top of page

Learn to Draw

Drawing depends first on really seeing what’s in front of you. Contour drawing can help train your hand to follow your eyes. Younger kids: check out the link to the doodle lesson at the bottom of this page!

Over the years, people develop a manner of “seeing” that relies heavily on their brain telling them what’s there without really looking, because it saves time. Drawing depends on the opposite — bypassing the brain and really seeing what’s in front of you.

Drawing a shoe is a common assignment for students and artists. Why? Most of us not only have shoes, but we often have many kinds — roller skates, sneakers, sandsals and work boots. Shoes develop a unique character as we wear them.

Contour drawing is a technique that asks your eyes to do all the work and let the hand follow, without the brain getting involved. It develops eye-hand coordination and pushes beyond the general and the symbolic and forces you to really see an object. You know what a tree in your yard looks like, but when you look at that same tree as an artist, you see the details — the different sizes of the leaves, the serrated edge that has a bite taken out or it, and how exactly a leaf grows from a branch.

It doesn’t take much to get started — a piece of paper and a nice sharp pencil (like a 2B) or a pen will do. And patience, which is always a good practice.

1 Exercises

  1. Blind contour drawing, in which you always keep your eyes on your object always and never look at your paper as you are drawing.

  2. Contour drawing, which allows you to look at your paper any time to check in, but never when you are drawing.

In both, while drawing, your eyes will always be on the subject, with your hand doing the same thing as your eye , following its edges. No erasing, no correcting, no hurry. It’s a meditation. In your drawing, you will see the essence of the shoe, not a copy of it.

This is not an outline. An outline follows the outside of an object. If you put your shoe down and trace it, that’s an outline. Contour starts at an outer edge but when that edge changes directions and goes to the inside of the object, so does your hand. An outline is two dimensional, contour implies three dimensions.


Pick a shoe. Grab your paper and a pen or pencil and a bit of tape. Find a table with a comfortable chair, a timer and, if you’d like, slow, soothing music. Start by looking. Hold the shoe in many directions while noticing how its shape changes, how the emphasis is on different parts depending on your point of view. Take your time, then decide which position pleases you most.

Place your shoe on a table with nothing else around it to distract you. If you’re right-handed put it to the far left of the table (far right for left-handers). You shouldn’t be able to see your paper and your object at the same time (otherwise the temptation to look at your paper while you draw will be too strong). Look at your shoe again. Is it taller than it is wide? This will tell you which way to hold your paper. Lightly tape down your paper. Look at your shoe again. What is the tallest part? That will go at the top of your paper. Now what’s the rightmost element of the shoe? That goes to the right edge of your paper. Now, take your finger and while looking at your shoe, drag your finger across the blank page and envision your drawing. This is an important step, helping you relax and forget about everything around you. Remember, we are calling on the eyes to do the work, not the brain.

3 blind contour drawing

Put on your soothing music and set your timer for 10 minutes. Take a deep breath, look at the spot on the shoe you’d like to start with, put your pen or pencil to your paper at that spot on your page (thinking about starting at an edge, like the top). Now look at your shoe again and start following an edge, from the outside to the inside. Follow slowly, letting your eye crawl across every bit of information it can see and having your hand do the exact same thing. Edge dropping down slightly to the left? That’s what your hand is doing. Bumping over a ragged surface? That’s what your hand is doing. When an edge goes into the object, follow it. When that edge ends, do your best to put your hand back to the outside where you left off, and keep going.

Your brain might soon start telling you to hurry up. It knows what a shoe is, forget those small things, just speed things along! Quiet the brain, keep it slow, keep your eyes on their fluid walk, with your hand following. Do not make any mark you do not see on your shoe — no scribbling, no scratching, just a nice steady flow. Keep breathing. When the timer rings, take a look at your drawing. It will, in all probability, have attributes of your shoe but a bit scrambled.

Don’t ask yourself is this a correct shoe? But, did I do a blind contour drawing? Did I resist looking at my paper even once? Did I convey the details of the shoe? Are there places where I can see that my brain took over and the line feels more symbolic than observed? Blind contour will not be precise, and that’s fine.

4 contour drawing

This time, all remains the same, except you now can look at your paper, but not when you are drawing. If you stop and look at what you’ve drawn, your hand must stop as well. You may want to look in order to relocate back to an outer edge or to see if you need to make an edge longer. But never watch your hand draw! Precision is not what you are after. Elements might be a bit off, but you should truly have the sense of your shoe.


If you worked with a pencil, try a pen next time. Experiment with different kinds of pens and pencils and different papers. Do 20-minute contour drawings, or quick ones; the process is always the same, just faster or slower. A nice change is to have five pieces of paper ready and draw for five minutes, four, then three, two, one. Feel free to take out crayons, watercolor, colored pens or pencils and add to your contour drawing.

This project is provided with the permission of its author, Diane Olivier. It was originally published in the New York Times on July 25, 2020. The artwork shown is by Diane Olivier and Michael Tschantz-Hahn. Thank you Diane for sharing this with us!

Kennedy Center Education Artist-in-Residence at Home

bottom of page