Figure Drawing with Line and Contour

01
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Figure Drawing: Line and Contour

Figure Drawing, line and contour
H South

Contour drawing is arguably the purest form of drawing - nothing but pure line. Most of us begin contour drawing instinctively, simply by picking a point on the edge of the figure and copying it onto our paper, hand following eye. This can yield a beautiful drawing - this line is called the 'arabesque' by Academy artists - but without proper training, it can be difficult to achieve good results.

02
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Gestural Structure

Gestural Structure in figure drawing
S McKeeman

A common problem with pure contour drawing is that as the 'tempo' of drawing changes, and as we focus in on one small area at a time, the proportions of the figure become lost. Gradually errors compound and the figure becomes distorted. We need to learn to preserve the proportions of the figure. The best way to do this is to learn to draw the structure of the figure first.

As you become more familiar with the structure of the human body, you will gradually learn to judge proportion by instinct. We are then able to maintain the proportions of the figure by visualizing landmarks prior to drawing, and by continually checking against the line one has already drawn.

In this example, drawn by Sharon McKeeman, you can see how the artist has rapidly sketched the key structures of the figure before describing the contour with a few elegantly descriptive lines.

03
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Short-pose contour drawing

Short-pose contour drawing
P. Hayes

The short-pose contour drawing asks the artist to visualize the figure as a whole, observing the entire composition, choosing the essential lines and putting them down in a few moments. These are excellent practice in developing a confident, flowing line. The artist should aim to describe the pose in as few lines as possible. Students who habitually use tentative mark-making can benefit from using black markers or brush and ink, which forces them to make clear decisions about their drawing.

Artist Pat Hayes kindly provided this example of a short-pose figure drawing. He has captured the essence of the pose with a quick eye and a clean, honest line.

04
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Continuous line

Continuous line in figure drawing
H South

Continuous line moves between contour and cross-contour in a flowing exploration of the figure. These can be short poses, as in this example, or longer, more detailed drawings. The aim is to keep the pen or charcoal on the paper and to keep it moving. Looking for edges first, then exploring cross-contours to suggest form, as well as following the edges of shadows across the figure. Placing the model's hands across the body complicates the subject, and wrinkled drapery can add another dimension. For variation, try very tightly controlled line, loose and free line, and expressive or aggressive line.

05
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Exploratory Line

Exploratory Line in figure drawing
H South

Exploratory line is, as the name implies, an indirect approach to the contour, 'looking for' the line through space. Adjacent lines are followed until they intersect the contour, the edge is between the figure and the background is described and then destroyed. The eraser is used to cut across marks, 'knocking them back' before drawing further into the form.

There are elements I like about this example, which I drew a long time ago - the handling of the hair and the curve of the hip - although the overall drawing doesn't quite work. However, this sort of exploratory drawing can lead a student to discover new ways of dealing with line and form. It is particularly useful for investigating the connection between the figure and the surrounding objects and spaces.

06
of 07

Contour drawing with selective tone

Contour drawing with selective tone
H South

Tone can be used selectively in contour drawing for creative effect, such as to draw attention to a specific area of the figure; the contrast of highly realist or expressive tonal work in combination with pure contour drawing can create great visual tension.

In this drawing I attempted to keep the line as simple and elegant as possible, just varying the lineweight a little. Only the shadows under the hair are rendered, and the face lightly modeled. The modeling of the face has gone awry - when I drew this, I hadn't learned any strategies for tackling the head - but it is otherwise successful, I think - though I'd use the lineweight a little differently now, too.

To make tonal values truly effective, you need to move beyond simple shading and really observe how light and shade follows the planes of the figure. 

07
of 07

Expressive line

Expressive Line in figure drawing
H South

Confidence is critical in figure drawing. You can get away with murder so long as your line is sure. Here, I've used a combination of strong contour and simple areas of tone to create an informal drawing, with residual line and tone from a major alteration of position creating a nod towards Cubist abstraction. While large shifts can be effective, obsessive fiddling isn't - a clean line says 'I want this to go here' while a re-worked line says 'I'm not sure about this shape'.