Do we even pay attention to our mark making techniques in drawing?

Why is mark making important when we draw? 

And what is it anyway? 

Mark making is the resounding first basic principle of drawing. It is the thing, believe it or not, that underpins and dictates our creative drawing style, it whispers to us to be more confident, and it is as unique to you and I as our fingerprints. 

I’d never much paid attention to this concept of mark making. I’d just launched into attempting to draw and get on with. Probably much the same as you have done.  

In the first section I teach in Sketch from Scratch to Sketchbook in 10 Weeks, I explore mark making techniques in drawing. I believe that it is closely linked to mindset. It is a building block that can instantly transform our attitude towards producing a drawing because we can ALL make a mark.

As some of you know, I love collecting the sketchbooks of the masters. I believe these sketchbooks provide answers to my curiosity for drawing. Why is Van Gogh’s sketches so different to Degas or Klimt’s? All largely draw with just one contour line and yet they are totally different and more to the point totally distinctive as a Van Gogh, Klimt or Degas sketch. They have a signature when they draw with just one line. How is this possible?

As I evolved in my drawing curiosity got the better of me. I became more conscious about ALL aspects of the drawing process. Why do we never pay attention to how we first make a mark on a piece of paper. If you and I drew the same thing why would our drawings look totally different? After all, a line is just a line? Is it possible that just as we are able to string simple words together to create sentences, stories and billions of uniquely penned and polar opposite novels, we too can create our own unique drawing styles from the get go? 

We have NEVER EVER been taught this way. We are sat down in front of a still life, an image or subject and told to copy it. We expect miracles. We get disappointed and we turn away dejected because we perceive that we are no good at it. Like any craft though, its all about the skill. Its first step evolves from a place of understanding and thought. How conscious are you of what you are really doing when you pick up a pencil? Do you stop to really think about WHERE and HOW you will make that first mark on your page? And more to the point do you know why you have reached that conclusion?

How do you hold your pencil?

How do you press it to the page?

What type of mark is your first – and where do you make it?

How does your sense of sight connect to your first mark on the page? (more on this later in subsequent posts!)

Some of you may be questioning me at this point. Seriously though, engaging with this process with heightened awareness will put control in your hands as an artist. It will enable you to assess where you go wrong, to understand and either accept or refute how you move through the stages of drawing. No longer are you to launch into drawing without first understanding the processes you move through.

In this post I’m exploring the nature of mark making and why, if you are interested in getting better at drawing, you should start paying attention to it and ensure you return regularly to making your own marks on a piece of paper. 

I’m going a little deeper too. I believe that how we make our mark on the page, and how we are inspired to draw as a result has a profound effect on how we think. 

There is quite a lot of truth hidden in Henry Matisse’s quote that “Drawing is putting a line around an idea.” What do the lines around your ideas look like? Do you know?

We are full of them – ideas. Understanding how you approach mark making will ensure that you can push past a good intention and realise the full potential of an idea in a successful drawing. It all begins with how confident we feel we can hold our pencil and make that first mark. 

Problem is we often stop, or start with good intentions and then struggle to draw what we mean or more importantly what we see. The way we pay attention to how we mark make consciously on paper can make a huge difference. 

Time to take a bit of control.

Mark making techniques in drawing are a critical part of the beginner’s creative journey.

The analogy of an athlete on the starting line is a great definition of how to approach mark making as one of the first drawing activities you do.

Making that first mark on paper is perhaps the most challenging thing to do as an artist. Even when you are an accomplished one or learning how to get started with the medium that you are using. The ability to understand how you as an individual make that mark on paper is unique to you.

Learning to feel confident when you draw your first line whether you are a sketching beginner or more advanced, is a skill you can learn to do from the onset by mastering mark making techniques on paper. Added to this I advocate mark making for any new medium you use whether it be pencil (the entire graphite range through to colouring pencil) pen (ink or micron) or even biro. I also “mark make” when experimenting with different types of paint or medias like stencilling or print making.

Why is mark making important?

Teaches you to be in control.

Pay attention to how you hold your pencil. Apply different types of pressure to different marks you make. Press down hard with your pencil, for example and then lighter. Notice how you can achieve different effects through this application of different pressure. This will build your experience in shading and toning technique. How straight can you get your lines? What I personally love about mark making is that you don’t have to particularly concentrate on drawing anything in particular. It is (almost) a vacuous exercise designed to simply shape your skill.

Supports our thought arrangement.

We give ourselves a much harder time when we draw than other creative practices. We are far more critical of ourselves in comparison to, let’s say, writing. You never write something for example with the intention of always producing a world class novel or an award winning poem. You may just be writing your signature on a document. We don’t think about whether or not that is good do we? And yet when we start to draw we expect a creative miracle.

Drawing and the act of mark making is far more important than we realise. It connects to our intuition, supports us capture the beauty around us, makes us pause and reflect, and enables us to bring our imaginative thought processes to light.  Does the thought of setting that first mark on a page not excite you? It does me.

Mark making helps you learn to draw.

You have a unique style. You will place that pencil and make your mark in a totally different way to others. Developing a set of mark making techniques will support you discover the methodology behind your creative style. What is the process by which you find it the easiest to draw a line? It’ll be different to mine! As you experiment pay attention to how you do it. Over time it will become easier and second nature to you.

Mark making is a building block for the drawing you want to put together. Lines, squiggles, shading, hatching…all components you will become familiar with when sketching.

It can be argued that mark making is a great way of zoning out, a type of doodling that allows your mind to wander whilst it gathers its creative thoughts.

You’ll be surprised how easy mark making is to do!

Here is an example of one I did earlier with a pencil in under 5 minutes.  You can watch it here!

A few mark making techniques for you to try

There are a few techniques I used in this sketch exercise which you can try;

  1. Drawing the straight line.  From left to right. Practise how straight you can get a line whether horizontal or vertical.  (Great for urban sketching and line drawing in general!)
  2. Break up your lines and draw elongated as well as short lines in quick succession of one another. This exercise is a pre requisite to breaking up line to draw shapes. Try varying the direction of travel for these lines too.
  3. C shapes. Practise drawing slightly curved shapes.
  4. Scribble! Just have fun scribbling across the page.  Loosen your wrist and draw a variety of loops and swirls as well as jaggedy edged lines.
  5. Create pattern with a combination of the line sketches across your page.

Mark making is, in my opinion, the foundation of good drawing practise.  It is also an opportunity to fall back on it when you find yourself wondering what to draw.  Always use it to practise lines, tones and shape, shadow and thickness of line.

Why not have a go?

If you’re interested in developing your drawing practice further why not consider joining me on the Back to Basics Learn to Draw course!

Join me for more resources when keeping a sketchbook in my community which you can sign up to here!

Back to Basics Learn to Draw in 30 Days!