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Nature Art: Contour Drawing

You're traveling this summer and you'd like to keep a record of your trip. Photos will work, but drawings will, too, and they're easy to share by taking a photo of your sketch and uploading it. Drawing lets you interpret on the spot, choose colors, and emphasize detail in ways a camera can't.

And if you can't draw, haven't drawn in ages, are afraid to draw...what then? Try contour drawing. Contour drawing is an easy entry to the world of sketchbooks. A contour drawing captures the essence of an object with all of its texture. You can create a lovely contour drawing within an hour of learning the technique, no matter your age or art-school experience. You only need a pencil and paper. I do a life-size contour drawing for each of the paintings in my 100 Flowers series. I use 24 x 18 inch sheets of newsprint for the drawings, and I transfer the drawing directly to the canvas:

Nature Art 2

Why does this work? It works because contour drawing is done very slowly. In fact, the more slowly you draw, the more accurate your contour drawing will be. The slowness quiets down the chatter of your mind. My students, young and old, often feel a wave of impatience (the left brain) as they begin, thinking, "This is silly," or "Why go so slow...I can draw the shape of a flower," just before they relax into drawing beautifully (as the right brain takes over).

So here's what to do: Grab a pencil and a blank piece of paper. Choose an object to draw--something you like, maybe a teacup, a pair of Felco pruners, or a pineapple. Place the object on a table in front of you. Contour drawing is just following the outer contour of an object with your eye and drawing a corresponding line on paper. Practice once before starting to draw by slowly tracing your index finger along the contours of your object. Take a few deep breaths to quiet the mind.

Continue by slowly moving your eye along the outer edge of the object and slowly drawing a corresponding line on the paper. Look back and forth between the object and the paper to check your lines. Don't lift your pencil, and don't stop to erase. If you make a big mistake, simply take a deep breath, lift your pencil, and place it where it ought to be. Your first drawing should take you about five minutes.

My students begin by drawing their own hands, and the studio falls silent as they work. They take off a shoe next and draw that for 15 minutes. They often lose track of time as they draw and, if things go well, you will feel this way, too.

Finally, know this: Your first drawing is only the first of many, and it will be your weakest, so don't lose hope if it doesn't come out exactly as you had planned.

If you're intrigued by contour drawing, read the essential book on the subject: Betty Edwards' "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain." It is available through Amazon or ask for it at your favorite bookstore. She has a great website, too. If you'd like to hear more about the creativity debate between the left and right sides of the brain, listen to this 2006 segment from Studio 360.

And here's the painting that grew from my contour drawing:

Nature Art 1

-- Sue Fierston paints and teaches just outside of Washington, D.C. in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As a painter, she works in acrylics and watercolor and is in the middle of a series called "100 Flowers." As a teaching artist, she works with teachers to bring art into their classrooms in grades 4-8. Her posts focus on her nature-themed art collaborations. For a look at her paintings or more about her teaching, check out her website at suzannefierston.com.

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