contour drawing

Beginning Art

Pen and InkArt, and in that broad category, Drawing & Painting, can be a risky business! Peers can clearly see what you are doing minute by minute, grades may at first seem disconnected and subjective, and there’s that overwhelming feeling that it is not quite right and only failure awaits. How can a teacher work to help students over these “affective filters,” if you will? One part of this effort is the careful selection and order of the assigned projects.

The first project I assign my students is called “Linear Expression.” This project focuses on two learning goals, Expressive line and new media- pen and ink, but it also allows me the opportunity to stress quality issues at the outset of the course.

I know this sounds a bit lofty, especially when I initially started writing about how I use this project to overcome “affective filters” as if teaching a second language, and it is. This project works well to do both set a standard of expectation and allow for success among those who believe they are “artistically challenged.”

I begin the project with blind contour drawing. Students draw the back of their hand trying to get all detail possible without lifting their pencil and without looking at their drawing. I take this time to stress the value in creativity in drawing and that accuracy is not always the most important part of a drawing but that the interest a drawings creates is often more important. I try to select the most interesting examples from the class to show and stress that the laughter and humor it creates is far more interesting than an accurate but boring drawing of a back of a hand.

We then follow up with a contour drawing (not a blind contour drawing this time) of a single subject still life. I use artificial plant matter such as leaves and flowers and allow students to choose their own subject. It is a contour drawing and, even though many shade and express their artistic prowess, I encourage them to focus on the line and detail of the subject, leveling the playing field, as it were. This is also a great time to walk around the classroom and offer encouragement by pointing out strengths in their drawings.

“Inspiration” for the emotion for the expressive line is taken from a rather abstract approach through random newspaper articles. Students work in groups for this part and read, discuss, and present their article to the rest of the class along with some emotions derived from the article. It takes about a full class period but enables me to ensure all students understand and have a small list of emotions that will work for expressive line.

After collecting some emotions from which to work students lightly study and interpret expressive line and change that in their best contour drawing to reflect the emotions found in their newspaper article. Students trace it onto Bristol board at the light table and, using India Ink and Pen, redraw the expressive line.

I do not believe that Art is an easy “A.” I am, however aware that it is more easily understood, and it’s perhaps more successfully pursued, if it begins with one. Students display a high level of success in my classes with this project. This is especially important because their next project is one many find particularly challenging. You will find my rubric along with other project information such as the Art History component and Project notes that I use to present the project at

Although this project is not perfect and I’m sure other solutions exist to begin Art with a high level of motivation and success, I find that it is an effective start for my students. I hope you’ve found some of my ideas useful. If you have, or have other ways for beginning art, please leave a comment below. Thank you!