Lesson 9 exercises – ways to practise simple contours and tonal shapes

In the last lesson we talked about fleshing out our figure with simplified outlines and tonal shapes. If you’ve not seen that lesson, check that out before this.

This post explains a series of exercises to help you practise the things we learned in the last lesson.

These exercises will… help you to start capturing figures in terms of simplified contours and tonal shapes

It’s best to watch the video in order to see the demonstrations, but in case you prefer we have also written out the lesson below with screenshots.


Exercise 1: restricted contours

We want to learn to lay down simple contours and tonal shapes. But it’s hard to ignore all those details and nuances. So we are going to restrict ourselves in this exercise, force ourselves to see the few lines and shapes that define the figure, and only use those in our drawing.

I just wanted to note here that the reference photos we use are from the wonderful life drawing resource Croquis Cafe. When you need to practise at home, try their free reference photos and videos!

First, lay down a stickman with ribcage and so on, and correct it with measurements as needed, as we have learned in previous videos. This is just our foundation layer, so keep it light.

Now, you are going to try to put down some contours and tonal shapes, but for the contours you are only allowed to use a minimal number of straight lines.

In other words, you should try to capture the pose using as few lines as possible. The drawing is going to end up looking quite angular and sharp. The aim of the exercise is to improve your ability to see the most important visual information first, before seeing nuance and detail. You could even challenge yourself with a maximum number of lines – for example, I’ve done a few where I allowed myself a maximum of 10 lines for the torso, 10 for the head, and 10 per limb.

We will simultaneously add tonal shapes as well as contours. You must decide, for every part of the figure you see, whether it is dark, mid-tone or light – just three levels of tone. There’s no nuance, no gradation – everything has to go into one of those three boxes.

You then should divide the figure into large simple geometric shapes – shapes with straight edges – dependent on the level of tone. If there are small spots of dark or light, you can ignore those – we just want big shapes.

Try to avoid making the shapes complicated – you can ignore little bumps and spikes in the tone. Cut through the detail and get to the big tonal shapes and simpified contours only. Squinting your eyes will help you to see these simple tonal shapes.

Then you must strongly fill in those simple geometric shapes corresponding to dark areas, lightly fill those simple geometric shapes corresponding to mid-tone.

You can also add a fourth and fifth level – very darkest and very lightest areas. You can only choose a small percentage of the figure to fall into these categories – especially the lightest areas. The lightest and darkest are just small areas or even lines or spots – they don’t have to be large simple shapes like the other areas of tone.

Again this is a quick exercise where the drawings might take 10-15 minutes, though you should go at a pace you are comfortable with.

You can also challenge yourself by only allowing yourself to use triangles and different types of rectangles for the tonal shapes.

Exercise 2: tonal shapes with newspapers

To become familiar with this idea of tonal shapes, we would once again like you to pick up a newspaper or magazine (preferably newspaper since it has nice paper for drawing on). Find a picture of a person lit from one side – in other words, you should see clear areas of shadow on their face. Often, photographs of musicians or dramatic performers fit the bill.

You won’t need full figures – even just a face will work for this exercise.

Now start to draw the simple tonal shapes you see onto your selected photos. The point is to divide the photo into light, dark and mid-tone using fairly simple shapes.

There won’t be a right answer to this – draw the shapes you see. Once you’ve done this, draw those same shapes in the same pattern to the side. Try to focus on not consciously drawing a person – you should just focus on copying over the shapes you drew. You aren’t aiming to end up with a good drawing of the person, you are just trying to match the tonal shapes.

Once you’ve got the shapes copied over, you might like to insert some details to turn your shape pattern into a face – extra lines needed for the eyes, mouth and nose. How is the drawing looking? Is it quite different to the drawings of faces you normally do?

Treat hair as a mass, a 3D shape, like other body parts. Resist the idea that hair is millions of strands – the mass of the hair is a 3D volume. Stray strands that fall away from the mass can be added individually, but sparingly.

This exercise should take between 5 and 10 minutes per drawing – it’s a quick way to get yourself to simplify what the light and dark you see.

Recap and next lesson

These are really useful exercises. Learning to see and capture simplified contours and tonal shapes like this will have a great impact on your figure drawings and portraits. These skills take time to develop, so keep at it.

In the next lesson, we are going to go through the whole drawing process, with some final tips for the last details and keeping the drawing dynamic.


Next lesson:

Lesson 10: Recapping the process, and finishing expressively

Avoid the big mistake that led to all my other mistakes

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