I was flipping through a book on the drawings of Jasper Johns, I just took a nice slow walk through and soaked in all those reproductions of great drawings and marks. Admittedly, I'm not so much of a reader when it comes to art books... just look at the pictures. That is unless I want to really understand the mind of the artist. I scanned the text looking for morsels of inspiration and, as usual, marveled at how it's possible to fill a huge book with so many words about one subject like that. Anyway, my eyes fell on this line in the book, and I'm going from memory, but it was something like "edge defines the form" or "edge informs the shape"..... somewhere between the two. The idea being that the nature of the marks along the edge of a form tells you a lot about what it is you are seeing, in life and in painting.
Mark making is to painting as intonation is to speech and song. It's the subtlety that takes so long to acquire. Learning how to suggest a palm tree with a few marks or differentiate between a bundle of reeds and the borders of a deciduous tree takes a life time of learning. I came to understand this idea of edge and marks and pattern as one novice painter attempted a palm tree in a workshop. She had 5 big bold marks flaring out from the center of a stick, she got the idea of the palm tree but not the nature of the edge. Her proportions were off. The rhythm of shape, edge, hard and soft didn't quite get there. It was a palm tree, but it wasn't elegant. We could listen to anyone play a cello and get in the ballpark of a song but wouldn't you rather listen to Yo Yo Ma who has mastered the subtle shifts?
I created a little montage of edge types to show what I'm talking about. For the most part we as painters are creating a shorthand language to visually reconstruct a reality. We use a bundle of tricks, marks, scumbles, drags, blends and carve outs to get to the nature of an edge. But the first trick is to be able to identify what the pattern is you are going for. Is it hard or soft, round or pointy, lots of little marks or a few big bold ones, does the object dissipate slowly into the air around it or come to a screeching halt? Proportion is key... watch for the nature of the edge and it's relative proportion to the object.