As you explore surface pattern design, you will, for sure come across mark making. It’s the most fundamental element of any pattern design. Think of it like your own signature, the way you form the letters that make up your name is unique to you and only you. This set of marks called ‘signature’ have legal and personal psychological significance.

So what is Mark Making?

Mark making is how we begin to express our emotions, movement and other concepts we wish to convey in our patterns. It describes the different lines, textures and patterns we create in any piece of artwork. Dots painted with a brush, a line created with a pencil, a swirl made with a pen, are all types of mark making.

It can be gestural or loose like Cecily brown’s work.

Cecily brown's paintingOr structured and controlled like

Vincent Van Gogh

How are marks used in Surface Pattern Design?

Every surface pattern design begins with a mark: they become the building blocks for a pattern.

A single mark creates a dot.

An extended mark becomes a line.

A cluster of marks becomes a motif.

A series of repetitive marks transforms into a pattern.

Finding your personal style is one of the first things you are faced with as a surface pattern designer. I truly believe, that the more you practice mark making, you’ll begin to develop a unique mark making style. And, the best place to start developing your style is by looking at the marks you make.

DrawingOften, marks you practice frequently and the ones you find yourself drawing over and over again, are innate and ingrained in your muscle memory. They are the beginning to defining your style. These marks – whatever they may be – will become clear to you and soon a style based on the marks you make will develop. So, if you practice and increase your mark making language, then your ability to express yourself in a unique manner is greater.

Practice is the key!

With that in mind, let’s explore some mark making techniques that will stretch your creativity and expand your mark making.

I’ll just ask you to remember three things.

  1. Always Explore!

– Try lots of things to see what works for you. Thick, thin, jumpy, wobbly lines, dots etc. Anything goes.

  1. Stay curious!

– Ask yourself “what would happen if…?”; I turn my brush upside down, use a material I’ve never used before, draw with my opposite hand…the sky is your limit!

  1. Be Playful!

– Let your personality out and let yourself have fun.

Be a kid again!

There are no comparisons and everything you do is as it should be.

Mark Making Exercises

While shown using a brush in photoshop, these mark making ideas could be done with a felt tip pen, pencil, charcoal, brush, paintbrush or other drawing media, whatever you can find around your home.

You get to decide the order in which you do the exercises and the frequency. But I kid you not, the more you practice mark making the more you will draw out your personal style.

Exercise1: Holding your drawing tool

Experiment by holding your drawing tool (pen, pencil, brush) of choice in different ways and see how your marks are affected.

How did you feel?  What stood out for you?

Exercise2: Doodling

Lay out a large sheet of paper and / or sketchbook or Click here to use this practice doodling worksheet. Have a variety of pencils, pens, felt-tip pens, or charcoal readily to hand. Free your mind and make as many possible marks as your hand will let you. Just make marks! Don’t forget to play your favourite music or podcast.

Exercise3: Mark-making Techniques

Draw lots of 5cm squares in your sketchbook (Click here to download a template to practice your Mark Making). Then experiment with various tools and media to make several different marks in each square. Think about intensity, texture, smoothness, length and repetition. Try using different marks and hand tools as often as you can.

To give you some inspiration here are some ways you can start these mark making techniques.

Broken Lines: Break up your lines and vary the way you do this. For instance break up your straight lines into dots and dashes or make a broken hatched pattern out of them.

broken lines example

Scalloped Lines: One of my favourites! These are slightly rounded, ‘C’ shaped like dashes. You can make them into tight or loose lines. Better yet, by focusing on the direction and size of the scallops, you can often get interesting results.

scalloped lines example

Loops and Scribbles: By adjusting the width and direction of your scribbles, you can create interesting textures in your motifs. You could draw large, wide loops and overlay them with a similar set made in the opposite direction or draw dense, free form scribbles within your square.

loops and scribbles example

Zigzags: Create tight, irregular or loose zigzagging lines.

zig zag examples

Clumping Clusters: Explore drawing tiny shapes in close proximity. For example, draw tiny circles close to each other. Try the same thing by using different circle sizes and see what happens.

clusters example

Interlocking Lines: These create surprisingly intricate looking results just by using lines and shapes in an interlocking pattern. Try drawing mini arcs in different directions to fit the square or section your square into mini squares and then fill it in with lines in varying directions.

interlocking lines example

Hopefully these will be a great start to your Mark making explorations. Let me know how it went and don’t forget to enjoy the process.


After all, It’s not the destination but the journey that counts.


P.S. If you have the time try the above with more unusual media like fruits, dried seed heads, stems, string, bubble wrap, cotton buds and whatever else you come up with.