Why does the simple act of filling tiny squares with yellow ochre, raw umber, moss green, dots and dashes, circles and lines feel so soothing and restorative?
If for only 15 minutes you were to step away from the abstracted worlds of thought and digitalia, to distance yourself from the seemingly-intractable sister habits of go-go/do-do, and instead immerse yourself in the easy practice of mark-making, with lines, shapes and color flowing easily from your pencil, brush or pen, you might experience as I do an incomparable level of engagement, often with a feeling of full presence and inexplicable contentment.
Mark-making is one of the most accessible portals into that enriching alternate universe known as be here now. While I’ve been fortified for over two decades by an imperfect meditation practice, I find that I can as easily (and sometimes more easily) get “there” via mark-making—not to be confused with “art-making” and all the pressures and stress that the prospect of making art can bring. Lynda Barry invites her students to avoid freighting their own marks with the burden of having to be beautiful, instead recognizing their lines, circles and color splashes as “a record of what your hand did on that day.”
Making one’s mark has a long, illustrious history and it’s possible that vestiges of this primitive practice continue to deliver their soothing, comforting influence even to this day. In conversation with Krista Tippett, Robert Macfarlane talks about how our prehistoric ancestors would place their palm on the wall of the cave and, with fingers spread wide and with a mouthful of yellow or red ochre, blow the pigment on the back of their hand, leaving what’s known as a ghost print, a signature of sorts that says, “I was here.”
I’ve often wondered whether it’s from this ancient lineage that our own lines are born. Isn’t it possible that the dashes, dots and lines that show up on the page today are impelled from a kind of primordial wellspring running through the ages and arriving here at the present, through our arms, down to our hands and onto the paper or canvas? The deep comfort, groundedness and connection that many experience from the simple practice of mark-making might be understood as our creative elderhood reaching out via lineage and line to a future that they knew they’d never see, the same as your own marks and lines might offer proof of your presence to those who’ll follow you.
Patagonia ghost print image courtesy of Dreamstime.