06 July, 2009

DRAWING 101: EDGE (OUTLINE) VS. CONTOUR - by Alvin Horst

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What is meant by edge/outline? The outer limit of the shape of the model. As explained below, the edge, drawn as an outline on the picture plane, is devoid of form, lacks volume, lacks planes and is not necessarily nor always connected to the inner form of the human figure.

Instead of the figure, think of a cube. The cube in outline (edge)—see figure 1.



What is meant by contour? The outer limit of the form regardless of direction, position or place on the figure. As explained below, the contour, drawn as the limit of a form, constructs three dimensional volume and planes. The cube in contour—see figure 2.


The figure as edge and the figure as contour—see figure 3.


Fundamental Assumption: these comments refer to traditional drawing of form in space on a flat, two-dimensional surface. The human figure is the principal form to be considered because it is composed of numerous types of form (cube, sphere, cylinder, cone) and is capable of being interpreted in both geometric and organic style.

The Picture Plane: Some Elemental Properties.

The picture plane is that flat two dimensional surface on which the form image is created. When viewed from the front the space potential of the picture plane is infinite. Consider a flat circle that touches each side on the picture plane. The circle is a flat shape in the foreground. Consider now a flat circle one half the size of the picture plane. The circle is now a flat shape in the middle ground. Next consider a flat circle one fourth the size of the picture plane. The circle is now a flat shape in the distance. Finally, consider a pinhead in the middle upper third of the picture plane. The tiny circle could be in some distant galaxy. Figure 4.



Practical Application: in beginning a drawing an initial consideration regards the placement of the form. The larger the shape, the closer the form; the smaller the shape the more distant the form. Does the artist want the form close, possibly of “heroic” size, or large and intimate? Does the artist want the form conventionally and comfortably sized in the near space? Or, does the artist want the figure small and in the distance?

The Integrity of the Picture Plane

The picture plane as a flat, homogenous, uninterrupted surface plane is destroyed by any sort of mark, but certainly by a shape. Consider again the circles above. The circles exist in space from close to far, but with respect to the picture plane, they make a hole in the picture plane. The integrity of the picture plane has been destroyed. The hole goes to an infinite depth. To illustrate this character of the circle, take a sheet of paper, fold in half, and cut out a half circle from the folded edge. Open the sheet and look at the circle. It is a hole into space. Drawing a circle on the picture plane has the same result. Likewise drawing the outline of the figure.

Practical Application: the consequence of drawing the outer edge of the figure on the picture plane is the making of a two dimensional “outline/edge” shape that is a “hole” in the picture plane. The figure shape has no depth, no form in space. The reality is that that outline/edge has collected into one line in space many contours/edges which actually exist at many different places in space. Observe the “outline” “edge” of the first cube above, for example. It can be seen readily that that outline/edge actually represent contour/edges at different place in space. The cube shape is, in reality, a hole in the picture plane. CONCLUSION: the “edge” “outline” exists in only one plane in space. It does not come forward towards the foreground, nor go farther away towards the middle or background.

Practical Consideration: one main goal of art design, composition, painting/drawing is Unity. Because a “hole” in the picture plane destroys unity, the issue must be resolved and unity restored. Until the artist can represent the figure as a composition of forms in space and not as a flat shape, holes will be common and the artistic result will be inferior.

The Language of the Picture Plane

The Picture Plane may be thought of as a clear window through which the eyes can see and on which the image can be made present with the language of drawing: line, plane, volume, tone, overlap and so forth. The art lies in using that language to re-present the form as a form in space. To help comprehend the art involved, consider walking ninety degrees around the picture plane and looking at it from the side. The plane is now seen as not having any depth, only surface. See Figure 5.



Now look at the form. The form can now be seen as having the third dimension, depth in space. Think of the circle above as a shape representing the human head. By walking around to the side, the head can again be roughly drawn as a circular shape only now it goes back in space. Were this circle drawn on a picture plane, it, too, would be merely a flat shape making a hole in that picture plane. See Figure 6.



If, however, the first circle shape on the picture plane is combined with the second circle shape as seen from the side, the result is now a three dimensional form in space. See Figure 7.


Were it possible to walk vertically above the picture plane and look down on the form from above, a third circle could be drawn as has already been drawn from front and side. By combining this third circle on the previously drawn form, it would now be seen that the form has become even more defined as a form/volume in space. See Figure 8.


The human head, as well as the human figure, of course, is not as smoothly symmetrical as the idealized circular ball form. The edges of the human form are continually moving in space, going in every direction. Looking at the human figure, the artist must realize that the contour goes just as much from, say, the pit of the neck to the belly button as it does from the top of the shoulder to the elbow. The contour advances, recedes, rises, declines, changes slowly, changes drastically, goes strait, takes a curve and so forth, over the entire figure.

Practical Consideration: The artist, in viewing the human figure, will observe outside edges that are moving in space. To repeat: by drawing the edges as observed, without considering that the edges are actually moving contours, the artist will merely draw a flat shape, a “hole” in the picture plane. Of course, the artist must begin by quickly and lightly placing the figure on the page as a flat shape. The artist should not worry about proportion (about which more later). After a quick estimation placement, the artist should immediately begin to develop the three dimensional form by placing the numerous contours defining forms at their relative position in space. Such study is exhilarating. It is particularly thrilling to discover the way in which the varied forms of the human figure move in space relative to one another.

Importance of Side View (Inner) Contour

Look at some heads painted or drawn by Braque, Picasso or Modigliani. These artists make an obvious use of the inner contour of the form as seen from the side. By using two views of the head, these artists resolve the issue of the outside edge as mere flat shape. The head they paint/draw has three dimensional solidity.

Don’t worry about proportion.

First, because proportion will be a challenge no matter how long one draws. Very few artists have the ability to place the figure of a blank surface without making revisions. In beginning a drawing, one seeks out the location of the various parts of the figure. John Ruskin, a very skilled and competent draughtsman, stated that he spent three quarters of his time on a drawing trying to get the proportions right. In a ten, twenty minute sketch, does it make sense to spend seven, fifteen minutes fussing with proportion? Almost everyone has the ability to make the proportions roughly correct enough to quickly go on to more enjoyable issues in drawing.

Second, if one begins with light estimations, many of the initial lines will be used in other contexts as the drawing develops.

Third, distortions are an expressive and prized part of a drawing. Does it make sense to spend much time, effort, frustration, agony in trying to get proportions correct only to cast it away later in favor of distortion? Look at the drawings of the masters: is not the greater number of their works characterized by expressive distortions? Even Rafael’s forms are creations and not naturalistic copies.

Forth, the result of repeatedly going over the outline shape is only to reinforce and dramatize the “hole” that is made by focusing on the outline/edge.

The Summing Up: always remember—
CONTOUR IS THREE DIMENSIONAL. EDGE/OUTLINE IS TWO DIMENSIONAL.

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