Art lesson: Contour drawing

Published by Lori Pickert on March 1, 2008 at 01:26 PM


contour drawing by J, age 9

Last week we did some blind contour drawing, using a paper plate on our pencil so we couldn't see our paper — we kept our eye on the outline of what we were drawing and let our hand follow along.

We then followed up with a regular observational drawing. Our observational drawings are improving dramatically after just a few classes. The children are getting into the habit of looking for more detail before I ask them (nag them), "Do you see another detail you can add?" When they say "I'm done!", they really do have a mostly completed drawing to show me.

Blind contour drawing forces us to slow down and really look hard at the outline of what we're drawing; afterward, their observational drawings show how much attention they had given to the object they were drawing.

This week we tossed away the paper plates (metaphorically) and did some contour drawing.

Once again we started by talking about outlines. We drew backpacks during class, so I held up a backpack and had one of the students come up and trace and major lines with her finger while we all talked about it. Then we were ready to draw.



• Try to draw the outline of all the major parts of the backpack with one long line — no stopping and starting.

• It's okay to glance at the page to make sure your lines are going where they're supposed to go, but try to mostly keep looking at what you are drawing.

• This is not an observational drawing — don't stop and add details. Just keep going forward and outline the big/important elements.

• Your line needs to be strong and go straight ahead like a slow freight train — it's fine to draw over the lines that are already there.

• No coloring in or filling in — just do the outline.

• Draw big! Try to fill your whole paper.


Since this is the first time we were doing this type of drawing, I did some "that's great, but let's start again on this side of the paper and this time..." encouragement as I walked the room.

I always tell the kids that sketching is practicing and we will usually put more than one drawing on a page. If they have an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper and they are making a drawing that is about the size of a pack of cards, I will encourage them to just draw it again in an empty part of the paper. If they are drawing a large object very small, then I will ask them to try to draw it larger.

In the same vein, when I emphasize that sketching is practicing, I don't say or imply "you're doing it wrong" — I say "great, now do it again and change this or that". When they are doing an observational drawing of a small object, I flip it over or around so they can draw it from a different perspective. If they tend to draw very lightly, I might ask them to do another one with big strong lines. Sketching, I tell them, is about trying a lot of different things.


J, age 9, contour drawing, first attempt



second attempt


E, age 7, contour drawing

Contour drawing, like blind contour drawing, is about drawing the outline of something as it really looks. Many of the children made a first attempt, then we talked about the results, then they made a second attempt. Most of them needed at least two tries to figure out trying to draw the whole thing in one line. We talked about using an etch-a-sketch — how you just go over another line or through the empty part to get to the next thing you are going to draw.


Left to right: first attempt at contour drawing, second attempt, final observational drawing, by E, age 6

After we finished our contour drawings, we did an observational drawing. You can see the children used the information they gathered during the contour drawing to improve their observational drawings.


observational drawing by Jack, age 8


Related stuff:

Art lesson: Blind Contour Drawing

Art lesson: Observational Drawing

Benefits of observational drawing


Comment by girlwithmoxy on March 2, 2008 at 05:20 PM

Inspired by your online art class, I ventured to our art store in town, spent a bit on real supplies, and now we've been budding into little artists at our house! Thanks so much for the adventure, the valuable assignments, and inspiration to get out of my homeschoolin' rut, and try something new! We're loving it!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 2, 2008 at 06:00 PM

thank you so much! :^D)

Comment by dyan on March 11, 2008 at 07:26 PM

Thanx for the info!

Comment by teaching handwork on June 2, 2008 at 02:55 AM

thank you for this lesson. I will do this with my kids

Comment by Candy Cook on October 7, 2008 at 12:52 AM

We did contour drawings of jack be little & pie pumpkins we bought on a farm trip. Afterwards, we did color them and add some Halloween scenery in the background. But, this contour drawing is what interested my son enough to continue. He normally hates drawing and was intrigued by trying to keep his eye on the pumpkin and not looking at his paper.

Comment by Keisha on February 6, 2009 at 12:27 AM

Again, I am soooo happy I found this site. Thank you!

Comment by Brad on June 26, 2009 at 03:57 AM

I think viewing things from different angels and then trying to sketch them is a good strategy to improve drawing with time.

Comment by Renee in BC on October 13, 2010 at 04:08 AM

This is a lovely post. I appreciate that you included so many photos of the student work.

This is my first comment here (I think...), but I've been reading your blog for a while and always appreciate your informative and uplifting articles. Lots of good advice. Thank you.


Comment by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2010 at 12:51 AM

hi renee, and thank you! :)

are you sure you haven't commented before? i think you have! :)

Comment by Renee in BC on October 15, 2010 at 01:05 AM


I only know that I know nothing. It's very possible I HAVE commented before. This is our second year of homeschooling and everything has become very foggy.....

FYI my daughter and I snuggled in bed for hours yesterday, just drawing. I showed her this post, and I know she was put at ease by sample work you showed. She drew and drew and drew, without getting hung up on how her drawings "looked." That's a huge step for my little perfectionist!

Again, I enjoy your blog very much. Thank you.


Comment by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2010 at 09:08 PM

i know i have a renee and i know i have someone in BC .. i think it's you! :^)

that is wonderful about your daughter .. seeing actual children's work is much better than a "perfect" adult sample, imo!

thank you for sharing your experience with me .. it makes my day! :^)

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