Picasso and Contour
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973) is considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Throughout his career, which spanned eight decades, he experimented with countless media, and he was masterful in his use of line for contour and his arrangement of shape within the frame. The Norton Simon’s collection of more than 700 prints by Picasso includes a complete set of his Suite Vollard, 100 etchings that Picasso created for the art dealer Ambroise Vollard between 1930 and 1937. The suite contains a variety of themes and subjects, including a series relating to the Minotaur and another on the Sculptor and his Model. In this study sheet, we will examine Picasso’s use of line and contour in two etchings from the suite: Defeated Minotaur (Minotaur Defeated by Youth in Arena) and Sculptor and Model Kneeling (Sculptor and Model by a Window, with Overturned Sculptured Head), both from 1933.
In contour drawing, line is used to describe the shape and form (three-dimensional volume) of the subject. This is a fairly abstract approach to drawing, as it is based not only on our optical experience but also on our sense of touch. The contour line follows our anticipated touch, as if we were to run our hands over the object in the picture. In nature, we perceive contours created by contrasting shapes of differing color or value, but there is very little seen in the way of line. Nevertheless, line is a powerful convention in drawing and the primary component in contour drawing.
The example below is a contour line drawing of Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917)'s Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, a sculpture in the Museum's collection.
Defeated Minotaur (Minotaur Defeated by Youth in Arena)
In this etching, we find Picasso using contour lines to describe the shape and form of the minotaur and youth, as well as a portion of the arena. Intersecting lines are used to describe the overlap of forms (for example, the left arm and leg of the warrior overlaps his torso). This overlap of forms not only contributes to the volume of the figures but also stages these figures in a clear three-dimensional space. The viewer experiences the left arm of the minotaur in front of the warrior’s right leg and the warrior in front of the wall of the arena.
In this etching, Picasso is working in a Neoclassical style. His treatment of the form (or volumes) of his figures is both simplified and idealized. The contour line provides enough anatomical information to identify the form, but it does not stray far from geometric simplicity. For example, the limbs of the participants appear somewhere between the shape of actual arms and legs and the form of idealized cylindrical volumes. Notice how cylindrical the volume of the warrior’s neck appears. A similar treatment of contour line and volume is seen in Greek vase painting.
Sculptor and Model Kneeling (Sculptor and Model by a Window, with Overturned Sculptured Head)
Picasso began this etching with an approach that was similar to that of Defeated Minotaur. Contour lines are used to describe form, volumes and space. However, in this etching, the model is further developed with the use of additional lines, built up, to describe the play of light over the volume of the upper portion of this figure. Where Picasso has built up these additional lines, the volumes are experienced as more solidly three-dimensional. As we descend from the model’s head, this additional sense of volume gently melts away, and we are back in the realm of contour only. The use of these additional, built-up lines also creates a high contrast of value between the darkness of the model’s head against the white paper. This contrast attracts our attention to the model, and we join the sculptor in his observation of her, while the model obliviously admires herself in the mirror propped against the antique head.
Types of Contour Drawing and Drawing Exercises
Blind contour drawing means using your eyes to follow the contour of the subject with continuous, unbroken attention, so that the drawing tool carefully records the information that your eyes receive. You can think of this as the drawing tool recording on paper the precise shape that the eye sees. Working this way, you do not look at the paper until the drawing is complete. This approach requires patience and concentration. What is important in blind contour drawing is not the finished drawing itself, but the experience of looking carefully and deliberately at a subject. This is an excellent way to slow down and develop a deeper level of exploring shape and form.
Semi-blind contour drawing is very similar to blind contour drawing. However, in this approach, you may periodically look at the recorded image to help ensure that the overall shape is reasonably accurate, or at least following the artist’s intention. In blind contour drawing, you may find that shapes are easily distorted, owing to changes or breaks in attention. By looking at the drawing periodically, these distortions will be somewhat minimized.
One variation is to practice contour drawing as a continuous line, never lifting the drawing instrument off of the paper until the drawing is complete. With this approach, you would not find intersections of lines isolated from other lines.
A second variation would include line intersections. The drawing tool may be picked up and placed on any point along an existing line. With these intersections, you can more easily describe overlapping forms in your drawing.
A third variation would allow the placement of lines anywhere on the paper. Lines would not need to be continuous or intersecting. An example might be the placement of an isolated eye or mouth on a face after the contour of a head is drawn.
All of these variations may be practiced successfully with blind or semi-blind contour drawing.
You may choose almost any subject to practice contour drawing. I would suggest beginning with blind contour by setting a timer for five to ten minutes to practice developing concentration. With experience, you will find that you can concentrate for longer periods of time and, with practice, there may even be a sense of timelessness. After you become comfortable with blind contour, explore semi-blind contour drawing and/or some of the variations discussed above. Experiment. How would you draw what appears to be an isolated eye or a belly button if you were working with a continuous line variation of contour drawing?
Any simple drawing material is appropriate for contour drawing. It is preferable to use a medium that has a more linear orientation, such as a graphite pencil or pen.
Lesson by teacher and artist Richard Houston
Continue with Rembrandt and Mark Making