The Art of (NOT) Looking

The following is an excerpt from Contour, The Fashion Illustration Journal. Research in user experience to determine how the content, both visual and text-based, should be represented to create the most satisfying user experience in both print and digital formats was integrated into the design of this publication. I wanted Contour to be a beautiful venue for illustrators to showcase their work, where fashion could be disseminated, methods of creation discussed, and perspectives on the field of fashion illustration analyzed. 

Download the Ebook version for iPad on iBooks here or view the full issuu publication online here.

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I wrote this article because far too often people seem to think they can't draw. I whole heartedly believe that this isn't true and that it is simply our practical 'adult' minds that are saying we are no good. I argue that the practice of blind contour illustrations can change that. Read on to find out more!

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I grew up sitting, kneeling, or hunching over what was called the ‘craft table’ in the kitchen of my parents home. It was there that I would scribble away for hours with whatever I could get my hands on. As a child, I could draw for hours each day, more proud of each drawing than the last as I would rush over to my mom or dad to show them how great my new drawing was. 

This unwavering confidence is what many children grow up with. Every child does not just think they can draw, they know it! But somewhere along the line, as children turn into young adults, this self-assurance is lost and if what is created is not an accurate and perfectly realistic depiction, they feel as though they cannot draw. As we grow older, we are conditioned to see the world in more practical terms. 

Over the years my drawings had become quite rigid and static. In various art classes I have been trying to reverse the effects of time, and bring back that confidence to be able to become free once again.

A helpful lesson I received in a summer course I took as a teen, was to not just look at the world how you expect to see it, such as the white shell of an egg, but really study exactly what is in front of you, every minute detail until that egg becomes all shades of the rainbow as flecks of light display tangerines and limes, and the shadows become moody hues of purple and teal. This was still a realistic impression but it was a more expressive impression that allows the world we see to be heightened and exposed to a much more colorful and exciting level. This is not simply looking, this is seeing. 

In the core art courses that I took in grades 9 and 10, I learned yet another lesson, this time through a method called blind contour drawing. This mode of illustration has the power to bring out the child in all of us.

A pure blind contour illustration consists of nothing but one continuous line that is created without looking at the paper, not even for a tiny glance, and without ever lifting your pen or pencil off the drawing surface even a millimeter. This is a fantastic exercise and I absolutely love it for its freedom, flowing expression, and abstraction.

The results are extraordinary! Faces are disfigured with noses above eyes and mouths trailing off the edge of the paper. This abstraction that we would never allow ourselves to produce is drawn out of us to create the most free and happy masterpieces. They are full of energy and life. Every single drawing is different and unique. It forces us to not just look at the figure we are drawing but really see them, and see the shapes that construct their faces and bodies, without worrying about being perfect. Blind contours are by nature imperfect, raw, and abstract, and will leave you saying, “I can draw!”

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Blind contours have allowed me to loosen up my drawing style and diverge away from rigid and tight lines. Now when I am creating an interesting new fashion illustration I often like to start with a blind contour of a live individual or a photo. Sometimes I will even put my pencil on the paper and just close my eyes and imagine a figure in my head. Then I may draw it again but this time peeking a little bit at my page just so that features are abstracted but not so far off base that the eyes are on the other side of the page from the head. Or I will trace over my initial blind contour on a new page reducing some of the abstractions just slightly so that features a slightly more recognizable for a fashion audience. I find this tool helpful especially in the case of fashion illustration, because although I see fashion illustration as an art form first, the secondary purpose is to express style and mood and usually a particular outfit. The abstraction of blind contours can provide the mood and style while the retrace allows for a slice of realism to ensure certain clothing items are being seen. 

Once I have created or modified a blind contour illustration, I like to add to my crazy abstract work. I often add colour, and try to emphasize some of the kookiest and most abstract elements of the piece. It adds even more whimsy and fun to an already vibrant and always one-of-a-kind sketch.

So just try it. Don’t look down at your page. If you do, your mind will restrain your hands to ensure that your drawing is aligned. Just let go. There is art in not looking. There is art in seeing.