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Assignment: Create a Contour Line Drawing

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This week the assignment is to work on a contour line drawing. Line is one of the fundamental drawing techniques, both traditionally, and for the vector artist. This assignment will teach you to see lines in subjects, capture them through drawing sessions, and experiment with bringing them into Illustrator, or your favorite vector program.

Today's Assignment

Today's assignment is to draw your hand as a contour line drawing. Why draw your hand? Hands are excellent drawing practice, and your non-drawing hand is always available as a reference. It will be there with you no matter where you are :)

To begin with use a pencil or pen and practice this quite a few times, over the course of multiple drawing sessions. We'll touch on the vector portion of this in another section below.

Think of contour drawing as drawing the edges of the subject. It's the outline of what you're drawing, as well as the internal edges. By drawing the edges you'll start to see the three-dimensional form of the subject. So on a hand, it's the outer edge of the hand, as well as the fingers, creases that go across the palm, or knuckles, joints might show lines, etc.


This is my left hand, one of a few I drew in a recent drawing session.

This is one of the better ones. Most of them I wouldn't want to show anyone. Don't let perfection get in the way of drawing practice. Half of my sketchbook is always filled with rudimentary practice drawings, and then some decent ones, and a couple gems.

Here are some tips for creating this contour drawing:

  • Don't get too worried about drawing perfectly, as that comes with time.
  • Keep your eyes mostly on your hand, and not so much on your paper.
  • Don't invent, avoid meaningless lines, and try to draw accurately only the lines that run along edges.
  • Use long bold lines, rather than short indecisive lines, try to keep your pencil in contact with the paper as much as possible.
  • Avoid too many corrections, like erasing, or redrawing lines. I know it's tempting.
  • Try capturing a bit of the whole before you get into all the detail, which is an effective strategy here.

Taking Your Contour Drawing Into Illustrator

Ideally you would have done quite a few contour drawings already on paper. Now take one you're happy with. Scan it in and place it in Illustrator. Use the Paintbrush Tool to trace over your lines. Obviously, this is more easy if you have a Wacom to draw with. I'm still trying to get used to using mine.

You may need to experiment with brush setting a bit. Try researching some of the tutorials here on Vectortuts+ and experiment with what settings and brushes fit your traditional drawing style.

If you come across any other helpful tutorials on using Illustrator's Paintbrush Tool for drawing leave a link in the comments, and indicate how it helped you. Cheryl has a great one here Create CS5 Width Profile Brushes in any Version of Adobe Illustrator CS that I plan to read again this weekend.

I'm not 100% happy with how the vector hand below turned out, but it was good practice. The settings I was using for the Paintbrush Tool redrew the line a bit too curved, which lost some of the original sketch's characteristics. I also might play more with brush thickness and read some tutorials to learn more about using the Wacom.


My left hand vectorized and then colored with mild effects.

After you've created your lines, experiment with coloring the lines, background, and adding subtle effects. It's often good to see what different feeling you can get by adding just a few changes, as shown above right.

Keep in mind the focus of this assignment isn't perfection, but to practice. To build habits and experience that help you grow as an artist.

Taking This Further

After you've draw your hand multiple times and you're getting bored with the subject, then grab some objects around the house. Coffee cups, plants, pencil holders, staplers, just about anything could make a good subject for a contour drawing.

There are of course more methods to contour drawing. Blind Contour drawing is something I recommend you try. If you were to take a drawing class the teacher would likely have you do this during an in class session. Long term it's a great way to warm up to begin a drawing session.

Blind contour drawing is a little weird, but it's a great way to get better at drawing quickly. It's the same as contour drawing, in that you're capturing edges, however you don't look at your paper - that's the weird part. So of course the final drawing won't turn out perfect (just accept that and consider this practice drawing, which it is), but you'd be surprised at some of the details you can capture while intensely focused on your subject. It really teaches you to see detail and capture it.

Share Your Work

Once you have a contour drawing you're happy with vectorize it, export a final JPG, and then share it with the community by uploading it to the Vectortuts+ Flickr group. Be sure to tag your upload as "vtassignment-contourdrawing" so we can see everyones uploads together, which will make it easier for everyone to comment on each other's work. You're welcome to link to your work in the comments below as well. I'd love to see what everyone puts together.

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