Home Page

Lessons Library

The Art Gallery


E-magazine Archives

The Bookstore

The Supply Store

Back to YouCan Draw.Com

Introduction to Lesson 5: Modified Contour Drawing of Your Hand

If you've done all the lessons and their exercises, you'll have by now learned to open the doors to R-mode. You'll have a growing familiarity with the slightly altered, perspective-influencing right hemisphere. And every time you access this mode of perception, you'll be strengthening that muscle - the muscle of willful, conscious control of the shift. You'll be seeing more and more as an artist sees. And I think that's exciting.

In modified contour drawing, you'll be doing pretty much the exact same thing you did as in Lesson 4, pure contour drawing. The difference will being this: in modified contour drawing, you get to look at your paper.

In this exercise, you'll be concerned with tracking the details in your hand and familiarizing yourself with proportion. But accurate proportion is not the focus. The focus is still getting into R-mode and gradually learning to maintain that state. At the same time you'll be comparing and relating the object you're drawing (you hand), with the drawing (thta is, with the marks you're putting on paper). In the coming lessons, you'll be learning several powerful techniques to deal with realistic proportion. So don't worry if your picture isn't perfect.

Why the focus on realism, especially when this is a drawing course in caricature?

If you learn how to draw realistically, or more accurately, if you learn the techniques and go through the same steps as if you were drawing realistically, the skills you'll have acquired will allow you to draw anything. I'll say that again: once you learn how to draw realistically, you'll be able to draw anything. Caricatures will just be a potentially profitable, entertaining and humorous entry point. (And most people think drawing faces are the most difficult things to draw. And there you'll be, doing caricatures.)

In caricature, you must be able to zoom in and see just what it is about a persons features that makes them unique. Once you've learned to do that - and you will if you keep doing the lessons - the doors will be open. You can make up your own rules.

Your goal in this exercise

In pure contour drawing (lesson 4), the goal was to forget about your drawing and dive into observation - observation in a way you'd probably never experienced before. You were urged to let go of the expectation that your drawing bear any resemblance to the object you were drawing. (I know, that's tough to do at first). In fact you wanted to let go of the idea that you were drawing any object at all. Expectations of producing a replica, well that just wasn't in the game plan.

Writing and drawing

When you write, you've got to slow down your thoughts, think them through, capture them and eventually represent them as letters and marks - as symbols - on paper. Physiologically that's a lot of things going on at once. The act of using a tool (like a pen or pencil slows you down - while one part of your brain is concerned with making readable letters and sentences, the other part of your brain is off on it's own hegemony - but you still know when the "right idea" pops up. You still write one word or phrase at a time, the way you drew one tiny segment at a time in the last exercise.

With out going off on a whole other tangent, let me sum it like this: writing long hand builds a neurologic link between the inside (your brain, emotions, imagination) and the outside: your media (paper and pencil, keyboard, paint brush, etc.)

Working outside-to-inside then going outside again

Pure contour drawing, amongst other things, is akin to writing's "inside- to-outside, brain-to-hand-link". In pure contour you're learning to hook up your direct internal sense observations (what you see) with a way of recording or expressing them like when you draw. Accuracy is not the goal. "Real-time" observation is.

Pure contour drawing is the "connecting up" step. It's the coordinating step. It's the "getting the thinking brain to step aside, allowing the visual brain to step in, and re-affiliating the neurologic recording step" all in one move. (By "neurologic recording step" I just mean the act of drawing.)

An analogy between sound and sight

In a sound studio, the microphone picks up the sound (like your eyes pick up images), the mixing board processes, interprets and translates the sound signal (like your brain) and the tape recorder translates that information on to the recording tape (like your drawing hand records on to paper.)

Fine tuning in little steps

Modified contour drawing is the first step in fine tuning the accuracy of your "recording system" recordings. How do you do that, increase your accuracy? You adopt a mind set: you look between your drawing paper, the drawing on it, and the shape you're drawing and begin asking questions like "is this edge really this long in comparison to what I see out there in the world? Is this too sharp an angle between these lines?" That sort of thing. We're not going to dwell on them. We don't want to get bogged down in language again (we've worked so hard trying to throw it off.) We just want to get aware of those kinds of questions. After awhile you'll literally just sense those relations - you won't have to think about them. Little by little you get more and more detailed in your observations, you zoom in closer, pan from afar and learn to make all sorts of distinctions in between. Your drawings start hitting the mark. In future exercises you'll learn a whole grab bag of techniques for really getting this accuracy step tightened up.

So lets get on with it. You'll be drawing your hand again - this time in a more complex position than just the old palm in the face. Have fun with it. Don't worry about getting it perfect. Place your focus on getting into artist's mode (R-mode).

Step 1

  1. As in the other exercises, read all the steps before you begin.

  2. Try to allow yourself 30 minutes of time to do the drawing. (If you have an hour, all the better; if all you can put aside is 15 minutes, then work with that. A consistent 15 minutes 4 or 5 days a week will yield more lasting results than 1 two-hour period.)

  3. Get yourself situated comfortably, you'll be in the regular seated position so you can see your hand and paper.

  4. Tape down your paper like you did in lesson 4. You don't want it moving around.

Now look at your hand. Get your hand in an unusual configuration, cross your fingers, do Spock's Vulcan sign, make a fist, look at it from an unusual angle. What we're trying to accomplish with this is find a view of your hand that's complex and interesting: one you're left hemisphere will want to reject and allow the R-mode to take over.

Get your hand in an interesting position

Step 2

Once you've found an interesting position - one you're comfortable holding for 30 or more minutes - give it good look.

  • (Note: It's important you're comfortable. While doing this exercise, try not to move your hand at all: you want to draw your hand in one position and in one view.

  • Close one eye - this will take away your stereoscopic vision, i.e. you'll lose your depth perception and flatten the view.

  • And lastly, keep your head in one position. If you move your head or view your hand from a different angle, it will change what you you see, and thus distort what you're drawing. You want a single view of your hand. (So keep your head in one position. Little dips of your head to glance down on the paper are fine, just try to keep the movement minimal so the view of your hand remains the same.)

Step 3

So, now that you've decided on a position, give your hand a good look. As you did in pure contour, start in one spot. Look at the texture, look at the shapes in and around your fingers, look at the shape around your nails. Allow the shift back to R-mode to begin. Be aware again, of how this shift in perception feels.

  • Imagine in your mind your hand is bordered by a vertical and a horizontal line. Pick a one of the longer creases, lines, margins contours or edges that you see on a fingers or in the palm of your hand. (Like the back part of your middle finger, or a long crease- but don't change the position of your hand. Any line you can surmise will do.) Focus in on it.

  • Regard that single line as an angle. Now compare that angle to how it opens towards or away from either the vertical or horizontal lines you've imagined.

  • Now look at your paper. Imagine how that angle would look drawn on the paper. Do the same with a space between your fingers - where there is only air. (Remember the jigsaw puzzle in Lesson 4? Imagine that the space between your fingers is another piece of the jigsaw puzzle - just like the blue water was a unique jigsaw puzzle piece against the orange sail.)

    Imagine that the space is as much a real element of what is before your eyes as is your actual hand. Keep looking at it until the space meets your finger in a shared edge: that the edge of your finger and the edge of the space are two different things but together they form that single edge.

Step 4

Fix your eyes on any line, (or contour) that grabs you. Again, in comparison to vertical or horizontal, which way does it go? Which way does it angle? I'm easing you into making it a habit to compare contours, or any line for that matter, to vertical and horizontal.

  • Now, as you did in lesson 4, begin slowly moving your eyes along the contour, and start recording with your drawing pencil, all the same perturbations, undulations and curves at the same slow pace as you see them.

  • When you finish one line or contour, draw the very next one, the one immediately neighboring the line you just finished. Then go to the next, and then the next. Draw the lines and contours as they come up: don't try to draw a big outline that you'd have to go back to and fill in later.

  • There's no need to talk to yourself, or use language at all. When you're in R-mode, there's no use for words. R-mode does fine entirely without words. Just keep referring to your hand, wordlessly comparing, relating, and scanning what is before your eyes. Words only get in the way. No need to say things like "well if this part is here, then this must go there" - you don't have to reason anything out. Just draw what you see. It's all right there. Focus on how one line or contour seems to arise out of the one before it, compare widths, angles, and lengths. Compare those lengths or angles to the one you've just recorded.

Step 5

You can look at your paper occasionally to reference a relation, a starting point, or a quick proportion. But don't get hung up on it. You're bound to have discrepancies in relative size and proportion. Don't' worry! We'll be cleaning up those skill areas with a vengeance in upcoming lessons. At this stage, the goal is gaining the ability to access R-mode at will.

Like the pure contour method, the vast majority of your time in this exercise should be spent on observing and recording what you see. Maybe 10% of the time should you be looking at the paper. (That's a number to shoot for. If you look at your paper more than that, that's ok. If you're stuck staring at your drawing paper, that means your'e getting too critical. If that happens make a mark, any mark and move on. You'll get past it. )

Step 6

When you come to complex features, or parts of anatomy like fingernails, some people run into a problem. And the problem is this: we got a name for the hard little pink plate at the tip of our fingers. The word "fingernails" represents something to us.

Why is that a problem? Like any other word, we've got a library full of associated meanings and pictures. Words toss us back into L-mode. L-mode wants to take the quick, pre-planned route: just draw a quick abstract nail from memory. This doesn't work. Why not? Because your view of your hand will almost assuredly present your eye with a view of your nail you've never paid attention to before. None of those stored abstractions will fit the drawing the way your "nail-as-you-see-it-now" will.

To avoid the "memory bin trap" of L-mode do this: Draw the area or contour immediately next to or around the fingernail or troublesome part. That will shift you away from naming it, steer you around L-mode, and head you back into R-mode.

Step 7

As a reminder: everything you need to know is in front of your eyes. You just need to observe those perceptions - no reason to think, no need for words. The finished picture will be a recording of those fresh, honest observations you made while you were immersed in R-mode.

So that's your job: play reporter and get your observations down. Since you don't need to do anything else, this will feel easy, you'll feel relaxed, and confident as you get engaged with the information in front of you. You'll be fascinated how the puzzle pieces will come together.

You've set up the conditions so R-mode can process the information. And that's why once you can leave the critical, domineering, belligerent L-mode behind, it becomes easy. What you see is just "information". And you're the conduit between the "information" and the paper.

Grab your pencil and begin to draw.

After You Finish

Take a moment to recall the different methods and strategies you conjured up to deal with the drawing. Take a step back to recall what the R-mode of perception felt like. Is it getting easier to drop into? Are you starting to understand how conditions are set up to bring about the shift?

Remember, there are 4 conscious skills of drawing: the perceptual skills of recognizing edges, spaces, angles and relations, and lastly light and shadow. In this exercise and all the exercises up to this point, we've been explicit about recognizing edges. In this lesson, you started touching on spaces. In the next exercise, we'll be going into much more depth recognizing and rendering spaces.

Hang in there, a skill at a time

You'll see drawing is going to be much like learning to ride a bike: you have to learn how to peddle, how to change the gears, how to bank a turn, how to use the brakes, how to watch out for traffic, negotiate obstacles etc. You didn't just hop on the bike and start riding, right? You started most probably with training wheels, started with a single speed, learned balancing, in a word you learned all the skills required to ride a bike a little at a time. Then one day, the component skills coalesced, crystallizing somewhere in your mind and body, and you made the giant leap from "learning" to ride a bike to riding a bike. They became automatic.

This is exactly what is happening here as you learn the different parts of learning to draw.


More work with modified contour. Do these before you go to the next lesson. They'll be fun and you'll be getting better and better at allowing yourself into R-mode.

Warm up

Before you start, find any complex object, look around the room, any plants? A crumpled up garbage bag? A rough edged rock? A tennis shoe? Take that object and spend 5 or 10 minutes doing a pure contour drawing of it.

Now set aside 15 - 30 minutes for each assignment. (The more time you have the better, but if all you have is 15 minutes, use it! Small amounts of time at regular intervals - like 15 minutes a day - pays many more dividends than doing 3 hours one day a week. Just like going to the gym. And you can always find 15 minutes in a day. I used to say "unless I have 2 hours, it's not worth starting". How often could I set aside 2 hours a day? Hardly ever. So 15 minutes 4 - 5 times a week will absolutely produce results!)

And a funny thing might happen: the more regular drawing you do, the more you'll enjoy it, and the more time you'll happily wring from other things to get in your drawing!

Ok. To the drawings.

  1. Find an organic object: a head of lettuce, a cabbage, just about anything you'd put in a salad (an onion, broccoli, celery etc.). Now draw it using the modified contour method you used in lesson 5. (Minimum 15 minutes. More if you have the time.) Go!

  2. The next session: a modified contour drawing of a plant or tree. Any plant you have in the house is fine. Take a walk in the backyard or find a secluded spot in a park close to trees or shrubs: 15 minutes minimum. Don't worry about finding "the perfect plant". Pick one that looks interesting and draw it.

  3. Do another drawing of your hand holding a scissors, or a ball, or a piece of fruit, or a coffee cup, a fork, a spoon - holding anything you like. (Again, 15 to 30 minutes, using modified contour.)

  4. The last drawing in this series - and you're by no means limited to just these - draw your foot, using modified contour. You could draw it as you see it propped up ion a chair, or observing it while its flat on the floor, barefoot or in a sandal or shoe, propped up against a tree...go, minimum 15 minutes, shoot for 30 or more.

  5. Go and re-draw a few of the pictures that grabbed you in lesson 4 homework . (There were some interesting photos there.)

Again, if time is an issue, 15 minutes done regularly will bring you results! So don't avoid doing your assignments just because you don't have a huge block of time.

After each assignment,

1) review how it felt to fall into R-mode.

2) Take a look at your drawing. Can you find areas where you were really engaged with the drawing? Is there a different quality, a freshness or accuracy in these areas compared to areas where you know you weren't yet fully immersed in the drawing? Can you recall how you felt as you drew those areas? They'll be different than the rapidly drawn, almost impatient L-mode directed areas.

3) NEW STUFF - Make sure you click on these links for some expanded lessons (with Flash lessons too :-) on modified contour and re-visit the "Understanding the Picture Plane" page - this is information that will ignite your drawing comprehension. No brag. Just fact:

Understanding the Picture Plane
Modified Contour  


Can you feel the momentum slowly building? Do you feel a sense of confidence beginning to swell? Or do you feel frustrated? If you really feel stuck email me, (see below), and we'll see if we can't get you excited about drawing again.

Back to top

Go to Lesson 6

Kasbohm & Company's


Copyright, All rights reserved 1997

e-mail: jeffkaz@YouCanDraw