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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.