The Magic of the Line

September 15, 2016

I’ve recently gotten back into teaching drawing classes at the Community Arts Center in Danville, KY and I’m having a great time. The students are kids from 4th grade to 8th grade and each of them are in love with drawing.  They are captivated and entranced with the sheer wonder of the process.  Since we’ve just started, we are in the very rudimentary stages of learning to draw – or more importantly learning to see – so that we may more accurately draw what is before us.

As class wrapped up yesterday (the second of seven sessions), we had so much fun that I found myself wondering – why don’t I draw all the time?  In this article, I will share some of the things I’ve picked up from working with these great kids, and hopefully you’ll feel so inspired, you’ll go rummaging around the house to build a still life and try it out yourself.

As I said before, each of the kids in the class are quite into drawing (I suppose you’d have to be so inclined to sign up for a seven week drawing course outside of school).  Most of them are into cartoon style drawings where a lot of features are over-simplified and exaggerated – something that was a plus in an earlier Cartoon Drawing class but not as applicable in this course.  I would dare to say that most of them have not tried to draw from life –either still life or figure drawing –before these sessions, so I find myself spending a lot of time in the first classes teaching them to learn to see.

In the great tradition of drawing, we have started with the simplest of concepts – the line.  As a compulsive doodler, I had almost forgotten the joy of filling the page with bold, pure lines.  I hate to admit it, but most of the drawing I do consists of superheroes and muscle cars in the margins of meeting notes.  I have to remind my co-workers that doodling – although it looks like the greatest distraction – is actually my way of paying attention.  In the exploration of line, I am trying to get the students to make flowing, decisive marks that trail across the page, rather than the scoot-scoot-scoot sketchiness that most beginning artists tend to make.

I started the class with contour drawings – just drawing the outside lines that define the boundaries of an object with a few major details thrown in.  I have an assortment of great objects to observe and capture – a miniature model of a human skull, a glass pitcher, a broken violin, a toy ray gun, an old camera, a few faux tulips, a scale model of a T-Rex skull, and a few other interesting things.  The “catch” to this exercise is that the contour drawing must be rendered with one continuous line.  The students are not allowed to pick up their pencil once they begin the drawing.  They must capture the entire drawing with only one big, looping line.  If you’ve never tried this, it can be quite a challenge.  What details do you include?  How do you navigate from one part of the drawing to the next?  What if it looks like a mess?  To some budding artists, embracing the possibility of making a less-than-stellar drawing, even in the name of learning something new, can be difficult.


Some kids go all-in on this exercise and commit to the Zen simplicity of the single line, while I catch others “cheating” a bit from time to time, lifting their pencil to draw a detail in the middle of the object.  While I like to see the students commit to the experiment, I don’t usually call out the ones who bend the rules a bit.  I don’t have to tell them that they picked up their pencil.  They know.

These drawings usually end up being quite interesting and surprisingly accurate.  Because they are only drawing one line, they follow the object more closely. I remind them that this style of drawing is akin to taking a line for a walk around an object, or to imagine their line is a piece of string that completely wraps around the subject.

The second drawing exercise raises the stakes a bit.  I have the students try a “blind contour” drawing.  Those of you who have studied drawing in college or art school most likely can recall this exercise with love or hate.  I, for one, enjoy the surprisingly random, abstract results.

The task is to create a contour drawing of the object before you WITHOUT looking at your paper.  Although some blind contour exercises also have the one-line-don’t-lift-your-pencil stipulation, I allow the students to pick up and reposition their pencils – but again – no looking at the paper.  Most often these drawings end up in a skewed, lopsided mess – but the idea is to learn something new from the experience.  In this case, they are learning to only draw what they see.  If you are concentrating on the subject before you, and cannot look at the paper to assess your own progress, you are far less likely to think, “I know what a skull looks like,” and create a cartoon summary of the object.


I encourage them to move their pencil at the same speed they are moving their eyes – to look as they create. While the drawings often don’t line up properly from one axis to the other, I find that the artists will usually pay closer attention to the minute details on the outside of the object.  If they are drawing a camera, every knob, gear, and case detail will be accounted for.  On a T-Rex skull, every tooth is in its rightful place.  The kids must have enjoyed the experience as I found fewer bending the rules on this particular challenge.

As the students would finish a drawing, there would always be a round of giggles as they revealed their results. I found them excited to see how they did in comparison to their peers.  Sometimes this exercise can be a let-down for the artists that are driven by perfection, but in this case, I don’t think that anyone got overly frustrated with their attempts.  The challenge of removing your eyes from the page is a bit liberating as you can take relief in simply, “doing the best you can.”

One thing that I like to remind those who participate in my drawing classes is that there is no magic solution to guarantee instant results.  Those that draw often are the ones that draw best.  If you want to become a better artist, you really have to practice and hone your skills.  It takes a lot of drawing to make better drawings.  Based on the growing pile of pages we filled in our first couple of classes, I would say we’re off to an excellent start.

One great way to get more time to draw is to teach others.  Schedule some time, sit down with a buddy (artist or not), and just start drawing the world around you.  To draw something well is one of the most rewarding experiences an artist can have.