The Blind Contour Exercise — Good Drawings Start Here

Beginner Drawings — Start with a Simple Line

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A student’s Blind Contour drawing of a hand from the Pacific University website. Adapted from an article by Allison Malafronte.

The Blind Contour drawing exercise is a fundamental tool that can help artists create their first beginner drawings as well as experienced artists learn to reacquaint themselves with the power of observation. Popularized by Kimon Nicolaïdes in his 1941 book The Natural Way to Draw: A Working Plan for Art Study, the Blind Contour method involves carefully observing the outline and shapes of a subject while slowly drawing its contours in a continuous line without looking at the paper. By doing so, artists are forced to draw what they actually see instead of what they think they see.

The method seems simple but it helps artists of all levels improve their observational skills by instructing them to look at the lines, shapes, and patterns of objects and how they combine to form what we see.

“Drawing through observation is a skill that most people are capable of learning,” says Terry O’Day, the chair of the art department at Pacific University, in Forest Grove, Oregon, where the Blind Contour method is taught. “The physical act of drawing consists mostly of developing hand-eye coordination. Anyone who can write legibly has the physical ability to record observations of a subject through drawing.

Beginner drawings: A student’s Blind Contour drawing of feet from the Pacific University website.
A student’s Blind Contour drawing of feet from the Pacific University website.

“The reason most people have difficulty drawing realistically is not because of any lack of physical skill or talent,” O’Day continues, “but because they have not been trained to really look at what they see.” To help her students do this, she instructs them to practice the following Blind Contour exercise:

What You Will Need
— paper
— pencil or pen
— timer

Blind Contour Exercise
1.) Choose a subject to draw—still-life objects or the figure work well for this exercise
2.) Set the timer for 20 minutes
3.) Tape the paper to your drawing surface so that it doesn’t shift as you draw
4.) Arrange yourself so that you can see the object you will be drawing without seeing the paper
5.) Focus your eyes on some part of the object and begin moving your pencil to record what your eyes observe
6.) Do not look down at the paper as your draw. Rather, force yourself to concentrate on how the shapes, lines, and contours of the object relate to one another.
7.) Continue observing and recording until the timer rings

“Although this exercise can be difficult at first,” O’Day admits, “with practice and perseverance it will become easier, and you will learn to shift your thinking from an analytical, labeling mode to one that is more intuitive.”

For more exercises that will allow you to create skillful beginner drawings — or as a resource for warming up the hand-eye while you are in the studio — consider getting your copy of the Big Book of Drawing Animals. There are more than 90 fish, fowl, and furred creatures to capture your attention, as you are taken step by step through how to draw each and every one of them with accuracy and liveliness. Enjoy!

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