Make a Mark

A page from a letter written by Van Gogh

The question, “What really matters?” is one I ask a lot more frequently these days. One reason is that getting older makes the need to vet more important. Life gets to be like a hard drive that is nearly filled, and decisions have to be made about what to keep and what to toss. But it is also a response to the tenor of our time—when the outrageous and the absurd appear with such frequency. It no longer makes sense to take a position by default.

So here’s something I can stand up for and applaud: mark making. Call it drawing, sketching, doodling or scribing, something happens when the hand is in motion, with or without a narrative intention. Making marks does not require you to be an artist. In the 19th century, many people included sketches in their letters and journals as a de rigueur occurrence. At at time before easy access to photography, the drawn image was an essential element in a report. There was a cultural comfort with moving the pen from the alphabet to the line.

More 19th century blending of text and image

So if this seems like something that matters to you too, here are a few ways to think about reconnecting with sketching and doodling:

In a recent article in the Atlantic, The Cognitive Benefits of Doodling, Steven Heller explores some of the benefits of drawing, even for those who do not consider themselves artistically inclined:

Perhaps it’s a kind of artistic rebellion over the supremacy of computers and digital media. Or, maybe the need to draw is simply hardwired into human brains. Arguably, making graphic marks predates verbal language, so whether as a simple doodle or a more deliberate free-hand drawing, the act is essential to expressing spontaneous concepts and emotions.

Heller points out that while drawing is part of an artist’s skill set, everyone can make doodles. They do not require the sophistication of a trained artist’s hand, and they serve another purpose. “Drawing, even in a primitive way, often triggers insights and discoveries that aren’t possible through words alone.” There are other rewards than just visual satisfaction.

Several books are referenced in Heller’s article: Drawing is Thinking, by Milton Glaser; The Doodle Revolution, by Sunni Brown; and Drawing is Magic, by John Hendrix. There are of course many others available as well.

An effortless way to get into sketching: “My Year in Small Drawings”

And here is a new one that is worthy of a look: My Year in Small Drawings: Notice, Draw, Appreciate, by Matilda Tristram (and published by one of my favorite “conscious” imprints, Leaping Hare Press in the U.K.) This is a beguiling small journal that provides an easy framework for anyone who might not know quite where to start with their mark making. The book is divided into the four seasons of the year with recommended categories for sketching under each (Winter offers Junk drawer, People looking at their phones, Things in cabinets, among others.) Tristram’s introduction is warm, welcoming and useful for the artist and non-artist alike. Her approach successfully blends openness with just a bit of structure, useful guidelines that don’t feel like stifling rules. By keeping her tone respectful as well as clear, Tristram comes across as well informed and “heart-driven” (the very term Leaping Hare uses to describe its stable of authors!) For more about her work, click here.

Kelvy Bird is a friend and an expert at “scribing,” defined by Kelvy as “to visually represent ideas while people talk, while people can see the drawing, to establish relation within content that aids with insight and decision-making. It’s essentially a language with ‘tight integration of words and visual elements’ that facilitates group learning.” When I have attended a conference where a scribe is working, it has significantly shifted my perceptions and overall experience of the content. And how much I remember a year later. So yes, I’m a big fan. For more about this approach, visit Kelvy’s site here.

Jottings, by Jan Baker: Fabric design inspired by jottings and random mark making

Another friend, Jan Baker, is a professor at RISD and has had a particularly unique relationship with doodling and sketching. She has always incorporated her various mark making into her assemblages, collages, book arts, textile and graphic design. An inveterate peregrinator, Jan’s travel journals are a visual feast that bring together the hand drawn and the found. Over the years Jan has developed her own version of scribing—keeping visual notes from the many meetings she has attended while at RISD. Not surprisingly, interest has been expressed in publishing those meetings notes as a kind of visual record.

There are so many ways to leave marks, to learn from our mark making, to incorporate the hand into how we comprehend the world and how we share what we know. And yes, I’m for E) All of the above.