you can click a mouse?
6. Traced Outline Drawings
Most traced outlines are produced to get the correct proportions of a subject as quickly as possible. They have no artistic merit in themselves. They’re a means to an end.
Tracing a contour outline is a common shortcut used by commercial artists and illustrators to speed up the process and get the job done in the shortest time possible. A traced outline is instantly recognizable, it’s crude, stilted, and usually a single line.
A contour drawing made using a grid is also accurate and produces a slightly more interesting drawing. It is time-consuming and requires more skill and patience. Both methods are used when realism is important.
7. Cross Contour Drawing
Cross contour lines are plotting lines that follow the contours of an object and indicate form. They can be drawn in any direction, usually in neat continuous parallel lines.
They are used to good effect on topographical maps to indicate the terrain. The line width and spaces between the lines can be adjusted to give the illusion of depth and represent a 3D object.
A perfect example of this effect can be found in banknote portraits
Why is Drawing a Contour Important?
The main purpose of drawing the outline of a subject is to gauge the correct proportions. The contour lines are the boundaries that bind the drawing together in the early stages.
It’s essential to take time to sketch out the simplest shapes to see how they relate to each other in both size and scale. The accuracy of the contour line at this point will determine how the drawing will progress. Get it wrong and it can be hard to correct the mistake later on.
Portraiture highlights the worst errors. We can all instantly recognize mistakes. Typical errors include eyes that don’t align, features that are too big or small, and features that are too close to each other.
Types of Contour Drawing: F.A.Qs
Let’s go over a few of the more common questions related to contour line art.
Where Do You Begin Drawing a Contour Line?
Make a start with the most obvious shapes you can see. Do not concern yourself with any detail or even form at the beginning. All that matters is the overall shapes, alignments, and sizes in relation to each other. You’ll go wrong but don’t worry.
A good artist will adjust, tweak, and cross-reference these early blocks until they get things right.
Beginners often assume that a professional artist has no need to bother with the basics, but if anything, they probably bother more. It only looks intuitive because they’ve gone through the same process countless times before and gained experience.
Sketch out the underdrawing, don’t worry about errors, and don’t rub things out. Having several sketch lines to choose from will help you to visualize the right line to follow.
Listen, it’s hit and miss. Eventually, as your fear subsides and confidence grows, you’ll find your lines quickly and with less effort.
Once you’ve got the outline, it’s only then can you think about adding detail.
What Art Supplies Do You Need For Creating a Contour Sketch?
There are plenty of choices. Graphite drawing pencils are only one of them. Pen and ink is another common choice. I like to use Sakura Pigment fineliner pens because I’m a control freak.
They come in a range of widths, down to 0.05mm. They’re permanent and perfect for sketching with watercolor washes.
For a more expressive line use dip pens and Indian ink, like Arthur Rackham. They are tricky to use but once mastered they produce bold variable lines that have more character than disposables.
You can use charcoal, carbon pencils, Conte sticks, ballpoint pens, or Chinese brushes. There are no rules, only conventions.
The main convention is drawing a light outline pencil sketch before risking a stronger line, especially with ink drawings. You can rub out the pencil when the ink dries.
For your interest this is my general drawing kit:
- Pentel Mechanical Pencils 0.3mm
- Derwent Graphic Drawing Pencils
- Daler-Rowney Heavyweight Cartridge Paper
- Jakar Battery Eraser
- Tombo Mono Eraser Pen
- Faber Castell Putty Eraser
- Blu Tack
- French Box Easel
Add these to the list for pen and ink:
How Can I Improve my Contour Drawing?
Your contour drawings can be vastly improved by varying the line width, breaking continuous lines, and varying tone.
The illusion of depth, using a pen, can be created by using bold lines in the foreground and thinner lines in the background. You can achieve something similar with a pencil by using different grades. Not only can you vary the width of your line but also the tone. The B grades are dark and soft, the H grades are hard and light.
Imperfection is the secret to bringing a boring object to life. It might be superficially pleasing to get a drawing spot on, but that’s not the same as making it better.
Check out this post for adding some spice to your drawings: How to Make Your Drawings Interesting: 14 Ways to Improve a Drawing
Experiment, contrive, and adjust the lines to give them more appeal. If a long line is rigid, change it. Add some rough edges, leave failed lines in place, and bend the truth. The idea is to romanticize reality. No one wants the truth, they want the feeling.
Many years ago, before I specialized in drawing wildlife, I would draw street scenes in pen and ink. I soon realized that a dull scene could be transformed when lamp posts, fences, and trees, were leaning over. Never mind they were upright. That’s boring.
Street scenes are very dull if drawn well. It’s counter-intuitive but true. The interest lies in uneven contours, angles that aren’t true, and broken lines.
It’s called artistic license. Use it.
Can You Outline a Painting?
Your choice of medium dictates what you can do. If you draw with pigment black or Indian ink you can paint over it with watercolor.
Working in reverse, it’s also possible to rescue a dull watercolor painting by drawing strong outlines to bring it back to life. Watercolor was made for line work.
Graphite pencil needs more thought. It’s perfectly possible to use the lighter grades to map out your drawing, but darker graphite will lift off and make the paint dirty.
Personally wouldn’t use a pencil darker than HB. Also bear in mind that pressing too hard with an H-grade pencil will score the paper. Paint will settle in the grooves and it’s difficult to repair.
Can You Copy Photos to Create Contour Drawings?
Sure, why not? There’s no other viable way in some circumstances. Certain subject matter, like birds and animals for example, do not sit still!
Use your own photographs. Not only will you gain much more satisfaction from the results but you will also avoid any copyright issues.
Copyright is an important subject if you ever intend to sell your art.
Read this post to before you make any mistakes: Can You Copy Art and Sell a Painting of a Painting? I Found Out
Finding good reference photos is time-consuming but treat it as part of the creative process and a good reason to get out and about.
I take it to the extreme and travel to Asia and Africa looking for wildlife subjects. Why not? It’s tax deductable.
This post covers everything: Is Drawing From Reference Photos Bad? Are You Cheating?
Once you have an image you can enlarge a printout or photocopy to the size you want to draw it. You can grid the image yourself, which is tedious and often inaccurate, or use a photo editor and overlay a grid to the image before printing.
Either way, you have to draw a light grid on your piece of paper and draw a very accurate grid. It must be accurate. There is no room for error.
Be kind to yourself and make your grid to the same scale as the copy. It’s far easier to draw size for size.
The other more arty way, besides drawing by eye, is to use dividers to measure the image as you draw it. Don’t buy a cheap pair. It works if the points are held firmly in place without any movement.
You can get proportional dividers for copying at a different scale but they are not vital. You can use a good pair of normal dividers or even a good compass.
If you want to learn the tricks, read this post: How to Scale Up a Drawing in 4 Easy Ways and Save Time
If you haven’t got Photoshop to help with editing your photos there are free alternatives. I use Pixlr.com. It’s a free online photo editor.
There are two versions. Pixlr X is a basic editor and Pixlr E is more advanced. You can upgrade to a pain plan too for more features and to get rid of the ads. I use the Pixlr E mode. It’s enough for me.
The premium version is £49/$65 per year which is cheaper than photoshop
Can You Learn to Draw by Tracing Contours?
Not really. It’s not much help. You’ll have an outline, but a crude one. Tracing does nothing at all to bring a drawing to life. It’s awkward and rigid.
Tracing an outline will give you a border to work with. It’s good enough for adding color or detail but will not teach you spatial awareness and proportion.
Not only that, an unskilled hand will not see the errors. Yes, tracing isn’t full proof. If the tracing moves you will not get a good tracing but there is more to it than that.
Let me explain.
Tracing an image may appear accurate, but the artist will tend to trace the image’s inner line. The eyes, for example, will be traced slightly smaller than they are in real life.
An artist, who understands their craft, will notice the problem and compensate for any mistakes they see. A novice will not see the problem.
In other words, if you can’t draw, you can’t trace. It’s not the other way around.
Do you feel uneasy about tracing? Read more about it: Tracing Art – Is It Good or Bad? When Is Tracing Cheating?
Tracing is a quick and effective way to map an outline; that’s if you know what you’re doing. It’s just a shortcut, and not to be confused with a method of drawing.
A beginner should practice drawing without tracing.
Types of Contour Drawing – Final Thoughts
In the hands of a professional, a line drawing is an art form in and of itself. Most artists use contour drawings as the basic structure for a painting or as the initial stage of a more thorough pencil drawing.
I’ve heard people claim that they are good at painting but terrible at drawing, yet if you want to make art that is more than just a collection of brightly colored patterns, you can’t afford to disregard drawing, and proficient line drawing is at its heart.
Contour drawing is an essential skill and integral to the drawing process. If you want to be in command of your art, and progress, you must learn how to build a drawing, and subsequent painting, from the ground up
It’s the only way.
When it’s time to sell your work, start small. This guide will tell you everything you need to know.
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