Sunday, 15 March 2015

Cross Contour Drawing

Whenever you have to deal with mass in a drawing, cross contour lines are a potential approach. Sculptors in particular have to deal with mass and therefore have often developed a cross contour approach to drawing. Working in this way, is not about developing a cross contour style, (always beware of stylisation) it’s about recognising when and where to place marks so that they indicate the mass that they relate to. Time spent making this sort of drawing helps to develop the eye’s ability to recognize change in surface direction and aids your hand’s ability to respond to these changes by both developing control and getting used to inventing marks to suggest surface texture and mass at the same time
Moore: Shelter

Moore: Study for sculpture: Family Group
Moore: Etching: Elephant Skull

Henry Moore used cross contours throughout his life and was very sensitive to their use in a variety of ways. In the etched drawing of an elephant skull above, you can see how his lines trace over the surface of the bone and in doing so pull your vision in and out of areas of light and dark. In this case Moore is allowing the lines he makes to do two things at once. He masses lines together to create dark holes and then allows cross contour lines to ‘escape’ from the dark and travel over surfaces. Compare this drawing with his earlier ‘shelter’ drawing. Again we see the use of cross contour lines, this time combined with wax resist and ink lines that trace over the form. His studies for sculptural groups of figures are particularly sensitive to the use of contours, the heavy mass of stone being suggested by crayon and the changing of direction of surfaces suggested by the contour lines as they make their way over three dimensional forms. The 'stone' texture is suggested by the use of a grey wash, this also being used to describe the play of light over the mass, however in this case the contour lines are still clearly seen, as the wax rejects the wash and the lines stand out in white.
Cross contour lines are drawn lines that travel across the form. They may be horizontal or vertical, or both, often when describing more complex forms, cross-contours are drawn at varying angles, sometimes changing direction as they develop to suggested planar change. When I was a student a classic exercise was to imagine an ant making its way over an object you were looking at. You then had to draw the traces of its imaginary movement as if its feet left a line of marks. The trick to this was not only hard looking and thinking, but to imagine an unpredictability of movement, as if the ant had a mind of its own and kept changing direction. This exercise made you ‘feel’ across a surface and you got used to adjusting the direction of marks so that they ‘sat’ in the space convincingly.

Map contours work in a similar way, (see above) as they gather together they suggest a sharp drop or steep incline, as they spread out they suggest a tilting plane or gentle slope. 

In mathematics geometric contour lines are often used to visually describe complex three-dimensional forms, such as rotating surfaces. See above. This type of geometric thinking having a history that goes back to the Renaissance and Uccello’s wonderful drawing of a vase.

Present day computer realisations that use wire frame modeling continue this long tradition.

You can find examples of cross contour lines in the work of many artists both historical and contemporary.

In this drawing of a man’s head by Durer, you can see a particularly subtle use of lines following the surface of the skull. Lines are drawn in white as well as black, this allows the artist to suggest two things at once. A line can follow the direction of the surface, thus indicating the physical mass or ‘haptic’ nature of the subject and at the same time can indicate the way light plays over the form. This allows the artist to place the subject in a convincing space. Mass and space are therefore synergistically combined in this sort of drawing.

Victor Newsome’s drawing ‘four views of a figure’ uses cross contour lines within a very technical approach. His figures look like they have emerged from an engineering drawing, suggesting that as humans we are at the end of the day simply living machines.  This woman in a bath is one of a series of drawings that Newsome made, the study of a head (below) gives a clear idea of how he used perspective contour lines to simplify form. (He is also another former ex-student of LCA) 

Victor Newsome

Hans Bellmer

Hans Bellmer's, Bastille Corset, uses brick-like structures to suggest both the soft shapes  of a corset and the structural presence of a brick wall. Bridget Riley uses the same visual effect to create spacial movement in her early black and white canvases. 

Bridget Riley

Although always spoken about as if being entirely about 'optical' effect, Riley's early work, I would suggest, relies upon a strong awareness of the relationship between touch and sight. In some ways the disorientation you feel in front of her 'Op-art" paintings is a very physical one, that derives from our brain's search for a solid on which to pin the illusion. 

Perhaps the most important issue about cross contour drawing is that it brings together sight and touch. You are drawing as if you are feeling over a surface and it is well known that children need to feel objects in order to begin to picture what they might be, touch reinforcing what is seen. It has therefore been argued that touch comes before sight in our world of organised perceptions. 

As Margaret Atwood wrote: “Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.”

Atwood points to a key element of meaning, authenticity is vital to our awareness. There is something about 'trust' here. Touch is more 'honest', we believe in it, therefore by working in a way that brings us back to an awareness of touch, we can build a feeling of 'truth' into the image. The solidity we perceive in front of a Henry Moore drawing also means that we 'trust' that these forms are 'authentic', the lines that trace their mass telling us that these images have weight and therefore a certain 'gravity'.

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