How contour drawing helped battle an attack of the criticism blues

Last week I wrote 5 steps to deal with criticism. I gave the example of a critical friend who said my figure drawing looked “constructed.”

Ouch. That hurt. But since my friend is A. a wonderful artist and B. Far more educated than I’ll ever be, I had to examine her criticism. To ignore it would have wasted valuable input from a trustworthy source.

I was trained in figure drawing by Rob Anderson, a teacher I respect immensely. He taught us to construct a figure using circles, boxes, and lines.

I love this method of figure drawing. For me, it’s like engineering the figure. It makes all the body parts understandable, and my drawing hand can grasp what my eyes and brain are trying to tell me. But if I have to admit it (and I believe in telling myself as much truth as I can stand), it does give my figures a certain stilted look.

figure drawing
Figures drawn by constructing all the bits then connecting the dots

I’ve been struggling with my figure drawing for a while. During our weekly drawing session, I’ve been looking for something when I draw that I haven’t been able to find. So maybe I was simply ready and primed for the criticism; It made me look hard at my work.

My friend Sue Smith draws in a beautiful, fluid style. I could watch her draw all day. So when she taught a class, of course I took it. I wanted to learn her secrets.

What did she teach us?

Contour drawing.

In the past, I have tried contour drawing and failed miserably. Way back when in college (when we went to school on woolly mammoths and drew with sticks in the mud because fire hadn’t yet been discovered and so we had no charcoal), a teacher hell-bent on minimalism insisted we make blind lines to describe the figure. We couldn’t look at our paper when we drew. Our eyes were supposed to stay on the figure. It’s a commonly used method to teach beginning students to draw.

I hated it.

But I firmly believe in embracing the beginner’s mind. And besides, Sue’s drawings are beautiful. She must be on to something.

So I drew blindly, and made these monsters. But there is something about them that I like. A freedom of line. A fluid movement of the charcoal.

Then we were allowed to look at our paper, but not while we were drawing. When we were drawing we looked only at the model. I feel like these drawings have a motion that I’ve been missing.



In our next life drawing session, I used a brush pen to better focus on line quality. I forced myself to think in terms of contour instead of constructing the figure.


My brain changed. Suddenly I was thinking more about the whole figure as I tried to make relationships on the fly rather than mapping out the body parts and connecting the dots.  My drawing changed too: My drawings became more active, more alive.

But what I gained in artistic fluidity, I lost in accuracy; I need to balance those two things. Can’t I have both?

I set out to combine the two. When I made this drawing, the idea of blind contour drawing was still bouncing around in my head, even while I lightly mapped the figure for accuracy. I can feel the echo of those clumsy blind-contour monsters giving life to this drawing.


I’m super excited by this discovery. I can feel the hardened edges of my artistic soul cracking open to let in more light.

And all because I didn’t shrivel away from criticism, but rather smacked it like a piñata and let its wisdom rain down like candy.

8 thoughts on “How contour drawing helped battle an attack of the criticism blues

  1. Wow, loved this Maggie, so interesting to learn of your process. Your drawings are really beautiful. See you soon, Sue

    Sent from my iPad


  2. smacked it like a piñata and let its wisdom rain down like candy – Where do these wonderful metaphors come from?

  3. This is fantastic, Maggie! I love your initial figure drawings, but yes, this last image is just stunning. You’ve also taught a very important lesson … sometimes listening to constructive criticism, as hard as it is to hear, can force us to go outside our comfort zone and push ourselves to new discoveries. I love it!

    1. Thanks. Yes, I think that, although criticism is hard to hear, sometimes, even if it’s not worded the most gently, it can lead us into growth.

  4. I have always admired good artists and I wish I could draw one of your figures! You don’t want to see how mine would look if I had to look away!

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