Journal Prompt — December 2021 Edition

Contour Drawing

Based on the book Painting the Woods (Read the book review here)

Durand, on the other hand advises the aspiring landscape painter to begin with the contour to “ obtain the knowledge of that natural variety of form, so essential to protect you against frequent repetition and monotony.
Painting the woods p.55

Durand also makes the point that learning to observe and to train the perception is as important as mastering technical skills. For Durand, it is this heightened sense of perception that elevated both the mind of the artist and the art produced.
Painting the woods p. 55
When I read these lines from the book, I wanted to explore how exactly contour drawing develops the perception of an artist. I did a little digging into the use of contour drawing as a tool to improve how we see our subject.

It led me to a discussion about the hemispheres of the brain and how dominance of the left hemisphere leads to diminished creative input from the right hemisphere. We obviously need both hemispheres in order to process all of the information available to us in order to produce our work, but, when we are ready to create, the right hemisphere, what I think of as artist mode, must be heard and not dominated by the left, which tends to categorize and not spend time investigating something familiar.

The question is, how do we tune in to the right side or artist mode?

Contour drawing! In Betty Edwards’ book , Drawing on the right side of the Brain, she explains contour drawing diminishes left side input because when we are contour drawing, we are not concerned with labeling the object we are drawing. There is no template for the left side to impose, the right side is now free to explore. When we shift to right side dominance the feeling of time standing still, of effortlessness begins to take over and we become fully immersed in the work. It becomes enjoyable, not judgmental. Artistic ability begins to bubble over! I think of this as artist mode, with no concern for the outcome, just a search for the qualities of the subject.

Contour is distinguished from outline by the contour lines used to describe the form of the object being drawn. Cross contour lines thus provide a three dimensional quality. In his book , The Natural Way to Draw, Kimon Nicolaides instructs the student to think of the pencil as touching the object while drawing the contour line. Moving slowly to match the movement of the pencil with that of the eye and imagining the pencil is actually touching the object.
Nicolaides describes this as an exercise that “ should be done slowly, searchingly and sensitively.”

drawing by Monet

Drawing by Monet

“Let me begin by stating that the meaning in which I use the word memory is that of stored observation.”

Horace Lecoq De Boisbaudran

This kind of focused attention increases perception of the object and also engages the right hemisphere of the brain allowing the artist to completely immerse in the subject and the task of drawing. When you actively search the contour of a familiar object, you are no longer concerned with what the object actually is, rather you are searching for the unique qualities of that object. This search leads to increased perception.

“ The precision of naming takes away from the uniqueness of seeing”
Pierre Bonnard

Types of contour drawing:

Blind contour: Drawing the shape of an object without looking at the paper

Continuous line contour: Drawing an object without lifting the pencil from the paper.

Modified contour: You may look at the paper briefly, lift your pencil or use several lines.

Cross Contour: Uses lines to describe the form of the surface of the object

Concepts in Practice

This journal prompt is about developing your artistic perception.

Journal Prompt:

Use contour drawing to develop perception.


Your art journal
Pencil or pen
An object to draw

Place an object at a comfortable distance so that you can see it well. Set a timer for 3 minutes. Place your pencil on the paper, look at your object, find a place to start and begin to draw without looking at your paper. We are setting a timer, not to feel rushed, but to forget about time.
You will know when to stop when the timer goes off. Slowly draw the contour of your object, matching the movement of your eye with your pencil. Explore the form of the object and record it with your pencil or pen.
When the timer goes off, stop drawing and take a moment to reflect. How did you feel while you were drawing?
Were you making judgements about the drawing, were you worried about getting it right?
Or, did you lose yourself in the process, find you really enjoyed focusing on simply exploring the form?
Many artists use contour drawing as a way to “warm up” when they go into the studio to work. With practice your perception will sharpen which will lead to new discoveries for your art.

Here’s my journal prompt for contour drawing .

The page below was my first attempt at a contour drawing. Probably not the best choice of subjects, but a good start!

Blind contour drawing of a cat
Journal page with contour drawings

On the page above, I chose my hand and thumb for the opportunity of cross contour lines and volume.  I’m interested in the way the lines of the thumb on the interior suggest planes and volume.

Modified contour drawing of a leaf

I begin to see the the importance of interior lines to describe the form of an object. I want to combine value and line to describe form in my next painting!

This drawing of a leaf started as a blind contour drawing using Nicolaides method of imagining touching the object with my pen. But, I kept losing contact with the paper.
It was difficult to imagine touching the object with my pen and feeling the paper through my pen at the same time. That was an unexpected combination of sensory input!
So, I finished it using modified contour drawing.