Uplevel Your Art Skills With Cross-Contour Drawing Techniques

Are you struggling to get your drawings to seem convincing? Contour drawing changed how I drew for the better and improved my artwork tremendously. I had no idea that using simple lines could alter your drawing and make it look much more accurate. It helped me visualise objects and understand how they related to the space they occupied, so I had to share it with you.

I have always been fascinated by how a few lines could describe forms. Simple shapes and lines can bring a story and its characters alive.

When I was a child, I enjoyed reading comics. These books are often just designed with varying lines. I spent time trying to copy them. Back then, I had no idea that I was learning important skills in using lines to improve the design of my drawings.

The line is one of the most critical elements of art, not excluding colour, shape, form, texture, value and space.

There would be no art without lines. You can modify a subject's form with variations in the lines to depict objects realistically.

What is contour drawing in art?

The focus of contour drawing is the outlined shape of the subject rather than the details. Contours are used to depict the mass and volume using simple lines. The French word contour means "outline".

Contour drawing of mushroom

In this drawing, we can see the contours of the mushroom, but it still looks flat. We need to add some inner contour lines to help us understand what we see better.

Not all contours exist along the edges of a subject; it includes changes of plane within the form.

Inner contours of the mushroom

Once we add the inner contour lines, the drawing makes more sense.

To give these mushrooms more dimensionality, we need to add cross contours.

Cross contours of mushroom drawings.

So, what is cross-contour drawing?

Cross-contour lines are lines that cross the form of your subject, as the name implies. Cross-contour lines may or may not be visible on the subject but describe the form. These lines convey three-dimensional depth, length, width, space, distance and perspective.

Cross contours can be both horizontal and vertical, like the latitudes and longitudes on a globe.

Cross-contours of a sphere

To help you grasp this idea, take your finger and slowly trace a path across the surface of an object.

A cup will have a rounded surface along the body. But a book will have a flat surface.

Another common way to understand contour lines is to see them as changes in elevation, like on a topographical map.

topographical map

Why are contours and cross-contours important?

These concepts are necessary for drawing and painting to help you make decisions regarding the direction of your stroke. Regardless of the media you choose - pen, pencil, brush or digital tablet.

Cross contours don't have to be obvious - they indicate the direction and the imagination fills in the rest.

While most of us might think that a banana is cylindrical, we might notice that it actually has flat edges when we draw cross-contour lines.

banana cross-contours

A pear will have a rounded surface along the body.

Pear cross-contours

A bell pepper has long grooves along the side and curved bumps.

Capsicum cross-contours

But a book will have a flat surface.

Book cross-contours

The strokes made with your artistic medium should flow in harmony with the cross contours of your subject to communicate the form it takes.

A good understanding of contours and cross contours is necessary for drawing and painting to help you decide the direction of your strokes. As an artist, we want to convince the viewer that what they see occupies space on a plane even though our drawings are on a flat piece of paper.

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Here are three things to keep in mind when you use contour lines.

1. Ask yourself what does this object look like?

A sphere, cylinder, cone, ellipsoid or box?


Let's take a circle and draw straight contour lines. It turns it flat.

What if we drew curved lines? This makes it look like a curved dish.

circle contour drawings

But when we curve the lines across the form, we can create the illusion of a sphere with just a few lines. The last drawing looks like a ball and is much more convincing than the others.

2. Imagine the form as transparent and draw through it

Let's try the same thing with a cylinder.

With straight lines, the cylinder looks flat.

Some beginners might then try to create a curve without understanding its reasoning. This line also looks wrong because it is too shallow.

cylinder cross-contours

We need to imagine the form as transparent and draw through it. Imagine that your line goes through the surface across to the other side.

3. Cross-contour lines will be perpendicular to the axis the form takes

Let's start by looking at what direction the cylinder is pointing.

To draw our cross contours on the cylinder, we need to establish the centre line or axis. Our cross-contour lines will be perpendicular to the axis the form takes.

So now, when we attempt the cross-contour lines, we understand how the cross-contour needs to take shape. We draw it perpendicular (at 90°) to the axis and it's drawn around to the other side.

cylinder contours.

When we draw the cross-contours at an angle, it seems off. This is because visually, you can tell these lines slice the forms; they are not congruent with the lines above and below them.

Our contour lines guide the eye in depicting how round the sides look while the top is flat.

Let's grab our sketchbooks and put these cross-contour concepts into practice.

We're going to draw an onion.

onion drawing reference

What does this most closely resemble? A sphere, perhaps?

Let's draw the outermost contour lines and get their general shape. Next, we will figure out the angle it takes by imagining an axis passing through the middle of it.

You will notice the axis of the onion by noting the angle of the roots and tip of the bulb.

onion contour drawing

Luckily with the onion, we already have lines running down the sides to guide us in drawing the vertical axes.

We can imagine the object is transparent and draw it through the other side. This slices our onion vertically into four quarters.

onion cross contours

Let's try to slice it in half horizontally down its widest edge. Keep the cross contours perpendicular to the axis. Then we can add more lines parallel to it.

parallel cross contour lines

Now that we have our lines, we can use them as guides to draw the other vertical lines.

onion linesFinish your drawing by adding the roots and the tip of the onion.

onion drawing

Line quality

Line quality or line weight refers to the thickness or thinness of the line.

Experiment with varied line weights. You can use varying lines and line thicknesses to create texture, form, and volume and trick the mind into believing that you see a 3D object.

You can use various-sized pens or brushes. Or, you can draw over certain lines to build up their thickness.

The line may be thicker where the object has more mass. In comparison, the line may be thinner to indicate a light source. Objects that make contact with one another create a shadow; they have thicker lines. You can evoke the transition from dark to light using varying line thicknesses.

Use a medium thickness for the main lines, a thicker one for emphasis, and a thinner one to add highlights, small details or shading lines.

fruit bowl cross contour drawing

In reality, the world doesn't have outlines like a colouring book. Our minds perceive things in a way that objects seem to have lines. So, if you want to create convincing drawings, the type of line you choose is essential to the success of your representation.

Try these cross-contour drawing examples of still life to understand these concepts better.

still life cross contours

By understanding contours and lines, you can easily create the illusion of form in your artwork.

How will you incorporate these techniques into your artistic practice?

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