An artist drawing a three-dimensional object with contour lines.

Contour Lines In Art, Purpose, Variations, Techniques & Application

Lines are one of the basic elements of art, especially in drawing and sketching. They act as the foundation for drawing form, depth, edge, and dimension in a two-dimensional artwork. These simple elements are key to both beginners and professional artists, and understanding and mastering them is important for sharpening your artistic skills.

In this article, we shall focus on contour lines, their purpose, various types, and tips on how to use them effectively in your drawing.

What are contour lines in art?

Contour lines define the edges, ridges, and outlines of any subject in a drawing or painting. They are used to create an illusion of form and depth on a flat surface. Depending on the art style, they can be either thin, thick, or broken. You have to closely observe and trace the contours of an object to capture its essence and create a sense of three-dimensionality in your work.

These lines should not be seen as outlines. They help you create form, shape, and texture and combine them into a subject. When you use them sensibly, you can create a beautiful composition, guiding the viewer’s eye to a lifelike drawing.

What is the difference between a contour line and an outline?

In a general context, both terms seem similar and are generally used interchangeably, but there are subtle differences between them.

Contour lines generally follow the curves and edges of the subject, capturing its three-dimensional form. These elements show both the outer edges and the internal details of the subject.

Outlines are simple flat lines that only define the outer boundary of a shape or object. They do not provide any information on the subject’s volume or form.

Should contour lines need to be precise?

These lines do not need to be precise or accurate. They only need to be loose and maintain proportion and spatial relationships, which will help create a convincing illusion of form and depth.

What is the purpose of contour lines?

These lines serve several important purposes for an artist, and they are listed below:

  • Defining form: These elements help establish a subject’s shape and volume, making it appear three-dimensional on a flat surface.
  • Creating depth: They can also help create a sense of depth and distance in a drawing. The thickness and intensity can be varied.
  • Guiding the viewer’s eye: Contour lines can be used to direct the viewer’s attention to specific areas of a composition, helping to emphasize the most important element or object in the sketching.
  • Expressing emotion: They can range from delicate and subtle to bold and expressive, helping to convey emotion and mood in a drawing. This can be done by varying the quality and character of the lines.

How does contour drawing lay the foundation for more detailed and realistic artwork?

This technique lays the foundation for detailed, realistic drawing by training the artist to focus on the subject’s outline and visible edges. It helps develop keen observation skills and hand-eye coordination, enabling artists to capture the essential lines and shapes that define an object accurately.

By mastering this technique, artists can create a solid framework upon which they can build more advanced drawing techniques, such as shading and texture, to create lifelike representations.

Can contour lines be used to create a sense of movement in an art?

Yes, contour lines can create a sense of movement in art by varying the thickness, direction, and quality of the lines, suggesting motion through gestural, flowing, or rhythmic elements.

What are the different types of contour lines in art?

There are several types used in art, and each serves a specific purpose to create a unique effect for your drawing. We shall explore some of the most common types:

Continuous contour lines

These are unbroken lines used to define a subject’s edges and forms. The artist traces the contours without lifting the drawing tool from the paper, resulting in a fluid, unified representation. This technique promotes hand-eye coordination and keen observation skills while capturing the subject’s essential features expressively.

Blind contour lines

These are lines drawn without looking at the paper, keeping the artist’s eyes focused solely on the subject. This technique helps develop keen observation skills and encourages a more intuitive, expressive approach to drawing. The resulting drawings often result in distorted or abstract representations of the subject, emphasizing the artist’s unique perception and interpretation.

Cross contour lines

These describe a subject’s surface topology and three-dimensional form. They are drawn perpendicular to the actual contour lines, following the surface’s curves and undulations. They can help convey a sense of volume, texture, and depth in a drawing, making the subject appear more lifelike and tangible.

Implied contour lines

These are not actually drawn but are suggested by changes in value, color, or texture. They are created by the viewer’s eye as they follow the transitions between light and dark areas or different colors in a drawing. They can be used to create a sense of depth, movement, and atmosphere in a composition, inviting the viewer to participate in the active interpretation of the drawing.

How to draw contour lines?

Drawing these lines is a skill that can be developed through practice and observation. Here are some tips to help you get started:

  1. Start with simple subjects: Begin by drawing simple objects with clear, well-defined contours, such as fruits, vegetables, or household items. As you gain confidence, gradually move on to more complex subjects.
  2. Observe: Take your time to study your subject closely, paying attention to the curves, edges, and details that define its form. Try to break down the subject into simpler shapes and lines.
  3. Use a continuous line: When drawing actual contour lines, try to use a single, unbroken line to trace the contours of your subject. This helps develop hand-eye coordination and encourages a more fluid, expressive drawing style.
  4. Experiment with different media: You can draw them with a variety of tools, such as pencils, pens, charcoal, or even paint. Experiment with different media to find the one that best suits your style and preferences.
  5. Practice regularly: Like any skill, drawing these lines improves with regular practice. Set aside time each day to sketch and draw, focusing on capturing the contours of different subjects.

How do I start practicing?

To start practicing contour line drawing, follow these simple steps:

  • Choose a simple subject, such as a piece of fruit or a household object.
  • Position the subject in front of you at eye level, ensuring that you have a clear view of its contours.
  • Using a pencil or pen, begin tracing the contours of the subject with a continuous, unbroken line. Focus on capturing the essential curves, edges, and details that define its form.
  • Avoid looking at your paper while drawing, keeping your eyes focused on the subject. This will help you develop your observation skills and create a more intuitive, expressive drawing.
  • Once you have completed the drawing, take a step back and assess your work. Identify areas for improvement and note any insights or discoveries you made during the process.

Remember, the goal of contour line practice is not to create a perfect, photorealistic drawing but rather to develop your observation skills, hand-eye coordination, and ability to capture the essence of a subject using simple lines.

What are some techniques for drawing contour lines?

The following are some techniques for drawing these lines:

  • Vary the type of line, using thick lines for bold edges and thin lines for subtle details.
  • Overlap them to build up form, remembering that a contour line is a line that describes the edges.
  • Use cross-contour lines to create a sense of volume and surface texture.
  • Suggest form with implied contour lines, utilizing changes in shading or color.
  • Combine different line techniques to develop diverse drawing skills.

What is the difference between blind contour and modified contour?

Blind contour and modified contour are two types of contour line art with distinct approaches.

Blind Contour LinesModified Contour Lines
In blind contour drawing, the artist focuses on the subject without looking at the paper, creating expressive, distorted lines.The artist glances back and forth between the subject and the paper, allowing for more control and accuracy in the drawing.
Blind contour drawings often result in distorted or abstract representations of the subject, emphasizing the artist’s unique perception and interpretation.Modified contour drawings tend to be more accurate and representational, capturing the subject’s proportions and details more faithfully.
Blind contour drawings are often used as a warm-up exercise or as a way to loosen up and explore new drawing styles.Modified contour drawings are often used as a foundation for more complex and finished drawings, such as portraits or still lifes.

Both techniques improve observation skills but result in different types of drawings.

What is contour line drawing?

This fundamental art technique involves using lines to define the edges, shapes, and forms of a subject. Artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso famously utilized them in their figure drawings and sketches to create expressive, simplified representations that captured the essence of their subjects.

In this technique, the artist focuses primarily on the outline and visible contours of the object, carefully observing and translating these lines onto paper. The key to success is to look closely at the object and use a continuous, varying line that defines its essential features. This line, often used in figure drawing, can be thick or thin, depending on the level of detail and emphasis desired.

Cross-contour lines, drawn perpendicular to the main contours, can also describe volume and surface texture. This technique is valuable for training the eye and hand to work together and serves as a foundation for more advanced drawing techniques and styles.

Can I use contour lines for abstract art?

Yes, contour lines can be a powerful tool in creating abstract art. By simplifying and distorting forms, emphasizing line quality, and exploring the interaction between lines, colors, and shapes, artists can use them to create expressive, dynamic, and visually striking abstract compositions that push the boundaries of traditional representation.

Do artists use contour lines for figure drawing?

Yes, they are a fundamental tool in figure drawing, helping artists capture the essential forms, proportions, and gestures of the human body. They can define the figure’s structure, convey movement and volume, and allow for various drawing styles, making them invaluable for artists exploring the human form.

Can I incorporate color into contour drawings?

Yes, incorporating color into contour drawings can add depth, interest, and expression to your art. Experiment with using colored lines, watercolor washes, colored pencils, pastels, or digital coloring techniques to enhance your contour drawings. When adding color, consider how it interacts with the lines and shapes of your composition, choosing colors that complement or contrast with your contour lines to create visually striking results.

How can contour lines be combined with other elements of art to create compelling compositions?

Contour lines can be combined with other elements of art to create compelling compositions. For example, using contour lines alongside color, texture, and value can enhance depth, contrast, and visual interest. Incorporating contour lines into principles like balance, rhythm, and emphasis can further strengthen the overall impact of the artwork.


To conclude, contour lines are a fundamental element of art that every artist should master. By understanding the purpose, types, and techniques of these lines, you can create artwork that effectively captures the essence and form of your subjects, conveying depth, emotion, and visual impact.

Remember to practice regularly, embrace imperfections, and experiment with different subjects, media, and techniques to develop your unique artistic style and vision. As you incorporate contour lines into your artwork, you’ll discover their powerful potential for self-expression and creative exploration.

Ready to elevate your contour line skills? Share your art with our community using #ContourLinesChallenge, and grow as an artist.

Scroll to Top
Inspiring Art Quotes from Famous Artists Art Animation: Breathing Life and Movement into Artworks How to Get Motivation to Draw