Blind contour drawing and the tactile imagination

Blind contour drawing is an exercise to develop observation and coordination (of a non-standard kind) between eye and hand, that is between the sense of sight and the experience of touch. Sight and touch are the two senses that contribute to the formation of our sense of space and our experience of form. As an educational studio practice it was popularized by artist and art teacher Kimon Nicolaides in the 1940´s.

The idea of the formative role of the sense of touch and of our muscular and kinetics sensations, our bodily experiences, in the construction of our experiences of apprehending form and understanding space was something already discussed in artistic literature by the end of the 19th century and is the background of, for instance, the examination of the art of the Italian Renaissance by the Lithuanian-American art historian Bernard Berenson. As Berenson states, in the beginning of his book The Florentine Painters of The Italian Renaissance (1896) :

"Psychology has ascertained that sight alone gives us no accurate sense of the third dimension. In our infancy, long before we are conscious of the process, the sense of touch, helped on by muscular sensations of movement, teaches us to appreciate depth, the third dimension, both in objects and in space.

In the same unconscious years we learn to make of touch, of the third dimension, the test of reality. The child is still dimly aware of the intimate connection between touch and the third dimension. He cannot persuade himself of the unreality of Looking-Glass Land until he has touched the back of the mirror. Later, we entirely forget the connection, although it remains true, that every time our eyes recognize reality, we are, as a matter of fact, giving tactile values to retinal impressions.

Now, painting is an art which aims at giving an abiding impression of artistic reality with only two dimensions. The painter must, therefore, do consciously what we all do unconsciously,—construct his third dimension. And he can accomplish his task only as we accomplish ours, by giving tactile values to retinal impressions. His first business, therefore, is to rouse the tactile sense, for I must have the illusion of being able to touch a figure, I must have the illusion of varying muscular sensations inside my palm and fingers corresponding to the various projections of this figure, before I shall take it for granted as real, and let it affect me lastingly.

It follows that the essential in the art of painting— as distinguished from the art of colouring, I beg the reader to observe —is somehow to stimulate our consciousness of tactile values, so that the picture shall have at least as much power as the object represented, to appeal to our tactile imagination"

source: Bernard Berenson - The Florentine Painters of The Italian Renaissance (1896)