This post will be an analysis using the Contour chapter/concept from Kimon Nicolades’ book “The Natural Way to Draw” as a springboard to talk about ‘Contour’/lineart in art and in general, how it possibly applies to art and how you can possibly improve from knowing about it.
I say possibly because with every art theory I put out (or anyone puts out for that matter) there’s definitely going to be someone that disproves that theory, I definitely don’t think that everybody who paints or draws well, has very “clean” precise contour/lineart, there are those have a very messy lineart style but they make it work. It doesn’t have to be precision lineart for a drawing to be good.
One thing a lot of people would say though is learning how to draw it clean and nicely first and then breaking that rule would be the best way to have a messy style. Messy doesn’t necessarily mean bad, clean doesn’t necessarily mean good, in that way. It becomes a case of how you utilize it.
This will likely be an analysis that needs to be updated with future chapters as I likely miss out on or find out about new information. Or also incorrectly state some information that is not true or wrongly attributed, that I have to correct in updates.
For simplification sake, the intended projected end-goal is to get good at basically representational drawing, not abstract drawing or modern art, but drawing something that exists in its own space in a believable manner. All of my posts on art so far has been in favour of that.
There’s a general consensus that usually most of the time in nature, lines as a concept do not exist, lines are technically a man-made concept. What you would perceive as a line or what you would draw as a line is actually two values next to each other and the line itself is the separation. Line was created to more easily define/draw concepts for the self and and everyone else to understand without having to resort to paints/colour.
Contour is essentially a way to define lineart as its own art concept, as something to practice and use in art. Contour is also further used to define also (because lineart can just be the silhouette of the object) the inner workings on the object, not just the pure outline.
Contour has been described by Kimon Nicolaides as the line produced by the point of your medium touching the figure and truly, through the natural way of drawing by “touch” you feel the figure/object as you draw it. Interestingly enough, Betty Edwards in her own book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” also adopted the same concept/exercise but says its about switching on the artistic right side of the brain (this works in its own way, although the left-brain-right-brain theory has already been disproved I believe).
Others have also published/talked about their own ways of improving lineart/contour in general as well, their concept is more in line of technical cleanliness and efficiency. Hand-eye coordination exercises and hand technique drill exercises. Or, talk about it in terms of linework like building up from light to heavy, where the light hits the line should be lighter, etc.
Firstly, there’s blind contour drawing (not looking at the paper as you draw the form, and cross contour (feeling your pen across the surface of the form). These two concepts were first talked about by Kimon Nicolaides and then by Betty Edwards in their own respective books.
Blind contour drawing is as mentioned before, for Nicolaides, its feeling the form, its about the experience of it, the end results will likely not be something you will show your family or friends, its about the experience of touching the figure/object for natural drawing. For Betty Edwards, its about switching from the logical left brain to the artistic right brain to overcome the symbol systems we have, like if asked to draw an eye, an average adult will draw a flat 2D eye, a built-in symbol for the brain to remember basically.
Blind contour drawing is drawing the form/object without looking at the paper at all, follow the form as closely as possible, like your pencil point is on the form itself and slowly going on it, then it goes into the form when the contour of it turns in and then you can work inwards and outwards and inwards again. The idea of this as mentioned is not about the end results but about the concepts mentioned above. Betty Edwards goes a step further and asks you to look down at your paper from time to time to create a semblance of something presentable, its about the experience, then taking that experience of intense observation and applying it to looking at the paper from time to time, a common expression thrown around is that “Drawing is 80% seeing and 20% technique” hence this is why.
Cross contour is sort of a secondary exercise, where you go across the form, this is a prominent exercise in figure drawing, to really absorb and see and feel how the form really is in 3D, this exercise is to comprehend the 3D form more readily to draw it as such. Your pencil/line will go across the form as if you are drawing on it with a marker, the line goes up when there’s a muscle bulging up and goes down where its relaxed. It goes like mummy wrapping bandages across the form not just one line but multiple moving up and down the form. Nicolaides and Betty Edwards brought this two concepts up as well I believe.
Secondly, there’s exercises to improve your linework/hand-eye coordination/handwork, most of the ones I am going to describe, if I recall correctly are from Peter Han’s Dynamic Sketching, he has a book and a video series, although these exercises have their own many different variations with many people claiming that they thought of it first, etc. I won’t describe all of them here as there are too many, almost endless, but googling Peter Han, is a good first step.
1) Putting two dots on the paper and joining them with a straight line without a ruler
2) There’s the famous ellipses exercise where you also work on perspective
3) Drawing boxes falling
4) Drawing the same line over and over on top of each other making sure you don’t miss the line and make hairy ends
5) Cross hatching which also works on values.
6) Drawing circles that intersect each other perfectly at the half point
Again the list of exercises you can do for penmanship/lineart is near endless, and a lot can be done really fast with just paper and pen while you are bored in a meeting or whatever.
The goals of knowing about contour and lineart are many, in general contour I would say is more about the seeing part of the equation of drawing to reach a higher level of observation, lineart would be the technical aspect of how well your lines flow, are they awkward and stiff or free and easy, what do you want to achieve etc.
There’s two differing opinions at times from people of, “I don’t need to be good at drawing, I don’t want to be a draftsman, I just want to be a painter with no lines in my work” and “Drawing is good as a foundation for painting/painting is essentially drawing anyway.” I am of the latter category, I think omitting the importance of observational line and contour drawing is detrimental to your improvement as an artist.
Look into improving your linework/contours if you feel like your drawing work is too messy or doesn’t have a high enough observational skill level in it.