Drawing Fundamentals: Cross Contour Lines and Ellipses

Lesson 2/6 - Using Cross Contour Lines To Create 3-Dimensionality


Drawing Fundamentals: Cross Contour Lines and Ellipses


Lesson Info

Using Cross Contour Lines To Create 3-Dimensionality

What are some things that we might look at in our everyday life that would manifest these ideas? So, this could be a typical breakfast table, like if you're organized enough in the morning to make this happen. So we have eggs, which are obviously egg-shaped. We have a banana, which is sort of a curved cylinder. We have the pepper mill which is cylindrical, and we also have a coffee cup which is actually this coffee cup right here, which is, you know, has a circle around the top but we're sort of looking at it from the side so it becomes more of what we call an ellipse. So, if we think about any egg shape, we might imagine them to have, we kind of imagined a see through egg. That would be cool. I looked for some, but I couldn't find any. So, we could imagine a see through egg and wrapping lines around that egg, how could the direction of those wrap lines which we call cross contour lines, how could those help us show dimension? Other than just a simple outline. So we're gonna take a loo...

k at that by actually wrapping... An actual line around an egg, right, and drawing it. So I have things that we'll use for that. What about, so those are the eggs in our breakfast, but what about our cylinders? Our pepper mill, or our banana? You know, those can be simplified into simple cylinders. So the simplification of objects we see in our every day life into simple forms is the first step. We don't have to draw every detail. What could it be? Could that be related to a cylinder? Could that be related to an egg? Could we simplify it, draw it, and then make it more complex. Always wanna start with simple and build to more complex. So we're starting with simple shapes. So here's this idea. On top of our breakfast, we have the cross contour lines wrapping around these forms. You can see the simple eggs, you can see the cylinders and the ellipses. So applying these concepts, applying these imagined lines, starts to help us think about how we might draw these with more dimension. You can set up anything to practice this. This was in my studio. I had a bunch of old mugs, and a vase, and a cigar box. So all of this is really fair game for trying these ideas out. So as we saw before this idea of wrapping the lines around still involves this idea of line quality, varying your line quality, having a svelte line. And you can see here, not all the lines have the same pressure. They get a little bit darker towards the edges, and so those are some things we'll also be practicing. We're gonna be using really simple shapes. We're gonna be using more or less monochromatic shapes because other ways, if we were working with a lot of colorful shapes, we'd be dealing also with how color relates to value, which is the darkness or lightness of a color. So for our purposes for now, we're just gonna stay with really wooden shapes and we're gonna stay with sort of organic eggs, and really keep it out of the color zone. That's for another lesson. So we're gonna keep it within these shapes. So Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets, and I love this quote about creativity. "The most regretful people on earth "are those who felt the call to creative work, "who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, "and have it neither power nor time." So I have goosebumps. Because I feel like, you know, even though we're getting into this conversation about more technical ideas, it's all about fueling your ability to have confidence with the drawing. And the more confidence you build, and the more you practice, and the more tools you have in your tool bet, ultimately you'll use that as a spingboard for your creativity. Not that this isn't creative, but more and more creativity will flow in the more confidence you have and the more things you kind of know. So we're coming form that place. Okay. So why would we draw eggs and cylinders? I mean, we saw how it might apply to a still life, but maybe you're not really too keen on drawing still lifes, it's not really your thing. So how else could we apply this? One thing we can look at is this figure drawing. I actually constructed this out of eggs and cylinders. I did. That was the early stages of it. And to show you that, here it is constructed out of eggs. Very much my first kind of marks I put down are tons and tons of egg shapes. And if you look at any old master drawing, you'll see eggs and eggs and eggs and more eggs. So that's something that's really classic. And cylinders. Like, actually yeah. That tube of a thigh is a cylinder. It's a cylinder in a particular direction in space, so that's again something that we can apply, apply these shapes and we can practice working with the shapes themselves. And then when we go to a figure drawing group, or are we interested in that kind of thing, we can say, you know what? Amy was mentioning that that thigh could be a cylinder. Oh, okay, and you could see how that could start to work. So we can certainly make a complex motif like the figure more simple by starting out with simple shapes. Does that make sense? Yeah, okay, great. So the coffee cup, right? That's a great, I mean most of us drink coffee or tea, so we have a coffee cup, something, right, that we could look at and draw with. So the coffee cup is a great thing to use as a motif to practice ellipses, and I wanna show you a little animation that talks about this idea of constructing a coffee cup. This is a coffee cup from multiple views. So I'm looking at it, I'm moving up to drink out of it. I'm looking into it, I'm noticing it's empty. So we're gonna take this as our first motif, and we're gonna talk about how... we're not just gonna talk about it, we're gonna see how looking at the width to the height of the ellipses, which is just the opening of the mouth of the cup and you all have these little cups that you're going to ultimately look up. You can even hold them up and if anybody at home has a coffee cup, is drinking, can take a look. So you can see, looking it at eye level, looking across the top of it, looking into it, that mouth of the cup really changes shape, doesn't it? And in terms of drawing a cup, you're still gonna need to know how to manifest that visually. So we're gonna practice that to make it believable. So it's about the width of the mouth of the cup, but it's also the width compared to the height versus the width, and how that changes depending on your view. So we're gonna look at the simple ellipse. We're gonna look at how wide it is versus how tall. So in this case, the height of it, so in this diagram you can see how the height of the ellipse, if we turn the height on its side, that height fits three times across the width. See that? It's sort of unbelievable though. When you actually look at it, you're like, really? And I always have to pinch myself to say, it's really that narrow? And so by making little relations, and I'll show you how you can do this, but by making little relationships of height to width, you can sort of start to solidify how that would work, and what the dimensions would be. So once you realize the height versus the width, can play with the ellipse, and you can also imagine that the bottom of the cup... So the bottom of the cup is gonna echo the top of the cup. And how the bottom of the cup is also an ellipse, you can kind of in your imagination follow around to the back. See those little space arrows, sort of show you how you can move around to the back. And the dotted line is definitely sort of the path of the eye, even though this isn't a see through cup. And then you'd ultimately arrive at something like this. We're not gonna deal with how to draw a handle or anything. We're really just gonna deal with the cup itself, the ellipse itself.

Class Description

This beginner-friendly class will teach you essential techniques for drawing realistically. Understand the three dimensional form and curved objects. Instructor Amy Wynne teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design and exhibits her work nationally, winning numerous grants and awards.

This class covers:

  • Turning 3D forms in space & using cross contour lines
  • Learning how to draw and measure height to width of ellipses
  • Applying knowledge of ellipses to drawing eggs, cylinders, coffee cups, & bananas

A series of practice pages will be provided to get you started. You’ll draw 3D forms such as an egg and a cube, and build up to drawing hands.



A great course to learn how an artist visualizes objects to make their drawings look 3-dimensional on a 2-dimensional surface (such as your paper). Awesome!


Clearly explained concepts. Well thought out for the building blocks of drawing, from shape to line quality to shading. Gave me confidence and desire to keep on drawing.

Rebecca Saylor

This was one of my favorite classes. Amy is a very patient and thorough instructor. I have taken many drawing classes but I really loved her approach. I'm looking at the world differently!