In museums we may start out slow, but sometimes we get overwhelmed by everything we’re seeing. After a while, things can become a blur and we may stop noticing the intricate design of a gold necklace or the colorful pattern of a mosaic. The huge British Museum, which is jam-packed with historical artifacts and stunning artwork, offers paper and pencils to museum goers. They’ve learned that visitors slow down to really look at objects when they sketch them.
Our world is jam-packed with everyday wonders, and these can become such a blur that we may miss the intricate design of a sunflower or the colorful pattern on a red-winged blackbird. So let’s pick up our pencils and paper again and slow down to discover details with contour drawing.
Instead of the quick sketch of gesture drawing, contour drawing explores the intricate design of an object. As your eyes travel slowly along an object’s outside and inside edges and lines, keep your pencil on the paper and moving along with your eyes. Try not to look at your paper too often. I encourage students to imagine they’re a snail traveling along the pathways of a landscape. Don’t try to finish a drawing or worry what it looks like. As in gesture drawing, it’s the practice of learning to look that’s important.
Contour drawing can seem a little tedious at first, but it’s amazing how after a couple minutes we can become so absorbed in details we’ve never seen before, that it becomes a true path to discovery. As we spend time looking closely, we find we tune out distractions and even lose track of time. But rather than being drained by such concentrated focus, we emerge refreshed and with a greater knowledge and appreciation of the whole. That said, I wouldn’t do more than two or three contour drawings at a time, because you do lose concentration and begin to hurry too much to really look.
In your sketchbook try one or more of these ideas for a contour drawing. For each one, notice the difference between the left image (a gesture drawing) and the right image, which is a contour drawing of the same object:
- Try following the contours of a teapot. Not just the outside edges, but with your eyes and pencil follow the contours of its rounded shape. Imagine your hand tracing over those contours.
- Choose a flower from your garden or a closeup picture of one and slow down to explore it with your eyes and a pencil. No need to draw the whole flower.
- Draw your non-dominant hand and discover all its ridges and valleys. Follow the lines that make up a knuckle and marvel at how those wrinkles give your fingers the flexibility to hold a pencil, hug a child, or type your next story!
How can contour drawing help us with our writing? It can help us see and describe the soft, rounded curves of a child’s hand as she reaches up to grasp her grandfather’s strong, angular hand. It can tune us in to notice the pattern of a shirt, the puffed-up feathers of a bird, or the fine line of a cat’s whisker.
The artist René Magritte said his goal in art was “to breathe new life into the way we look at the ordinary things around us.” Contour drawing can do that. It slows us down and frees us up to explore the details that breathe life into our story characters and settings.
Stay tuned! Each 4th Monday of the month I’ll share more information to help you discover new paths to creativity.
Kathy O’Neill is an art teacher who loves to show everyone they can draw. Visit her website http://www.kathy-oneill.com/ to discover more about her writing and workshops, and her blog https://kathythepicturelady.wordpress.com/ for a Christian view of great art and related projects and devotions for children. Kathy’s goal is to engage children’s and adult’s hearts, hands and minds to discover God and their own creativity through art, history, and nature.