Archive for November, 2004

When we think about line drawing, the first thought that comes is often

“outline drawing”. This is however such a vague concept as to be

virtually meaningless.

Line in terms of some kind of outline around objects, does not exist.

The lines we draw is an indication of where something takes place. So a

contour line is an indication of where an object stops and the

background “begins”. Of course the object, say a face, does not ever

stop, it simply turns away from us. It is this kind of turning away of

form which is termed “contour”. So the edge of a form is not an outline

but a contour, and is indicated by a contour line.

Two simple drawings can illustrate this. In the first drawing the line

is used to indicate contour, the turning away of forms, and in the

second drawing the line describes the silhouette of a face, that is,

the point at which the object obscures the background. The result is

markedly different.

The first drawing explores the structures of the face, eyes,

cheekbones, the fall of the hair. There is no question that contour

drawing is the most difficult skill in art. It was mastered by a

handful of artists throughout history, Michelangelo, Leonardo,

Botticelli, Dürer, Rubens, Ingres, Leighton. Maybe this explains

Ingres’ advice to the young Degas, “Draw lines, young man, draw many


The second drawing is a simple silhouette, as if the headshape was cut

out of a sheet of paper. To achieve accuracy in a silhouette is still

very difficult, but it is much less taxing than trying to define the

structures that make the face. For this reason it is a good way to

start drawing. Until and unless we can get the simple silhouette right,

we have no hope of getting the features.

In all line drawing it is the abstract qualities of the line as much as

its visual accuracy which make a drawing expressive: the sweep, the

breadth, the nervousness or force of the line. But in the words of

Leonardo da Vinci, it is the simple accuracy of vision which makes us

value an artist as competent.

“That is the most praiseworthy painting which has most

conformity with the thing represented.” –Leonardo

It is precisely because our greatest achievement, and our highest art,

is so difficult, that the idea of cheating at it is so awful. It was Degas who called drawing the probity of art. Probity, meaning integrity, or honesty.


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