For the past week, I’ve been making a blind contour self-portrait — drawing without looking at the page — each morning to warm up my diary.
If you look at the images in order, it looks like my face is re-arranging itself. I love that.
My friend Wendy MacNaughton assigns these drawings in her workshops. My friend Jason Polan used to do a lot of his Every Person in New York drawings this way.
Sam Anderson, one of my favorite writers, wrote a wonderful Letter of Recommendation for blind contour drawing five years ago in the New York Times. (How in the hell did I miss that?)
He wrote of his frustrations with trying to draw in his adult life: “The problem, fundamentally, was one of control — I had too much of it, over too tiny a territory, and I wasn’t willing to surrender it. You can’t control your way out of control.”
(I’m thinking of Brian Eno’s control <–> surrender diagram that he likes to draw.)
Then an artist friend suggested to him he draw without looking at the page.
“For the first time in my adult life, I was genuinely surprised by something I had drawn.”
He later discovered that blind contour drawing is an old art school exercise:
Freshmen at art school are forced to draw blindly for hours. It’s the fastest way to break them out of old bad habits, to make them unlearn lifeless conventions. The goal of blind drawing is to really see the thing you’re looking at, to almost spiritually merge with it, rather than retreat into your mental image of it. Our brains are designed to simplify — to reduce the tumult of the world into order. Blind drawing trains us to stare at the chaos, to honor it. It is an act of meditation, as much as it is an artistic practice — a gateway to pure being. It forces us to study the world as it actually is.
(You can see Sam’s drawings on his Instagram. And go read Boom Town while you’re at it.)
I think a lot of people come to contour drawing in Betty Edwards’ classic book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, but I actually prefer the way Kimon Nicolaïdes writes about it in his 1941 book, The Natural Way to Draw. (Edwards sort of waves away Nicolaïdes’ emphasis that “students imagine that they were touching the form as they drew,” but I find his multi-sensory emphasis much more convincing than her left brain / right brain explanation.)
Learning to draw is really a matter of learning to see — to see correctly — and that means a good deal more than merely looking with the eye. The sort of ‘seeing’ I mean is an observation that utilizes as many of the five senses as can reach through the eye at one time. Although you use your eyes, you do not close up the other senses — rather, the reverse, because all the senses have a part in the sort of observation you are to make.
He tells the reader to sit close, learn forward, and sync up a point on the thing being drawn with the eye while simultaneously syncing up pencil to paper. “Imagine that your pencil point is touching the model instead of the paper. Without taking your eyes off the model, wait until you are convinced that the pencil is touching that point on the model upon which your eyes are fastened.” He says only then should you start to move your eye and pencil along the edges of the thing being drawn, slowly, slowly. “Be guided more by the sense of touch than by sight.”
This exercise should be done slowly, searchingly, sensitively. Take your time. Do not be too impatient or too quick. There is no point in finishing any one contour study. In fact, a contour study is not a thing that can be ‘finished.’ It is having a particular type of experience, which can continue as long as you have the patience to look.
If you’re looking for a way to loosen up and bring life to your drawings, try drawing without looking at the paper.