hand contour drawing

Hand Contour Drawing

Hand Contour Drawing Lesson

Hands are a tough subject.  My students eyes get wide when I say we are going to focus on drawing hands from life. This hand contour drawing unit requires tons of guided practice and lot’s of encouragement along the way.

Hands are a great subject matter because they are so approachable, easy to come by, and are an incredible tool to communicate ideas, emotion and mood.  You can say so much with your hands and students can explore a fundamental skill while learning to use their artistic voice.  Students will be challenged, but it is a subject that builds so much confidence after disciplined practice. 

contour drawing progression

Hand Contour Drawing At a Glance:

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If you prefer a video over a blog post, this video will walk you (and your students) through everything I will outline in this blog post. It is classroom and Canvas ready!

Hand Contour Drawing Inspiration

Before there was Pinterest, there was the Incredible Art Department.  You could search for lesson plans by topic and media that hundreds of  art teachers generously shared.  When I was student teaching in 2008, my cooperating teacher showed me the website and I was so relieved scrolling through a wide range of lessons.
There was a hand drawing lesson posted by Dave Haines that grabbed my attention as a first year high school teacher. 

Using his student’s results as inspiration, I taught contour drawing to my first ever batch of Art I students, and to my amazement and relief, they absolutely excelled.  I have tweaked and used this lesson to focus on observational drawing and given students the theme of communication throughout the years. 

What is Contour Drawing?

This video will walk you through each of the three types of contour drawing:

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This video specifically focuses hand contour drawing:

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Contour drawing is a fabulous technique to build confidence, develop observational skills and help students simplify objects to their basic shapes and lines.  I truly believe this is the most helpful way to help students learn to draw, and I still use contour drawing in my sketchbooks all the time!  Many students have their own style and perception of what objects look like, and this is a disciplined approach at looking at objects as they actually are.

My husband is a painting professor at a University in Oklahoma, and he views the practice of looking as a form of meditation. He often has his students draw blind contours for extended periods of time without any talking, music or any distraction besides looking with your eyes and letting your hand create what it sees.

Although my high school students have a hard time doing anything without distractions, you can hear a pin drop the first few exercises of contour drawing. The collective emotions of students finally looking at their paper is palpable. I LIVE for these moments in the classroom.

This technique is great for all ages, not just high school.  These images are from my Art II students (a mix of 10th-12th grader who allegedly took Art I). I have successfully taught this to Art I and even Sculpture I students before we made wire portraits.

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I loved teaching this to my former 6th graders and the results were VERY similar to what my high school students created.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards is a classic for this technique and many others. It helps break down drawing into manageable steps. I love that it has been continuously revised.

Blind Contour Practice in the Classroom

We start by doing guided practice with blind contour drawing.  I set a timer for two minutes and they change their hand position each time.  Many students will not be finished by the two minute mark, and many students will be very annoyed that you are timing them at all.  I continuously remind them how important it is to slow down and focus on what the eye is actually seeing.  Think of your pen as an extension of your eye- it moves around the object in tandem.

Blind contour drawing always creates laughs because…the drawings look like you aren’t looking at your paper!  There will always be the student who just can’t let go of accuracy and tries to pretend they weren’t looking.  I’ve seen teachers put up folders or have something to block their hand, but I just trust that students will commit to the concept.  Disappointment is a part of life I’ve accepted.

Modified Contour Practice

We move on to modified contours where students can look at their paper a little at key transitional moments in the drawing.  They should still look at their subject 90% of the time.  The drawings still look wonky, but there will be more of a realism since they can check their work a little.  Placement and size will become slightly more accurate. I remind students that their drawing  looking like a perfect hand is still not the goal.  Practicing hand eye coordination, pure observational drawing and letting go of preconceived notions of their subject is the goal. 


Hand Contour Drawing Practice

Finally, we move on to contour drawing.  Students can check their paper more often, maybe 80% of the time, but still rely on drawing while looking at the subject.  I like to do a three minute timer for our guided practice so they can slow down and really focus on the details.  Students will try to pick up their pen to capture their wrinkles and knuckles, and I have to continuously remind students that it is one continuous line capturing the outer edges of their hand.

This is where I really see confidence grow.  They have been looking at their hand for a class period and a half at this point (I teach 45 minute classes) and they are typically happily surprised at their results.  I encourage them to try a hand gesture that challenges them, it may turn out better than they think.  A good way to challenge more advanced students is to have them hold something in their hand and add that to their drawing.

Hand Contour Drawing on Final Paper

Once we have practiced, we move on to our final paper.  Students are most comfortable drawing their hand gestures in pencil first (contour style, of course) and then outlinelining them in Sharpie.  These Sharpie pens are great, and don’t leave little ink blots when you hesitate in your drawing. 

Sharpie Pens - Black, Fine Point, Set of 4

I really like this paper from Blick Art Materials because it has a great texture and does not fade.

Pacon Tru-Ray Construction Paper - 18

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Some students like to look at American Sign Language to create meaningful pieces. Students also like to create hand gestures that communicate ideas and emotions in combination.  I love when students add creative details to the backgrounds and add some signature style to their observational drawing.

Once they have the five (or more!) hand gestures they are happy with, they cut them out and arrange their compositions on a second piece of paper.

Hand Contour Drawing Results

I am always blown away by the results. They are beautifully drawn and communicate so much. My favorite part of the whole experience is seeing students confidence grow as their drawing abilities noticeably improve. There is also stress involved, but the end results are always a powerful evidence of learning.

Art History Connections

My classes do daily bellwork focusing on the Feldman’s method art criticism. I pick an artwork that highlights the topics we are covering in class.  With contour drawing, Pablo Picasso is a natural fit with his simplified line drawings.  It’s fun to look at a detail (you know, the nudity and all) of  Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam.  It’s SUCH a famous image and students can interpret very easily and thoughtfully.  I also love to throw in Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands) to discuss why humans create art and how hands can be such a powerful subject matter.  There are many more contemporary and less famous artists that use this style in their work as well.

This blog post details the daily art history warm-up procedure, and you can download my Cave of Hands discussion powerpoint for free!

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