The paradox of the Pure Contour Drawing exercise

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For reasons that are still unclear, Pure Contour Drawing is one of the key exercises in learning to draw. But it's a paradox: Pure Contour Drawing, which doesn't produce a "good" drawing (in students' estimations), is the best exercise for effectively and efficiently causing students later to achieve good drawing. Even more important, though, this is the exercise that revives our childhood wonder and the sense of beauty found in ordinary things.

A possible explanation

Apparently, in our habitual use of brain modes, L-mode seeks quickly to recognize (and name and categorize) by picking out details, while R-mode wordlessly perceives whole configurations and seeks how the parts fit together—or perhaps whether the parts fit together.

In regarding a hand, for example, the nails, the wrinkles and creases are details and the hand itself is the whole configuration. This "division of labor" works fine in ordinary life. In drawing a hand, however, one must give equal attention—visual atten-tion—to both the configuration and the details and how they fit together into the whole. Pure Contour Drawing may function as a sort of "shock treatment" for the brain, forcing it to do things differently.

Pure Contour Drawing, I believe, causes L-mode to "drop out," perhaps, as I mentioned before, through simple boredom. ("I've already named it—it's a wrinkle, I tell you. They're all alike. Why bother with all this looking.") Once L-mode has "dropped out," it seems possible that R-mode then perceives each wrinkle—normally regarded as a detail—as a whole configuration, made up of even smaller details. Then each detail of each wrinkle becomes a further whole, made up of ever-smaller parts, and so on, going deeper and deeper into ever expanding complexity. There is some similarity, I believe, to the phenomenon of fractals, in which whole patterns are constructed of smaller detailed whole patterns, which are constructed of ever smaller, detailed whole patterns.

"In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing, you probably hunt about till you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning clear as one can through pictures or sensations."

— George Orwell "Politics and the English Language," 1968

If perhaps you did not attain a shift to R-mode in your first Pure Contour Drawing, please be patient with yourself. You may have a very determined verbal system. I suggest that you try again. You might try using a crumpled piece of paper, a flower, or any complex object that appeals to you. My students sometimes have to make two or even three tries in order to "win out" against their strong verbal modes.

Set a timer, perhaps for eight or even ten minutes. In the beginning, it takes time to cause a shift to R-mode. Later on, as American artist Robert Henri proposed in the sidebar quotation on page 5, the shift "to the higher state" will occur just by starting to draw.

These strange marks on the wall of a cave were made by Paleolithic humans. In their intensity, the marks seem to resemble Pure Contour Drawing.

— Shamans of Prehistory, J. Clottes and D. LewisWilliams. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,


Why Pure Contour Drawing is important

Whatever the actual reason may be, I can assure you that Pure Contour Drawing will permanently change your ability to perceive. From this point onward, you will start to see in the way an artist sees and your skills in seeing and drawing will progress rapidly.

Look at the Pure Contour Drawing of your hand one more time and appreciate the quality of the marks you made in R-mode. Again, these are not the quick, glib, stereotypic marks of symbolic L-mode. These marks are true records of perception.

The next exercise will pull together everything learned so far and you will be doing a wonderful "real" drawing.

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