An Introduction to Contour Drawing

A Beginner's Lesson in Drawing Line, Outline, and Contour

line drawing of a face
line or contour drawing of a face. H South, licensed to, Inc.

What is contour drawing? Simply put, it is an outline drawing that focuses on the form or edge of the subject you're drawing, leaving out the finer details. You probably already do this because it is the most obvious and natural way to draw.

From cartoons to graphic illustrations, we see contour drawings everywhere. It's also one of the basic steps to learning how to draw and refining your artistic skills.

Let's look at contour drawing in greater detail and use a simple exercise as practice.

What Contour Lines Represent

When contour drawing, we are only focused on the edges. This means that you will draw only the outside of an object or the lines made by a fold or pattern.

Don't get fooled into using the line to draw light and dark. The weight of a line -- that is, how dark and thick it is -- will give your drawing dimension.

  • A strong, dark line will jump out from the paper.
  • A light or thin line will sink into the paper.

This is useful when you are trying to give the impression of something being closer or further away. Rather than the use of shading, a pure contour drawing uses line weight and implied lines to add details and form.

Describing Form

The line that goes across an object and hints at form is called a cross-contour. These lines don't usually describe an actual edge. Instead, they are often broken or implied.

Cross-contour lines have a definite beginning and end, but the pen is lifted and re-applied to create a gradual gap in the middle. This suggests the more subtle changes in the surface of the object. 

An Easy Contour Drawing Exercise

Contour drawing often uses the 'taking a line for a walk' approach: picking a spot and continuing until the drawing is complete.

Along the way, the relative sizes, shapes, and directions of lines are noted and copied, a bit at a time.

Take your time in the beginning because the first parts of the drawing establish the scale for the entire thing. A common mistake is starting too large or in the wrong place and this often leads to your picture running off the page. If this happens, don't worry. Either finish off, use another part of the page for a drawing, or simply start over.

The Goal of This Exercise: Practice contour drawing with simple objects.

What You Need: A4 or bigger sketch paper, B pencil (any will do, really) or a pen, and some small objects.

What to Do: Choose a small kitchen or office object, whatever you have handy. Pieces of fruit and natural objects such as plants or leaves are the easiest. You will find it helpful to make your drawing the same size as the object while learning. Place very small objects close to your page, bigger things a little further away.

Pick a point on an edge of the object and continue along with your eyes, letting your hand copy the shape on the paper. If there is a strong line, such as a fold or crease across the object, draw that as well.

Sometimes it helps to squint your eyes so you can see the silhouette of the object.

This is the basic shape you are trying to capture.

Reviewing Your Work: Don't worry too much if the shapes aren't perfect. Think of these drawings as a warm-up exercise where there is no right or wrong. At this stage, all you want to do is practice getting your hand and eye to do the same thing, judging the size and shape of the edges you can see.

If you feel you are ready to be critical, place your drawing close to the object. Take a few minutes to consider whether the shapes you can see match those you have drawn. Are the proportions right? Have you included all the details, or did you skip the tricky bits?

Going Further: Try doing a large-scale contour drawing of a complex object. You are forced to use your whole arm to draw on the larger paper, which helps you to loosen up.