Monday Morning Art School: think in contours

The closer the object, the more foreshortening and distortion there is. Objects at a distance appear to have almost no perspective at all.
Shoes, by Carol L. Douglas
Every object, we have been famously taught, is comprised of simple shapes—globes, cylinders, cubes—stacked together. That’s absolutely true… until it stops being true. There are some shapes that are organic and asymmetrical. A shoe is a great example. It has evolved to accommodate the human foot, not to obey the laws of symmetry.
When we draw these shapes, we must draw their contours. This is different from a contour drawing, which is just an outline. I’m talking about contours in the sense of a topographic map, which shows us the bumps on the earth’s surface.
I drew my examples during church on Sunday. It was so crowded I sat behind the sound booth. There was a molded plastic wastebasket which is neither rectangular nor round; instead it’s a splashy combination of the two.
I started by drawing the cross at the top to give me the orientation of the bin. From there I drew the best approximation of the shape that I could come up with, but it wasn’t until I segmented it into planes that I could correct my drawing errors.
This looks like a very simple drawing, and it’s quite small (about 1.5 inches tall). However, it took a long time to get the contour lines right. I measured, erased, and measured again. Shading and detail is almost irrelevant; In the end, it’s getting the contour right that makes a drawing successful.
I repeated the process with a Dunkin Donuts cup. It was on a ledge above my head, so its perspective is reversed from what we usually expect. Its symmetry made the drawing easier, since it is really just a series of cylinders of differing widths. But again, it’s getting the contour lines right that make the drawing work.
This was so much fun that I decided to apply the same system to a gentleman sitting nearby. It’s always the same system, whether it’s a glass, a person, or a building—find the shapes and mark out their planes.
Rockport Harbor, by Dwight A. Perot (courtesy of the artist)
I was sitting close to the cup and the wastebasket, so their perspective is quite pronounced. The closer the object, the more foreshortening and distortion there is. In the photo above, you can see the reverse effect, as happens with a telephoto lens. Objects far away from us appear to have almost no perspective at all. The telephoto lens faithfully records that, and it looks ‘wrong’. From a long distance the difference in scale and, thus the foreshortening, is almost meaningless.
Your assignment—should you choose to accept it—is to find an object in your house that’s rounded; in other words, one that’s not a box. Break it down into contour lines indicating the shifting planes and curves.