Exercise 3: Mark-making techniques

This exercise took far longer than I’d anticipated.  Initially, I found myself feeling I should hurry through it, mindful of all those other exercises looming.  However, I realised pretty quickly that this was worth spending some time on… time to experiment… as it’s the foundation of much of what’s to follow.

I used a variety of media: pencil, graphite (pencils and water-soluble sticks), charcoal, pastels (hard, soft, pencil, and oil), ballpoint pens (biro and rollerball), colour pencils, and ink (using brush, fountain pen, and dip pen).  As I mentioned in the ‘Holding The Pencil’ exercise, the pencils, graphite, ballpoints & ink were the most useful for working with line, whereas charcoal and pastels excel at creating areas of tone and colour.  However, I did make some new discoveries as I worked through the exercise.

• I have a natural tendency towards working with line, as opposed to tone.  This wasn’t entirely surprising to me as so much of the art that appeals to me is linear in quality (Egon Schiele, for example).  That said….

• Hatching is hard!  Hard to do well, anyway.  I made several woeful attempts at it, in pencil and pen, before turning to Youtube for videos on how other people approach it.  It felt like something that should be so simple, but I did struggle with it.  Watching the videos helped and I had another go, with marginally more success.  However, I think it’s something that’s going to need a good deal more practice.  So far, though, I’ve learned that:

  1. The spacing between the lines can be as important as the lines themselves.
  2. Direction of  line is all-important.  Need to consider the direction the of the particular     plane I’m describing, and replicate that with my hatching.
  3. Varying pressure can create a wider range of tones.
  4. Keeping lines shorter gives greater control, but it’s difficult to match ‘seams’.

Moving on to the various media I used…

Pencil marks

• Using pencil, I saw again that the softer the pencil, the greater depth of shade it gives, whilst harder pencils are great for linear work.

• Likewise with graphite.  I particularly liked the darker tones produced by washing over areas of the 9B water-soluble graphite stick.  Tried two different methods of creating tone for spheres – conventional hatching & cross-hatching, and building up tone via layers of squiggles.

Graphite and pen marks

• Moving on to ballpoint pens, I developed a profound dislike for biro – it kept splotching, and gave a really (uninteresting) messy appearance.  I will concede, though, that is quite good for (very) sketchy line work.  Rollerball pens worked far better.  The 01. and 0.3 pens, in particular, were great for creating fine lines.

• Charcoal continues to be one of my favourite mediums, offering a wide range of tones and a degree of line.  I experimented by drawing a dense circle of charcoal which created quite a bit of dust, which I then drew outwards with my finger – liked that effect a lot.  I also used a putty rubber to draw into areas of charcoal.  Would like to experiment further with this.

Charcoal and felt tip pen marks

• Felt tips (or brush pens) proved to be quite testing.  I found it easier to produce lines and dots than I did to layer them – this was partly because the paper in my sketchbook tended to become too wet with more than one layer, and so started to degrade.  However, it might be worth trying a layering technique on heavier watercolour paper.

• As I said following the ‘Holding The Pencil’ exercise, hard pastels work well for creating areas of colour rather than line.  It was difficult to see how well they might produce a tonal range whilst working within the confines of a 5cm square, however.  Pastel pencils allowed a greater element of control, though.  Soft pastels – see my comment on hard pastels.  However, I did try using a putty rubber to drawn to the soft pastels and found it quite effective.

• I had a hard time with the oil pastels.  As I’ve said before, I’m sure (or, at least, I’m hoping) that the problem is the cheap set of oil pastels I have – they seem to be all grease, no pigment.  No matter how hard I pressed, or how many layers I attempted to build, it was difficult to get any real intensity of colour, the one thing for which I believe oil pastels are noted.  On trying to smudge them, they would congeal into a nasty brown-grey mass, with tiny lumps of grease accumulating all the time.  As well as the cheapness of my pastels, this might be due in part to the paper on which I was working – I’m not sure how textured a paper is needed for oil pastels to work to their best effect.  Again, it might be worth trying them on watercolour paper.  Still, I tried creating line, blending colour, and scratching into the oils with my fingernail – all of which I feel might be improved by a decent set of pastels.  Also, I’m keen to try using some kind of solvent (white spirit?) to see how it affects the spread of the oils.

Pastel and coloured pencil marks

• For coloured pencils, I tried both Caran D’Ache and Derwent’s Inktense water-soluble pencils.  The latter gave a more intense quality of colour, unsurprisingly.  I would say I need more practice with building layers of colour, though.  One thing I tried was drawing a pattern with the pencils, and then outlining with a rollerball pen.  I think that doing this with Indian ink and the Inktense pencils (with water applied) could be a very effective way of creating strong illustrative colour scenes.  Also, I had another go at creating a ‘squiggle sphere’, and think it worked rather well!

Ink marks

• I really enjoyed trying out various marks in ink.  It’s such a responsive medium.  Once again, though, I noticed that the paper in my sketchbook is perhaps not the best for ink, as it tends to ‘bleed’, somewhat.  Another thing to try on watercolour paper.  Consequently, several of the techniques I tried could not be seen clearly, as whether I splattered the ink on, blew it, or applied it with a cotton bud, eventually the ink would start to spread, thus obscuring the particular characteristics of the individual techniques, slightly.  That said, the variety of line, dot, and tone are fantastic.  One thing I enjoyed especially was adding ink to water on the paper.  I tried this two ways: firstly by dropping ink into water droplets, and secondly by dropping ink into a  pattern ‘painted’ with water.  The latter effect, in particular, is one I would like to try again.

• Many of my ‘instinctive’ marks seemed indicative of plants or trees.  I didn’t set out with this as an intention, but it does seem to be something I gravitate towards.

• As I did this exercise over the course of about a week, I was able to notice the effect of my mood on the marks I made, and on which ones better suited the mood I was in at the time.  Building areas of tone was quite time-consuming and required more focused concentration, so I did better at this when I was feeling calmer and less rushed.  In itself, it was quite a compelling thing to do – almost meditative.  At times when I was under a little more stress, my marks tended to be faster and rather sharper.  Similarly, I would say that the more staccato-style marks – short lines, splattering, scribbling – tend to carry a greater feeling of energy or liveliness, although when they’re used to create areas of regular pattern, the effect is slightly more subdued.  Washed areas of ink or coloured pencil evoke calmness, as do curvilinear patterns and soft smudged tones of charcoal or pastel.

Having finished the mark-making exercise, I looked at  Emma Dexter’s ‘Vitamin D’ (Emma Dexter, Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing, Phaidon Press, 2005), to see if I could find any artists whose use of mark-making stood out for me.  Three caught my eye:

  1. for both line and tone, Julie Mehretu’s Transcending: The New International, ink and acrylic on canvas, 2003 (p.198-199)
  2. or fantastic hatching, Vik Muniz’s Prison XIII, the Well, After Piranesi, Cibachrome, 2002 (p.211)
  3. for line and stippling, Matthew Ritchie’s Something Like Day, ink and graphite on Dendril, 2004 (p.272-273)

Overall, I feel this is an exercise that could continue for years!  I feel that it would be good practice to develop the habit of studying the marks that other artists use, for various subjects, mediums, and moods, maybe noting (and replicating, as best I can) in my sketchbook, those that strike me particularly.