What Is Contour Drawing (5 Contour Drawing Types + Examples!)

You might’ve heard about Contour Drawing before. In fact, you’ve probably already done it without knowing! It is a very simple exercise, that includes several different techniques, such as blind contour, cross contour, and even gesture drawing!

What is Contour Drawing then? Contour Drawing is an exercise where the artist focuses on drawing the outline of a subject or object. The objective of this kind of exercise is to focus on the shape of the subject instead of its details.

Depending on what you want to improve, there are specific contour exercises that you can do. Gesture drawing helped me a lot when starting to learn to draw people and characters for example! My lines started to be more confident and my poses started to be more fluid and dynamic.

There are a lot of different types of contour drawings you can do as well as different approaches to it. I’m going to go all over them, including how to practice contour drawing and some examples to understand it better. But most importantly, this is a very fun exercise to do and that will definitely help you improve your lines and style!

The Importance Of Contour Drawing

Contour drawing is something we’ve been doing all our lives, even though we probably don’t even notice it! Kids often draw the contour of their hands. This is a normal exercise to do at school when starting to experiment with art. But it’s also something a kid will do naturally.

We’re looking at art for the first time. We’re not sure what to do with these pencils and paper yet. So, intuitively we use what we have to try and draw lines around it. Being it hands, pencils, scissors and any other object around us.

Cartoon image of a character having fun drawing!

This is how we start learning how to draw and what drawing is. A contour drawing is basically drawing the outline of things. You can do this with any subject or object. It is a very simple exercise and very important for beginners.

Especially since it makes you focus on the simpler shapes of the reference you’re drawing.

And this is why Contour Drawing is so important. It makes us look at the object we want to draw and breaking it down to its most simple shape.

Contour drawing, and it’s different types, makes you look very closely at the contour of your reference.

You give more emphasis to render mass and volume of the subject while drawing the contour.

Kimon Nicolaïdes was said to make popular contour drawing with their The Natural Way to Draw book. In fact, this is a very famous book that is especially useful and encouraged reading by figure drawing students in art schools around the world.

Types Of Contour Drawing

There’s more than one way to practice contour drawings! They’re all very fun and perfect to help you relax and gain confidence in your lines. When we’re starting to learn how to draw it’s more than normal that our lines aren’t perfect. We improve them overtime and with practice.

Contour Drawing along with other exercises is perfect to improve our lines and drawings in general. Remember that the objective of contour drawing is drawing lines. It’s drawing the shapes and contour of an object or subject. That means there’s no need to shade anything right now.

There are many types of contour drawing, here are a few that you can see!

That’s for later. For now, let’s practice our lines with some contour exercises:

  • Contour: There are two ways to go about contour. It can be very simple, which I recommend for when you’re just starting to learn how to draw. Focus solely on the outline of the object! And most importantly, start with very simple objects. For example, a piece of fruit or a vase. Draw only the outline of it. That’s it! Repeat as many times as you wish and draw the outlines of different objects, going from very simple ones to more complex objects. The second way to do this exercise is by adding more details! An example: draw shoes that you have at home! Sneakers are great for this kind of exercise. Start with their outline. As you get comfortable with their shapes, start adding the details inside the outline. Shoelaces, holes and other decorations.
  • Blind Contour: Ok this one is really, really fun! Blind contour consists in drawing the outline, and some more details if you wish, of an object, but, and here’s the twist, you can’t see what you’re drawing! You can’t look at the paper until you’re finished. There are a few ways to do this. One option is by having the object in front of you and focus your eyes on it while drawing it at the same time. Another option is by drawing the object from memory. The latter might be harder, but nevertheless fun to see the results! This is a great exercise to do in a group. Either with friends or family, young and old. Everyone drawing the same object will definitely end with very different results! You might be also familiar with the Pictionary game. This board game has a feature where you draw blindly as well, making it a fun family game, plus you’re improving your drawing skills!
  • Continuous Line: Very similar to the exercise above. Here you can look at what you’re doing, but your pencil can’t lift from the paper. Once you put the pencil down, you need to draw the object in one continuous line. This is a very interesting exercise because it will teach to draw an object in the most simple and clear way. Again, this can be very fun to do in a group since everyone will have different ways of resolving the same problem. That means everyone will have different results! It is always important to learn not only from yourself but from others as well.
  • Cross-Contour: This one is a bit more complex. Instead of drawing the outline, you’ll be drawing lines that follow the shape of the object. Imagine your drawing a labyrinth or a road. You can start with the outline and then fill it with these lines. This kind of exercise helps you give more depth to a drawing and even to learn how to shade. By applying different pressure to your lines, some parts of the drawing will show lighter or darker accordingly. Experiment with these ideas and see the different results you get.
  • Gesture Drawing: If you’re interested in creating your own characters then this is the kind of exercise to boost your anatomy drawing. Gesture Drawing was fundamental in my learning. I would struggle with drawing bodies until I found out about this exercise. In fact, this is the first lesson in my Figure Drawing class. The reason for it is because it will help you relax and draw more dynamic poses. Gesture Drawing consists of quick drawings of a model. You usually have around 30 seconds to 2 minutes to draw the poses before the model moves and you start another quick drawing.

Remember that Gesture drawing isn’t the same as Contour Drawing!

Here are the differences between gesture and contour drawing.

Contour Drawing Examples

We’ve talked about different types of contour drawings, but let’s see some examples as well. Contour drawings don’t need to be simple exercises only, they can actually be part of your style. There are a lot of artists that actually implemented it to their style and it results in fantastic pieces of art!

Check out bellatatua’s work, for example. You might notice that a lot of their work is reminiscent of a continuous contour style. It is very beautiful to look at and almost a minimalist style.

If you also want to see continuous contour drawings in action, check this video on Instagram! Peggy Dean works a lot with lettering and their contour drawings inspired by plants are very beautiful and even calming to look at. I really recommend giving them a follow.

Peggy Dean is actually a fellow teacher on Skillshare, so if you’re interested in drawing plants and practice your contour drawings, I really recommend checking out this Line Drawing: Cactus & Succulent Edition class!

As I mentioned, if you’re interested in creating your own characters, I highly recommend practicing Gesture Drawing, not only when you’re starting to learn anatomy, but also when you’re already a veteran at drawing. Gesture Drawing is a very good warm-up exercise!

I always like to see and learn with Griz and Norm’s work! They’re animation artists at Walt Disney Animation Studios and they post very often on their Instagram page. Not only gesture drawing exercises, but also a lot of character design and even some tutorials on how to create characters, draw poses and others, so I really recommend taking a look.

As you can see Gesture Drawing can have very simple and basic lines, but it can also be more complex and detailed. It all depends on how long you have to capture the pose and its movement!

Just practice as much as you can and above all, have fun with it! You’ll notice that what all these artists have in common is how much they like to do what they’re doing and the love really shows!

How To Practice Contour Drawing

Depending on the type of contour drawing you want to do, it will work a bit differently, but the way you start is always the same. I recommend doing contour drawing via traditional art. It’s easier to learn and gain control of your lines that way.

1) Choose your tools

You’ll notice that even by practicing with pencils and paper, what you learn with it, will be applied to digital drawing later on. So do you need to start practicing contour drawing?

  • A piece of paper or even a sketchbook. I really like Canson products and as such, I always recommend them. Their paper is really good and suitable to use with any kind of material. Plus you can easily detach a single sheet of paper from most of their pads/sketchbooks. If you prefer to work with a single piece of paper instead of the whole pad, then you can do so!
  • Pencils, Pens, or other tools that you like. This one really comes down to your preference or what do you want to experiment with. I recommend always to try different tools. But if you’re just starting, I’d recommend using graphite pencils. If you’re feeling bold, try using pens instead of pencils. Using an inking pen means you can’t erase small mistakes you did. This way you focus more on drawing than on the things you might have gotten wrong. Improve and learn from your mistakes! I really like the Sakura Pigma Micron for inking and I use them all the time in my sketchbook.

This is it. This is all you need to start practicing contour drawing. Avoid erasers, you don’t need them! As I said, mistakes are common and we learn from them. If you noticed a mistake in a drawing, repeat the drawing and fix that mistake there. This way you have visual progress to look at how you improved!

Be bold with your materials.

You don’t need to limit yourself with pencils and pens nor black and white. Try using charcoal, pastel. Even paint! Experiment with different colored paper as well and even with textures. As long as you’re having fun and learning something with the practice, it’s not wasted time.

2) Choose a time and place

Now the next part, choose an object and a place to work. It can be anywhere. From your own office, on a desk or from the sofa. You can even go outside, pick different objects and buildings a draw them! What’s important is that you feel comfortable.

To get started with contour drawing it's very easy! Pick an object, a place and get going. Here's how!

Start with simple objects. A flower, a chair, a bottle, a mug. Whatever you want. There are lots of simple household objects that you can pick, just pick one and start. You can even make a session with several objects! Spend 5 minutes with a mug and then pass on to the next object you have selected.

We reach the next step of our contour drawing practice: Pick a time. Choose a time of the day where you can relax. You also don’t need to practice contour drawing for long. From 30 minutes to 1 hour or more. Don’t force the exercise. We want you to enjoy this time and that won’t happen if you’re forcing yourself to sit and draw for an hour.

3) Pick a contour drawing exercise

Finally, pick the kind of contour you want to practice!

Let’s say you want to practice Blind Contour. Set your pencil on your paper. Now set your eyes on the object your drawing and start moving the pencil. The only rule here is that you can’t look at your paper! Practice this exercise with the same object several times. Each time you finish a drawing, look at it. You’ll notice that as you repeat, the drawings will improve significantly!

If you’re feeling like practicing Continous Line Contour, again, set your pencil on your paper. The rule here is once you start drawing, you can’t lift the pencil from the page. Observe the object and what you’re doing and only lift the pencil when you’re done. Again this is the kind of exercise where you’ll notice differences with each repetition of the same object you do.

As for Gesture Drawing. I recommend trying both classes with a moving model and using Gesture Drawing websites like Line of Action. Going to a class means you can’t change your times. Time will be set and once that minute is over, the model will move whether you want them to or not.

This way, you can focus on what’s really important on the pose and which lines are important to capture it.

Alternatively, you can do it at home. Set a time for when the photos change and draw each pose that will appear on the screen of your computer.

Remember that there is no right or wrong way for these exercises. The results you get are your own. You can be as messy or clean as you want with your lines. You’ll see that with time and practice, you’ll improve your drawing a lot!

Additional Questions

What is a modified contour drawing? It allows you to use more than one line. You can also look at your paper, instead of doing it blindly. Although it is still advisable to look for long to the object you’re drawing than the paper.

What is mass gesture? It is very similar to gesture drawing. In this kind of exercise, the artist focus on capturing the pose via masses of tone and color, instead of using lines. If you’re curious how to do gesture drawing, do check out my complete guide here.

What Is Contour Drawing and how you can use it to improve your artwork quickly!

Patricia Caldeira is the main writer here at Don Corgi. She's an art teacher with over 20.000 happy students across many platforms and courses!

Enjoy your stay and as always:
Keep on drawing!