Drawing The Contours Of An Object Without Looking At The Paper

Friday, 6.41pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Seeing much, suffering much, and studying much, are the three pillars of learning. – Benjamin Disraeli

Betty Edwards, in her famous book, Drawing on the right side of the brain introduces the idea of “Pure Contour Drawing”, based on Kimon Nicolaides’ 1941 book The natural way to draw.

The method is simple. Look at an object and let your eyes slowly follow an edge. As you do so draw the line your eyes are tracing with your pen or pencil, moving it at the same speed at which your eyes are moving. Do this very slowly – like your eyes and your hands are connected – the latter moves only when the former does and exactly the same amount.

Edwards writes about how this is an intensely hard thing to do. You will be tempted to look at the paper. You will want to move slower or faster. But you have to resist, you have to set a time and then slow down into the exercise. Eventually time will fade away and there will just be the movement of your eyes and your pen. That’s why you need the timer – to tell you when to emerge again.

This exercise is not going to result in a good looking picture. You’ll be lucky if you or anyone else can recognize it, as you can see in the video above. So why would you do this?

The reason is because most of us draw what we think we see rather than what we actually see. If I asked you to draw a maple leaf you could draw one from memory. If you drew one from a picture you would probably draw the lines quickly, relying on your memory of what the lines should be. We are not trained to see what’s actually there, whether there is a nick in the leaf, whether the join between segments of the leaf is triangular or an odd elongated nipple shape.

A pure contour drawing takes away your ability to just draw what you think you see. Instead, by slowing down, and following each edge you really see what’s there. And as your pen traces the movement of your eyes you draw what is really there. Artists develop this ability with practice over time but for the rest of us it’s a disorienting practice and we wonder what’s the point.

Most of the time we go through life relying on shortcuts – and that’s fine – we can’t pay attention to everything. But sometimes we should slow down and really look at what’s in front of us. What your child really looks like, for example, rather than the picture you carry around in your mind. Because that moment exists for a moment and then that child is a moment older and you can never see that moment ever again the way it was.

One day, perhaps you’ll be glad you paid attention to the things that mattered.

Cheers, Karthik Suresh

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