Contour Line Sketches Are a Great Way to Warm Up

February 17, 2017

This post was originally published on February 17, 2017 during my website transition.

Left: Here’s a less than 5-minute contour sketch I made of my husband Dick as he sat in the TV room. I used a fine point fountain pen. The sketch is in an 8 inch square journal. The squiggles in the hair might seem like attempts at hair texture, but what they are marking is changes in value in his hair. This was a modified contour drawing. I would look down at my paper a couple times.

I have written about contour line sketches many times on the blog. I keep returning to them because they are important. They are useful for developing your hand and eye and brain coordination, they are useful for seeing angles, proportions, values, even gesture. And of course because they do all that they are great for warming up.

I recommend you give it a try. Get a subject (it doesn’t have to be a person, I just love doing the “topographical” maps that sketching a person this way create), some paper and a pen. (You could use a pencil, but I think if use a pen the idea of erasing won’t even occur to you and you’ll concentrate really hard.)

Pick a spot on your subject and start drawing outlines—of anything you see, on your paper.

If you’re doing a blind contour drawing you will keep your pen on the paper and look at your subject not your paper. Don’t worry if you go off the paper, you can put your pen back on the page if that happens. And don’t worry if you end up with something that doesn’t look like your subject—it’s  not about the finished piece, it’s about moving slowly with your pen and hand on paper, while your eye moves slowly over the “line” on your subject. You are syncing the two.

Left: Here is a gesture drawing in orange marker, on top of which I then made a quick contour drawing. You can see that having the gesture drawing down helped me keep my angles in line with the head tilt. But it also gave me lines against which I could judge placement of my contour line placement. The gesture drawing took probably 30 to 60 seconds. The contour drawing was completed in less than five minutes. I have everything I need here to do a finished portrait in gouache (which will hide all the lines). Unfortunately I lose interest when I see that things are working out, so I set this aside and went off to create a problem I could solve.

If you’re doing a modified contour you can look at your paper now and then. The idea is still not to get a perfect drawing, but to stay a little more on track. And you can reposition your pen more often if you choose.

If you’re doing a continuous line contour drawing you want to keep your pen on the paper and make your drawing one continuous line. Some artists do this as a blind contour drawing activity, others allow themselves to look as often as they want. Do some of both.

What happens over time is that you do sync hand, eye, and brain. If you practice a lot you also get pretty fast, and even accurate.

Practice also helps you work on your editing eye. That’s the part of your brain that makes decisions about what needs to be included in your sketch and gives you constructive criticism about fixing specifics when you go awry, so you can improve. Developing your editing eye is not only important for getting true lines on paper, ultimate developing this feature of your creative brain allows you to find your voice and artistic style. Developing your editing eye also speeds you up as an artist. Each decision you make when sketching takes at least a millisecond. But if you’ve made a bunch of similar decisions in practice before the brain automatically makes them and doesn’t even pause to consider the choices. It knows for instance, that if you draw every line on the face of a 15-year-old girl she’ll look 80 years old, so it tells you which lines to leave out that will still get you that elusive likeness.


With all this going for it why don’t you take time today (and over the weekend) to have several contour line drawing sessions. Make a list of subjects that you wish to sketch so that you can gather items, or ask family members and friends to sit for you. Save the portraits you might want to do for the end of your session if you’re only doing this on Friday, or for Saturday and Sunday so you can practice with still subjects first. This means you’ll be warmed up on Friday, or familiar with the process on Saturday and Sunday and you’ll be able to work faster with your live model. People are much more likely to sit for you if you ask them to sit for 15 minutes and not an hour.

Left: A contour drawing that I’d best describe as a memory drawing. I was watching television and there was an actor with an interesting face and lighting. I rewatched a segment of the show about 5 times, looking at the spaces and light on his face. Then I drew it with a Pentel Brush Pen looking at the paper and relying on my memory. This experiment worked better than I’d imagined it would. There is even a bit of likeness here. I had been drawing all day so I was warmed up. I think when I can’t get to life drawing this is something I need to do more of. Lighting at life drawing is typically not this dramatic and easy to separate. Of course it helps if you have a model with interesting ears. It’s on an 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of cream Tiziano.

Left: A friend making his “pirate face.” I sketched this quickly from a photo. (I don’t think anyone could hold this position for long without facial nerve damage!) I paid particular attention around the mouth to see what happened to the shapes and values and structure when it was held this way.

Whether you are working with still life or live subjects take a moment to set up some lighting. Set lights to the side or from above or below so that shadows are cast throughout your subject. It will make it much easier for your editing eye to pick out the shapes it needs to pick out. The lighting can be as simple as a table lamp with the shade angled open towards your subject, or the shade removed.

Lighting you set up in this way will also help you see minute changes in value. If you’re having trouble seeing the value changes in your work this exercise will help you see them, immediately, without making you slow down to “fill” them in. You’ll be making decisions and processing rapidly, which will help you make those decisions in a more considered pace while paint or doing full value sketches.

Contour drawing is also a great tool for sketching when out and about in the world. You might see someone only for a few moments and have just enough time to get down a contour drawing—but that drawing will contain all the information you need about proportion, angles, and values. It’s a great tool you need to start using regularly.

Below is a list of some of my favorite posts on Contour Line Drawing. Check them out if you’re not convinced yet. And then start syncing your hand, eye, and brain.

Why Warm Up When Drawing? discusses how I warm up with contour drawings when sketching live animals, and shows a progression of sketches over the course of a zoo visit—and how this strategy paid off.

In “More Squash and Gutenberg Paper” I getting with a contour drawing of the objects on my kitchen counter and cutting board. I didn’t stop to rearrange them into a “pleasing” tableau. You can do that. But what is  most important is that when you work with still life subjects like this pay attention to the negative spaces between the objects. Have at it.

Here’s some specific instructions for doing contours on a face—in an earlier Project Friday.

There is a link in that post that will lead you to my favorite contour drawing of mine—Perry Mason (actor Raymond Burr).

Examples of how much fun old black and white TV can be.

Of course for me I have the most fun when sketching from life, so here’s a quick contour drawing of Dick in the TV room.

And here’s a contour drawing of Dick that I took a couple minutes to fill in the hair.

Don’t forget that when you do this practice it’s fun to change up the media you use. Here I did a contour sketch of Dick in the TV room but this time I used a “Distress Crayon.”

Gourds, peppers and pumpkins make great subjects. In the opening sketch in this linked post I did a contour line sketch of a pumpkin and then filled in a tiny bit of shading. I was using the Pentel Brush pen and this is about as much fun as you can have when working with contour lines.

No excuses! Get some contour drawing done this weekend.

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