An outline drawing of a fashion girl done with pen

Should I Outline My Drawings? (Explained)

Outlining is a foundational drawing technique that has sparked debate in art for ages. Some artists live by outlines and meticulously sketch them before adding any detail. Others see outlines as imposing unnecessary constraints on organic creativity and style. So, should you outline your drawings or not?

The decision ultimately comes down to personal preference based on your artistic goals, abilities, and subject matter. By understanding what outlining is, why it emerged as a technique, how stylistic conventions utilize outlines, and the potential benefits and drawbacks, you can decide whether incorporating outlines will enhance or limit your artistic vision.

What is Outlining in Drawing?

Outlining refers to using distinct lines to delineate the boundaries and contours of forms in a drawing. Outlines establish the structure and proportions of the subject early on, allowing the artist to layer in shading, textures, colors, and finer details with a guide already in place.

How is Outlining Defined in the Context of Drawing?

Outlining is a constructive technique in drawing that involves using distinct contour lines to delineate the outermost edges and boundaries of forms. Outlining creates clean, definite edges around objects, figures or shapes in drawings.

Some key traits of outlines as a technique include the following:

  • Traces the outer contours and silhouettes of forms
  • Tends to use slightly thicker or darker lines
  • Establishes boundaries between elements
  • Creates preliminary structure before adding values or details
  • It can be left visible in the final drawing or erased after more layers are built up

Outlining is not the same as regular line drawing, as the lines carry more weight in determining the proportions and compositions of shapes. Outlining can be used with other planning techniques like gesture drawing or basic perspective structures.

Why is Outlining Considered Important in a Drawing?

Outlining emerged as an important technique in drawing due to a few key advantages. It provides the following advantages:

  • Establishes proper proportions early on
  • Creates defined contours for painting or accurate hatching/cross-hatching
  • Holds compositional elements in correct spatial relationships
  • Allows preliminary checking of scale and positioning
  • Can provide an underdrawing for erasing and reworking

Historically, outlines made transferring preparatory drawings to canvases and etching plates easier. The clean contours served as guides for painting and printmaking techniques. This technical role upheld outlining as a “best practice.”

Can a Drawing be Complete Without an Outline?

Countless art movements and illustrators have proven that completed, sophisticated drawings can forgo outlines entirely. Replacing outlines with a range of line weights, subtle edges, intricate brushwork and controlled values offers immense versatility.

Outlines can sometimes impose awkward constraints if the goal is to capture ethereal, intricate, or organic edges in detail. Avoiding outlines thus broadens the creative possibilities in many drawing styles.

How is Outlining Used in Different Drawing Styles?

The conventions of outlining vary drastically across drawing and art styles. What’s essential in one genre may be strictly avoided in others as part of their aesthetic.

How is Outlining Used in Realistic Drawing?

In traditional academic approaches to realistic drawing, outlines are often integral in the preliminary stages. The initial contour lines indicate the proportions, silhouette, orientation and structural sketch of the subject. This structured start ensures accuracy.

Once the foundation is blocked in, outlines are generally erased or faded into layered shading. Strong outlines lingering in finished realist drawings can feel distracting or primitive. Soft, nuanced edges achieve true-to-life solidity and form.

Realist outlines serve chiefly as constructive guides, not as a visible stylistic element.

Is Outlining Always Necessary in Realistic Drawing?

No. Many realist drawers skip outlines, relying on accurate sighting and measurements to plot stick figures, basic shapes and landmarks directly. This immediate focus on internal anatomy suits a more sculptural approach. Outlines may emerge loosely through later detailing, but harsh initial contours are avoided. This more interpretive method demands strong foundational skills.

How is Outlining Used in Abstract Drawing?

Abstract drawing emphasizes color, shape relationships, texture and intuitive mark-making over delineating specific objects. Thus, defined outlines conflict with abstraction’s morphing forms and ambient spaces. Visible outlines tend to flatten floating compositions, undermining depth.

Can Outline Limit the Freedom of Expression in Abstract Drawing?

Yes. Outlines can hinder the open-ended flow central to abstraction. The natural ebb and flow of pigment and experimental textures rely on color fields melding intuitively. Outlines isolate elements, disjointing the unity abstraction seeks rhythmically blending marks and passages. reservational lines also sabotage the interpretive nature where viewers get lost in emergent textures.

How is Outlining Used in Cartooning/Graphic Drawing?

Cartooning simplifies imagery down to essentials for maximum visual impact. Lines carry the style’s graphical weight through the following:

  • Clean outlines
  • Variable line weights bounding forms
  • Contour Lines for features and folds
  • Expressive/animated outlines

This versatile vocabulary of lines, contained by definite edges, streamlines complex forms into iconic graphic symbols. So outlines are vital in graphic drawing, heightening contours around exaggerated shapes. Negative space matters hugely in cartoons, and outlines optimize contrast against backgrounds.

What are the Pros and Cons of Outlining a Drawing?

Outlines impact drawings with advantages and disadvantages: The following are the brief pros and cons.

What are the benefits of Outlines in drawing?

The following are the benefits of an artist using outlines in the drawing:

Outlining can provide helpful structure early on:

  • Guides accurate proportions
  • Holds relationships in place
  • Allows easy development in layers
  • Visual benchmarks to avoid tangents

Forms stay “locked in”:

  • Crisp contours anchor elements
  • Figures don’t “float away” over time
  • Retains reproducibility when erasing

Beginners can progress quicker:

  • Training wheels supporting the next steps
  • This means avoiding complicated edges
  • Effort shifted sooner to rendering

What are the Potential Drawbacks of Outlines in Drawing?

The following are the drawbacks of an artist using an outline when drawing.

Can inhibit spontaneity:

  • Having to outline makes starting intimidating
  • Disrupts intuitive mark-making
  • Thinking in outlines risks overplanning

Can undermine lighting effects:

  • Contours ignore shifting edges
  • Outweighs subtle value changes
  • Limits conveying dimensionality

Can overly flatten image:

  • Visible outlines appear in graphic
  • Presence competes with finer detailing
  • It looks amateurish if not erased later

Are there any Specific Scenarios Where Outlining is Particularly Beneficial or Detrimental?

Of course, there are certain scenarios where an artist needs to use an outline or should not. We have briefly covered below:

Beneficial uses of outlining:

  • Transferring drawings for printmaking/painting
  • Establishing correct anatomy proportions
  • Guiding early shading in portraiture
  • Plotting precise engineering/architectural drawings

Scenarios where outlining may hinder:

  • Capturing soft or detailed textures
  • Subtle lighting reveals complex form
  • Suggesting recession in landscapes
  • Expressive mark-making techniques

So, in summary – outlines excel when constructive guidance aids end goals but potentially limits replicating delicate edges and ambiance.

What is the Purpose of an Outline in Drawing?

The core purpose of outlines is to establish structure. Outlines act as preliminary guides mapping out the scaffolding of a drawing – the underlying proportions, shapes, spatial relationships and accuracy of elements.

This purpose means:

  • Outlines are often a means to an end, not an end aesthetic unto themselves
  • They provide anchors in early steps, making additions easier
  • They can be worked into, built upon and even erased later on

Using outlines more as supportive initial guides than visible linework opens their usage. Artists avoid outlining not because outlines cannot suit some styles but because their original structural nature persists, interfering when that foundational rigidity conflicts with artistic goals. Using outlines as light constructive tools makes them applicable for constructing any drawing style.

What are the Different Types of Outlines?

There are several types of outlines used in drawing, and they are as follows:

  • Contour Outlines – These trace the exterior silhouettes and edges of forms to delineate their outer boundaries.
  • Organic Outlines – Looser, more gestural lines that seek to mirror the irregular shapes they contain. Less precise than contours.
  • Structural Outlines – Used to block in the major structural anatomy, landmarks and shapes within a form, not just the exterior.
  • Geometric Outlines – Straight, technical lines and angles used when outlining stiff manmade structures and hard-edged mechanical forms.
  • Expressive Outlines – Dynamic lines that reinforce movement, flow and rhythm within a form to heighten dramatic effect.
  • Thick Outlines – Bold outlines used in cartooning to provide definite form boundaries. Usually fairly uniform.
  • Thin Outlines – Faint, delicate lines just indicating initial form boundaries without imposing too dark a line quality.

Outlining styles blend based on goals. Thin organic lines may indicate gesture, then thick structural outlines solidify anatomy, and those dissolve into just thin final contours. Traditional practices favor starting structurally then moving outward (thick to thin). But style impacts options.

Does the Choice of Tool Affect the Role of the Outline?

The choice of tools very much influences outlines’ visibility, refinement level, and purpose.

The following are the choices:

Pencil – Soft, easy to erase outlines enable gradual development, perfect for constructive guidance.

Pen – Unforgiving crisp uniform contours suit graphic styles reliant on definite lines.

Brush Pens – Organic, responsive marks encourage free-flowing lines over rigid edges.

Charcoal – Blending outward maintains a bold dark edge so outlines depict contours.

Chalk/Pastel – Blending capabilities make solid contours counteract soft atmosphere.

Digital – Software determining variable line weights alters the flattening effects of outlines.

Printmaking – Outlines guide carved lines for reproducing analog textures.

Mixed Media – Combinations affect whether outlines separate graphics from textures.

Overall, matching tools to the intended constructive role optimizes leveraging the advantages of outlining for each unique drawing goal. More definitive tools uphold outlines as visible structures, while soft or responsive tools treat outlines as suggestive guides rather than visible constraints. Tool choice thus filters outlining’s purpose.

When Does an Outline Make Sense?

Outlining suits drawing goals where clearly defining contours aids in depicting, planning, or reproducing the intended subject. Cases where outlining benefits include:

Constructing Accurate Proportions

Outline form lengths and landmarks to map subjects to true measurements.

Establishing Perspective & Structure

Use outlines to plot perspective lines and block in correct spatial relationships first.

Focusing on Details

If rich textures come first, anchoring the clearest contours guides detailing patterns without losing place.

Guiding Realistic Shading

Define outlines of cast shadows, planes and anatomical shapes to clarify rendering progressions.

Reproducing Drawings

Outline key lines that can transfer measurements to other scales, tools or surfaces to retain accuracy.

Streamlining Graphics

Simplify complex shapes down to characteristic lines that define icons for clear identification.

What are the Alternative Approaches to Planning Your Drawing?

Artists who avoid outlines have many options for constructing drawings:

Thumbnail Sketches

Thumbnail sketches are tiny compositional diagrams made rapidly to experiment with arrangements before finishing. Doing miniature layout options establishes overall balances and patterns without meticulously outlining initial sketches.

Grid Methods

Grid methods lightly map measured intersecting gridlines across the page digitally or physically based on proportional ratios. This spatial structure precisely guides the positioning of major figures and scenery elements in accurate relation without needing outlines.

Light Construction Lines

Light construction lines loosely indicate major anatomical landmarks or directions with wispy, vague strokes instead of solid outlines. This retains an interpretive quality while permitting shapes to guide themselves fluidly as details fill space.

Gesture Drawing

Gesture drawing uses sweeping lines to capture figures’ mass, movement, and rhythmic flow rather than outline precise proportions. Through this holistic focus on conveying energy across the page dynamically, outlines derive from the impressionistic essence.


Some artists attack paper at random detailed spots, letting the composition emerge freely as they follow each granular texture outwards bit by bit without planning outlines. This embraces creative accidents as details dictate their own trails.

In summary, these approaches value whole impressions before outlines in order to replicate the natural visual experience through constructs unique to the artwork’s needs.

Many artists blend these tactics too – thumbnailing layouts, blocking major lines, then selectively outlining contours just where structure aids finer detailing.

Should You Outline Your Drawings?

Whether incorporating outlines when drawing makes sense depends on balancing many factors:

  • What are your personal stylistic preferences and habits?
  • What impression or mood matches your artistic vision best?
  • Does outlining benefit from translating the specific subject’s textures?
  • Do you need a firm structure guiding further detailing?
  • Will outlines enhance or distract from focal elements?

How Can Understanding the Role of Outlining Enhance Your Drawing Skills?

Knowing the definition, purpose, and artistic applications of outlining is one important drawing skill and allows one to make deliberate choices for incorporating outlines’ advantages while avoiding overdependence on outlines that cause detrimental constraints.

You retain outlines as one helpful technique among a versatile drawing vocabulary instead of a rigid required first step. This understanding leads to effectively constructing drawings with or without visible outlines matching individual cases.

How Can Understanding Outlining Help You Make an Informed Decision About Its Use in Your Drawings?

The key is realizing that “outlining” refers to a preliminary constructive guideline role more than a singular look. Much confusion and debate over outlining stems from some artists conflating constructive outlines that aid starting drawings with outlines as a visible graphic style.

Outlines need not be an either/or proposition. Their structural purpose makes them useful underdrawing tools that can later disappear instead of distracting final lines. Simply breaking the assumption that outlines must persist in finished art allows for better leveraging their constructive ability when appropriate without their lingering presence inhibiting styles relying on delicate edges and shading.

Identifying when this structural outlining will help or hinder matching your artistic vision for any given drawing is the insight that allows you to choose wisely.


Outlining provokes such diverse opinions in the art world because its original utility for constructing accurate drawings created an over-dependence on visible outlines, a style we now associate with amateur drawings that do not elevate beyond those initial stages.

But just because outlines alone don’t automatically achieve realism doesn’t negate their constructive ability to establish foundational structure. Nor is avoiding outlines altogether necessary to prove artistic sophistication. It comes down to strategically incorporating or limiting outlines based on whether that preliminary structure enhances or inhibits your style and subject matter.

So by recognizing outlines as guides – not platonic drawing law or a childish crutch- you can determine when starting with their clarity supports successfully rendering your vision versus when looser interpretations and directing attention elsewhere best captures artistic goals for any given drawing. The choice belongs entirely to you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Should I use a Pencil or Pen for my Outline?

    It depends on the artist’s comfort. Some artists prefer pencils because they’re easy to erase if you make a mistake. Others prefer pens because they produce cleaner lines.

  2. Are there Artists who don’t Outline their Drawings?

    Some artists feel that outlines constrain their creativity. Others prefer to work spontaneously without any preliminary planning.

  3. How do I know if I Should Outline my Drawing?

    It’s up to you. If you find that outlining your drawings helps you stay on track and achieve the desired results, then continue doing so. If you feel it’s constraining your creativity, don’t hesitate to ditch the outlines and go with your gut instinct.

  4. What are the Risks of not Outlining your Drawings?

    If you don’t outline your drawings, you risk making mistakes that can be difficult to fix. You also may have difficulty achieving accuracy and proportion in your artwork. Finally, you may be left to scrap the whole drawing and start from scratch if you’re unhappy with the results.

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