Surprise! You've Been Drawing Contour Lines All This Time

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A contour is a line which defines a form or edge. Essentially, it is the drawing of an outline of an object. It's very likely that you've been drawing contour lines all along because it is the simplest form of art.

In the most basic form, an outline drawing is also called a pure contour. This is one of the first ways that we learn how to draw. By using contour alone and forgetting about shading and tonal values, we learn to recognize the pure and simple form of an object.

The Use of Contour Line in Drawing

Contour drawing is the place where most beginners start because it is the most obvious. When you think of drawing an apple, you will automatically begin by following the visible edges of the shape. This outline, or contour, describes the outermost edges of a form and so, you can quickly draw an apple.

Contour lines can also be used to depict dramatic changes of the plane within the form. In our apple example, you might add a little curve that indicates the indentation where the stem forms. This is also a contour line.

Complex Uses of Contour Drawing

Contour drawing does not have to be that simplistic, however. It is used in a variety of styles of drawing to great effect. Cartoonists and illustrators use contour drawing all the time and these are the best examples of contour in action. Their drawings are actually quite simple and lack the shading or details found in realist drawing.

You can use line weight in contour drawing to make one element jump out from the paper or another to sink into the background. Contour lines can also be used to indicate reflections, a change in depth, or simply define shadows and highlights.

More Kinds of Contour Drawing

'Blind contour drawing' is done without looking at the paper.

It sounds a bit absurd at first, but this is an excellent way to improve your hand-eye coordination. Rather than overthinking the line, an exercise in blind contour forces you to trust your hand and learn how to truly observe your subject.

This can become a useful skill when drawing from life in the field. For instance, you might be sketching animals at the zoo and, instead of constantly looking at your paper, you can watch the animals and really observe their movements. There will always be an opportunity to perfect a drawing or work off your base sketch to create a 'real' drawing. 

Artists also use cross contours to suggest form. Cross contour lines are a bit like topography in a drawing; they highlight the dimensionality of the subject. You will notice simple cross contours in many of the more realistic comic books. These lines can also be expressive or come in the form of hatching to indicate shade and tone.

Contour lines are also used in map making, though their purpose and appearance are entirely different from that of visual art. On maps, contours track across a surface to link points of the same height, such as you see on a topographical map. This type of cartographic contour has more in common with an artist's cross contours.