There are well-known drawing fundamentals in the art world, including "draw one single confident line" rather than linking many short, hesitant lines together.

Let's take that idea to the extreme. There's a style of drawing called "One-line Art" or "Continuous Line Drawing". It's a classic art technique used to train hand-eye coordination and make the artist more confident in creating the right outlines and contours for a drawing. 

This technique may feel constraining but putting a limit on yourself forces you to look at your habits and practices. It also lets you explore and observe your subject matter more closely.

Simply Single

Firstly, what is one-line art? Well, it's exactly what it says it is – art that is done in one line. I should clarify that the one line is continuous, not a single straight line. It's art done without lifting your pen from your paper.

Sounds easy enough, right? Let's start by drawing a simple leaf.

The leaf is flat, so you don't have to worry about contouring just yet. However, you must think about the details you want to keep and those to omit, which may require some planning. Begin your line in a spot that you can get back to easily so you can close the loose ends

Ultimately, these drawings can be as simple or as complex as you like. For your first time, however, simple is the way to go. I suggest that each drawing take you no more than five minutes to do.

Draw the same leaf several times, so you see where;

  1. The most important points of the leaf are,
  2. How much detail is required to make the leaf look like a leaf, and
  3. How "scribbly" you can make the line before it stops looking like a leaf. 

Though this is just a short experiment, keep in mind that you're mainly trying to pick out the outlines of the subject's main features and allow yourself to make mistakes. Not every line has to be a photo-accurate line, and not every line has to retrace itself to work! 

Tip: Drawing with a pen instead of a pencil avoids smudging and eliminates the temptation to erase any "wrong lines". 

Continuous Contouring

Once you get the hang of drawing a flat object, try one with more depth, like a flower or a face. Now, in addition to the outlines and details, you're also focusing on "zoning in" the highlights and shadows.

For each "zone" of tone you want, draw around that area as a contour line (without lifting your pen off the paper!). To keep it simple, divide your tones into three – highlights, mid-tones, and shadows.

If you're unsure, squint at your subject, which will help filter out some of the "in-between" tones. We go more in-depth with this in our article on Tonal Values and Contrast for Beginners.


In the image above, I added tones in watercolour to help you see how I traced them with my line. Adding more "scribble" will naturally make that area appear darker, so that's another factor to consider when doing your contouring.

It will be a little tricky for your first time, and there may be a few unwanted lines here and there because of the continuous line rule, but once you lift your pen off the page, step back and evaluate what makes the drawing work, and what could be better, or left out entirely.

Bonus tip: For more complex subjects, your starting point should be where the most crucial area of your drawing will be. For example, in my portrait drawings, I started where the forehead meets hair because drawing hair allows me to go freely back and forth.

Also, the position is near the middle of the subject, so I can retrace my line and draw the face's profile.

There's no "one way" to do one-line art other than not lifting your pen. Let your lines get a little wild! Remember that the main focus area should have the most detail, while you can do the less critical features in one pass of the pen.

Tip: Don't spend more than 30 minutes on a one-line art piece, even complicated ones, because getting a cramp or even carpal tunnel is possible. You don't want to overwork the drawing either, so a time limit is a good idea.

Variations and Verdict

One-line art is usually used as a warm-up exercise or precursor to a complete drawing or painting and is good practice for those looking to improve their linework.

However, it is always possible to take things further – for example, why not use a brush pen instead of a regular graphic pen? Or add paint to your drawing?

You could also heavily stylise your line to make it look more like organised chaos! Take this exercise to the next level and do it without lookingIf you'd like a deep dive into the world of sketching, I highly suggest that you check out our Introduction to Sketching course.

I hope you found this mini-challenge fun and informative! Remember, there are lots of limits to self-impose. Try them all. Test yourself and grow your art with each one.

Have you tried making one-line art before? Do you find giving yourself limits helps or hinders? Let us know in the comments!

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Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. She likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm during her downtime. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 

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