Contour drawing is my all time favorite way to draw and to teach students to draw from direct observation. This year my students are trying out mixed media contour portraits. We are building on developmental skills while allowing students to get crazy with color and their own personal style.
I have done this technique with a wide range of ability levels. From 6th graders to AP art students, this technique is adaptable for any artist willing to learn!
If video is your thing, this video will show you or your students exactly the step by step process we used.
Blind Contour Drawing
We start out with my personal favorite, blind contour drawing. I have students break into groups or work with a partner. Sometimes the shy student will protest, but usually a more outgoing student will absorb them into their group cheerfully. We start by watching the first part of this tutorial:
I display on the board these guidelines:
-One continuous line
-Keep your pen down (within reason of course, stretching is allowed) 🙂
-Focus on outer edges, or contours, of facial features and clothes (no shading)
-You can only look at your subject (don’t look at your drawing until it’s finished)
I like to set one minute or two minute timers to start off the process. We switch views or who we are drawing and do about five together before I set them free to practice more independently.
I have found that students needs LOTS of pep talks and reminders for this technique. Many are nervous about it looking “ugly” or “bad” and many just don’t want to commit to the exercise. I remind students that this is all about hand eye coordination and it looking like a mess is part of the fun.
I use the examples of playing scales before a musical performance or doing drills before a soccer game. They are important foundational skills that lead up to a more refined result.
Depending on how long the class is, we either move on to modified first thing next class period or about the halfway point of a block class.
Modified Contour Drawing
Modified contour drawing has the same guidelines as blind contours, except you can glance at your paper A LITTLE bit. I give my students the 90/10 ratio. 90% of your drawing should be done by only looking at your subject and letting your hand follow the lines your eye is seeing. I emphasize that you should only look at your paper at key moments, like when you are transitioning from drawing hair that leads into drawing a facial feature.
I have found if you practice blind contours enough, students are used to not looking and at this point are way more comfortable with the concept. We usually do three of these drawings together within their groups. I have found a two or three minute timer works better for these since they are committing a little bit more to accuracy. I also encourage them to draw larger than they did the day before.
Final Contour Drawings
The modified contours go much faster since students have some practice behind them and depending on when we start, we can move on to final contour drawings the same class period.
I have students draw with a three minute timer and remind them of the guidelines of contour drawing (which I display with a visual example for each session). This time I say you can look at your paper a little bit more, but still focusing on the subject 70% or more of the time. With contours, I emphasize that you can check that each facial feature is in the right location and has accurate size relationships.
Contour drawings are still quirky and not based on photorealism, but instead of capturing the energy of the moment with line. I have students practice at least five of these, but after the first one or two they really don’t need me anymore. The biggest reminder I find myself saying at this stage is to draw larger.
Mixed Media Backgrounds
At some point during the drawing process, we take a class period to create our colorful backgrounds. This time we did a watercolor and salt technique around the midpoint of our contour practice. This gives students a break from staring at their classmates and also gives time for their backgrounds to dry before it’s time to assemble their favorite contours.
I love using Blick’s liquid watercolor because it’s so vibrant and really lasts a long time. It does stain your clothes, underneath your fingernails and table tops, so be careful when pouring and a little bit goes a long way.
Another option is using textured backgrounds with Gelli Plates. This is a really fun way to create unique backgrounds and you can use watercolor, block printing ink, acrylic, tempera or whatever craft paing you have lying around. I felt limited by the size of my gelli plates (they are expensive so I only have the smaller plates) so I went with the liquid watercolor.
Assembling Mixed Media Contour Portraits
Once your students have many contour drawings to choose from and their background of choice, it is time to assemble their mixed media contour portraits! I have my students pick their favorite drawings and cut them out and play around with arrangements.
Students can focus on emotion/expression, story telling, showing a visual progression of loose to more refined portraits or simply create a collage of their favorite results.
Once they are arranged, we use modge podge to paste and cover the drawings with a clear coat. This is important because we will be going back into the artwork to create a more unified and harmonious look.
This can be done with sharpie, acrylic paint, glazes of watercolor, thin washes of metallic paint, collaged papers, sewing with embroidery thread…seriously the mixed media options are endless! Here are a few of my students’ finished pieces: