Sketching Drawing – Why Are Contours Important?

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The ability to perceive contours is arguably the single most important first skill of learning drawing. Let’s see why you need to develop this skill…

Contours and shape

Every physical object that occupies space has its own physical shape. The physical shape is often the first thing that allows us to identify an object. Each object also has a contour. The contour is the extreme outer shape you see when you look at the object. The difference between an objects shape and its contour is that the physical shape is normally constant (assuming a solid, non-malleable object) whilst the contour can change.

Contours and viewpoint

The contour of an object is determined by the original shape of the object and by your chosen viewpoint. If you look at a static object from various viewpoints you will see a differently shaped contour from each unique viewpoint (the exception to this is of course a perfect sphere). The same applies if your viewpoint remains fixed but you move or rotate the object. Therefore, the contour usually only remains the same if neither the object nor the viewpoint change.

Why are contours important?

Contours are important in learning drawing because the contour defines the limits and shape of the object on your drawing surface from your chosen viewpoint. The contour provides the bounding shape of the object as it appears in your drawing. If you correctly perceive an objects contour when drawing you will render that object correctly in your drawing. Keep in mind that the contour of an object changes with viewpoint; this allows you to overcome your left-brains tendency to concentrate on the known physical shape of the object rather than on the actual shape seen from the viewpoint.
When you correctly perceive and draw an accurate contour, the object seems to become much more real in your drawing. This is understandable since if the contour isn’t right, it tends to be quite obvious to our eyes (which are very good at spotting illogical perspective).
Concentrate on, and draw, the contour as seen from your drawing position (your viewpoint) and not on the physical shape of the object!

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