Developing New Skills – Cross Contour Lines

I love learning. It feels good to practice new drawing techniques and know that even if I’m not good at the skill yet, I’m moving in a positive direction. Learning new things is always a sign of progress.

Today I’m working on a skill that’s somewhat familiar yet still quite new to me. I’m learning to use cross-contour lines in drawing, a practice that is helping me become more observant about the objects I draw and showing me how to best represent their three dimensionality on a two dimensional surface.

Simple Contour Line DrawingI first worked with contour lines in my beginning drawing lessons.  Contour is a French word that means outline, and a basic contour drawing is essentially an outline of an object, much like you might see in a children’s coloring book. It defines the outer edges of the object we’re drawing. Drawings like this are usually referred to simply as line drawings.

Next, I learned about using contour lines in a directional sense. In shading a round object — an apple, as an example — we want our shading to follow the general shape of the apple, that is, to follow its contours. 

The same holds true in painting, and I’ve learned to use brush strokes that represent the direction of the object’s basic contours. Suppose, for instance, I’m painting a farm scene with a barn — not likely since I’m not good at drawing buildings, but bear with me, please. The wood of the barn clearly goes up and down, so I’ll use up and down motions with my brush. On the roof, my brush strokes will be more diagonal.

Red Barn.jpg

You can refer to it as a principle of good art, or you can just call it good, old-fashioned common sense, I think. So, yes, I’m familiar with contour lines, and I’ve learned how to use them in drawing and painting.

Cross-contour lines, however, do more — a lot more — than define the edges of an object or guide us in our shading. Cross contour lines give us a closer look at the topography of the objects we’re drawing, showing us the lumps, the bumps, and other details we need to make a realistic illustration.

Topo Map

I first learned about topography in school when the concept of topographical maps  was introduced. Probably you learned about topography in the same way. If you’ve forgotten the details, an excellent explanation of how to read a topographical map can be found here. The main point in understanding topography is that each contour line represents a change in elevation. Lines that are close together show steep inclines; lines farther apart represent a gradual slope.

In a similar way, we can use cross contour lines to show the topography —  the surface features — of objects. Apples are often used to illustrate the principle.

Cross Contour Apple


In a cross contour line drawing like this, we can see the shape of the apples. We can tell where indentations occur, and we can see how the stems fit into recessed areas.

Practicing this technique with an actual apple — one you’re willing to throw away — is a suggestion Phil Davies makes in his excellent tutorial on cross contour lines. The lesson includes a worksheet you can print out.

Matt Fussell, the Virtual Instructor, also has an excellent video available on YouTube, explaining the concept of cross contour lines and how to use them.

I wish I could say that after reading, watching, and practicing this morning, I’ve been able to develop this skill, but that hasn’t happened yet. Like any new skill or technique, it’s going to take time. Although the general concept is clear, I haven’t yet fully grasped all the details about how to use these lines, how to show the surface of an apple — or whatever I’m drawing — in detail, how to vary the distance between lines to show how near or far that particular surface is from the viewer’s eye. It’s one thing to know a technique; it’s another thing to be able to execute it successfully.

Next question: Why make a cross contour drawing?

Cross Contour Art by Darren Criss

The simple answer is that creating a cross contour drawing helps us create a more realistic illustration. It serves primarily as a “skeleton form” or guide for our shading. But that’s not the only reason you might want to play around with cross contours. When done well, a cross contour drawing can become a work of art in its own right. Just take a look at the drawings you’ll find here.

The use of cross contour lines is a valuable technique, one that I intend to practice a lot. I’m sure that developing this skill will result in a definite improvement in all my drawings.




  1. Fascinating drawing technique. I guess I’ve seen it before but I never thought of trying it myself. I can see that it is probably hard to to but also great for getting a handle on turning 3-D objects into 2-D representations. Thanks for sharing this.

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  2. I remember doing that, it’s good fun.

    One thing I found useful was to get a banana and draw straight lines around the skin in a large grid pattern. Then place it in front of you and draw the lines on your paper. When done turn the banana around and do the same from another angle. It’s a great exercise and you can get a real sense of depth on the page.

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    1. I tried it with a radish — the only food I had on hand that I didn’t object to throwing away afterward LOL. My sharpie didn’t work too well on the radish. Bananas are cheap. I’ll grab one on my next grocery shopping trip. A banana would be much easier than a radish. πŸ™‚

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      1. Why, yes, I suppose I could still eat the banana. I never thought of that. Making out my grocery list right now, and I’ll add bananas. πŸ™‚ This will be fun!

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    1. Cross contour lines are an excellent way to “see” the three-dimensional form of an object. I wish I knew how to use them better. I understand the concepts, but it’s still very difficult for me to put it into practice. It’s definitely a good skill to develop.


  3. Thank you for following my blog. I find yours so interesting and your development and the process into the world of drawing Is very exciting to see. I look forward to seeing more of your beautiful work and explanations.

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    1. Now that I’m exploring mixed media I am learning about a lot of different things. From time to time, though, I like focusing more on graphite drawing. I love being able to draw a bit now. Growing up, I had no drawing skill at all, so I feel good about what I’ve been able to accomplish. The most important thing I’ve learned, I think, is that art is a continual process. We never know all there is to know. There are always new avenues to explore. It’s an exciting adventure.


  4. I’ve never heard of cross contour drawing before, even though we had a strong art program throughout my school years. Our direction was to practice and hone our observation skills, and understand the size relative to distance factor. We used to practice drawing a road going off into the distance, and then putting in street lights!

    So many of us only see at a superficial level, unless directed otherwise. Ask a child to draw a picture of a field with a few trees and, typically, there will be a blue band at the top of the page; a green band at the bottom with a few trees … and nothing in between! Why not! The sky is up there, and the ground is down here!

    Once, we were taken (as a school project) to an old farm, and positioned in front of an old wooden gate. Drawing what we saw was our project. I am a very detail oriented person, so while others generally worked on the gate as a whole, I focused on the old rusty hinges and the knots in the wood close by. That is the detail I think one should consider when drawing.

    I can see that contour drawing would be a great exercise not only in providing guidelines for a drawing/painting, but more importantly to provide a focus on the variations/imperfections of the object being studied. I note that you do not consider yourself particular adept at drawing, but please keep working on it. Your apple contours are very good, and provide an excellent start to a pencil drawing of them where you can then show shadows and other light variations. Water colours are also fun to play with and oils are really fun because you have time to experiment before the paint dries. Pen and ink drawings can also be a lot of fun!

    Great Post. Keep up the good work. I can assure you that you will not regret it. πŸ™‚

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    1. Thanks for all the encouraging words. When I was in school, we had “art class” but never discussed anything about art fundamentals. We were just assigned “projects” and given no “how-to” information. Five years ago, I decided to teach myself to draw. It’s been an interesting journey. πŸ™‚

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      1. I’ve led a very creative life. I began playing piano at age 4 — still play classical music today. I’m an author (8 published novels) but I retired from writing after my publisher closed their doors. So, I write for my blog audience LOL. I’ve also danced and sung. I cook — which I consider an art form of its own — and I knit, crochet, and do a bit of sewing. My life has been one creative adventure after another. The only area that I felt was lacking was visual art, so that’s why learning to draw and paint has meant so much to me.

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  5. Excellent! You are obviously very creative which must surely be “half the battle” with any art form. You only need to practise this latest interest, and explore the various options. Feel sorry for those who want to get into an art firm, but have no creative background.
    I have emailed a blogging friend who does some wonderful work in water colours (she created the picture on the cover of a book I co-authored entitled “The Odessa Chronicles”). Anyway, I gave her your Blog address. If she has the time to offer comments to you and perhaps advise, I am sure she will. All the best. Colin..

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    1. I’m glad you found this helpful. I think life should always be an on-going learning process, and with art, there’s always something new to learn!


  6. Judith, thank you for choosing to follow my blog, Bobbing Around. I hope my words will be of service to you for a long time.
    I have tried drawing/painting from time to time, but it’s not one of my skills. I use words to bring things to life instead, and am VERY glad there are others who can create beauty and inspiration by converting 3 dimensions into 2.

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    1. It’s always fun to find new blogs to follow and to get acquainted with other creative individuals throughout the world. Best wishes in all your endeavors.


  7. What a fascinating piece of writing, especially for me – I’m learning too! If you have the time and patience to have a look at my drawing blog. The language is in Afrikaans, but the drawing is universal (though some of the captions are in Afrikaans – see Google translation service). The link is will van der walt – writer Facebook. Scroll around to find Maandag Tekening (Monday Drawing). See what you think. They’re very simple, even childlike (perhaps I’m in my 2nd childhood!) Many thanks for the support. All strength. – Will

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