Thursday, February 24, 2011

Contour Dogs

© Hannah Phelps
Contour Drawing of Coast

Back in November, I signed up for The Sketchbook Project. (You may have noticed the logo on the sidebar...) The rules are wonderfully simple: order a Moleskine sketchbook, pick a theme, fill your sketchbook with anything you like (loosely related to your theme), send the sketchbook back to the sponsor, the Art House Co-op, and follow it online as it tours around the country for a year before landing in its permanent home in the Brooklyn Art Library. Doesn’t that sound fun?

Some people use their sketchbooks to do very finished pieces. There are folks who take all the pages out so they can sew in their favorite paper. I hear that people even put one giant poster in there, cleverly folded to fit in the book when it is closed.

Well, I didn’t futz with the pages (mostly because I don’t know how to sew) and I used the book in a more traditional sense. When artists go out with sketchbooks to draw, we are often playing with ideas or practicing drawing certain forms. Sticking pretty closely to my theme, “Raining Cats and Dogs”, I completed about 40 contour drawings of three Golden Retrievers - my Hatrick and Coast, and my sister’s dog Geraldine.

The term “contour drawing” means drawing the outside of the form. It is an exercise for learning to focus on looking hard at a subject in order to represent it accurately. Originally, I learned to do “blind contours” which meant looking only at the subject and not at all on the paper. In pure blind contours, the pencil doesn’t leave the paper, creating a continuous line as the eye follows the edge of the form.

Not always the outside edge - it could be any edge. For example, when I am drawing Coast’s face I might start with the outline created between his lip and the floor, but as his lip wrinkles a little and I can see some evidence of the structure of his nose, I leave the lip and continue my line into the interior of his face. That is how the eyes and nose and all that end up with detail. I am pretending that the pen is following the form in 3D..

With The Sketchbook Project, I bent the rules a bit. 
Hey, it’s MY sketchbook after all. So I did allow myself to peek at my paper. But not too much. The point of contour drawing is to look most often at what you are drawing and not at what you are creating. I draw my dogs because I am trying to learn more about them and contour drawing allows me to do that in a wonderful way. I have to trace their shapes with my pen just as I would stroke them with my hand. Most of the drawings have a bit of the essence of the dog's personality. Some of them are really weird, but that is fun too.

In case you are wondering - “Didn’t the dogs move?” Well, of course they did. They are highly paid, but they don’t really get the modeling thing. So they move. If it is early enough in the drawing, I just keep going and don’t worry that there are lines to nowhere. If it is a bit later into the drawing, I stop and start a new one.

Here is the secret - if I am working with the same three dogs all the time and I spend a lot of time around them, chances are I am going to see that pose again. So I just wait and finish it when they settle into a similar position.

I will share most of the sketchbook drawings here on the blog, including some of the odd ones. And you can see them in person, when you visit The Sketchbook Project in a city near you!


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