Edges and Markmaking: The Skill that Makes Your Drawings Look Good

At its core, what makes a figure drawing work is the gesture, the forms and the values. That’s how you bake the cake. The skill we’re going to talk about today is more like the icing on the cake. I’m talking about edges and mark making, the ingredient that helps drawings really start to look good.

For this article, we’ll take a look at some examples from other artists and then I’ll show you a demo of how to use some of these ideas in practice. First though, let’s have a quick recap on different types of edges.

Types of edges

You can have edges that vary in a few different ways:

  1. Hard edge: for example, this could be a very sharp transition from light to dark
  2. Soft edge: for example, it could go from light to dark but very gently and softly.
  3. High contrast: for example, it could be from very dark to very light – a big change in value
  4. Low contrast: for example, it could go from light to a bit lighter or dark to a bit darker

As we can see in the example below, edges can vary in various combinations hardness/softness and contrast:

four types of edges

Jared Cullum

Let’s look at this watercolor by Jared Cullum

There are some edges which are very soft and low contrast, such as where we see the trees transition to the sky. Both the sky and the trees are basically gray and quite close in value. The sky is very slightly lighter than the tree. And also the edge is very soft. He’s used wet in wet watercolor technique to let the tree fade into the sky. This edge is not trying to grab our attention.

detail of a soft low-contrast edge in a painting

On the other hand, we can see in the close-up below how the snow on the roof of this barn has high contrast because it goes from very light to quite dark. It also has a pretty hard edge. I’m guessing Jared really wanted a lot of attention in this area and that’s why the contrast is higher and the edges are sharper.


So now let’s look at this beautiful figure drawing by Vynillus. He’s really pushed these ideas around edges.

figure drawing by Vynillus

There was probably a lot of stuff going on in the shadows in the original reference image. There would probably be details and subtle contrasts happening: the collar bones, pockets of dark in the armpit, and so on. But the artist has made the choice to get rid of most of those variations so now those areas have all just faded into one value with no transitions, no edges at all. It’s just one big shape.

There’s the hint of an outline around the whole figure, but in most places the artist has dialed down that edge to be very low contrast and very soft. And what does that do? It brings all the attention to the shapes on the core shadow where the light meets the dark, as I’ve marked out below. All the attention is going to these beautifully designed shapes.

close-up of figure drawing by Vynillus

Sasha Hartslief

Now let’s look at Sasha Hartslief‘s painting. There are a few things in this painting that our eyes are drawn to. One of them is not the back of the chair, because that’s not really what this painting is about.

watercolour painting by Sasha Hartslief

The reason I wanted to bring up the chair is because sometimes I think we’re afraid to dial down edges. We want to define things. We want to make it obvious that this is the shape of the chair, so we can really see it. But, notice how in the close-up below, it still feels like a chair even though there’s a lost edge between the chair and the shadow behind it. The viewer fills in the gap, and it still feels real.

close-up of watercolour painting by Sasha Hartslief

Hartslief is really skilled at making sure that non-focal point areas don’t take up too much attention from the main focal points, which include the figure’s face and the canvas she is working on. You can see in the close-up below how crisp those focal-point edges are.

take a look at the hard edges in this watercolour painting by Sasha Hartslief

Even the lamp in the close-up below could have dominated the painting because it’s so bright, but because the edges are this bright shape are very soft – they kind of melt into the glowing light – it’s not overbearing.

Putting it into practice: materials for mark making

In the following demo, I’ll be going through my step-by-step process for how I put my knowledge about edges into my figure drawing practice. But before I get started, let’s take a moment to think about what materials I am going to be using to make different types of edges.

In my example, I’m using smooth newsprint, and a Pitt pastel pencil. I’ve sharpened it so that a lot of the lead is exposed, and then I sanded the lead down so that I get a long tapering exposed bit of lead. This allows me to vary the width of my marks: I can use the side of the pencil to get a big wide mark or I can draw from the narrowest part of the pencil to get a narrow mark.


how to sharpen a pencil to create varied marks

Next, let’s take a moment to think about how I’m going to use my materials: for me, it’s about being able to draw really really light. It is generally easier to draw hard, especially for beginners, because you just have to push you pencil harder onto the surface you’re drawing on. But it’s the lighter drawing that for me took a lot of practice to get that muscle memory. As you’ll see in the following demo, I often start drawing with these lighter marks, and then I gradually build up the strength.


Putting it into practice: figure drawing

So here I’m doing a figure drawing. All the standard fundamental things that we talk about in other articles apply here. I’m thinking about the building blocks of the drawing: the ribcage, the pelvis, and the squash here and stretch that the relationship between the two creates. That’s really the heart and soul of this pose. If these fundamentals aren’t working, it doesn’t matter how fancy the edges are.


squash and stretch of the ribcage and pelvis

From there I’m going to think about the angles of the shoulders. I’m also looking at the gestural curve of the arm, the foreshortened thigh and the outward curve on the shin. By closing one eye and squinting, I can start to identify the simple shapes of light and dark. These things work together to form the building blocks of the drawing, and that’s what I’m really focusing on as I build up this drawing.

Once I am feeling good about setting down those building blocks, I might start to think about edges. There are two main things to consider when it comes to considering edges in figure drawing:

  1. Quality of edges can impact the overall composition of the piece by directing where you would like to draw the viewer’s attention to.
  2. Edges can help to explain how the forms of the figure are turning
Think about the crisp edges of shadow on a cube. Objects like cubes and boxes with sharp corners will often be drawn with hard edges because it is common to see a clear plane that gets hit by the light, and a plane that falls into shadow.  Now compare that to the softer transitions of light to dark on a cylinder or a sphere. The transition from light to dark is much more gentle on a rounded surface.
If we apply that knowledge to figure drawing, we can start to understand how some parts of the body might create a sharper corner, such as the boney edge of the elbow. In contrast, other areas like the thigh might by more rounded, so the edging might be a bit softer.
In my example below,  I’ve used a pretty hard edge for the shin because the shin is kind of pointy:  light just hits one side and then doesn’t hit the other side and so I get a sharp edge between the light and the dark.


how to use soft edges for shadow shapes in figure drawing

If I didn’t want too much attention to be drawn to the shin, I would keep the edge fairly hard to show its form but I keep the overall light/dark contrast fairly toned down. I could then draw attention to other areas of the figure by dialing up the light/dark contrast. Often when I’m drawing I will realise that I’ve got too many strong contrast areas and there’s just too much going on. When that happens, I’ll consider dialing down some edges and dialing up others.

Finishing Touches

Remember, if you’re going to make a cake, you can’t just fast-forward to the icing.

Ultimately, working from a foundation of fundamental things like gesture, forms and value will allow you to build the confidence to then really plan with things like edges and mark making.

For the last part of my drawing, I use a Conte crayon to bring out some background tone. I do this for two reasons. Firstly, because a darker background will contrast more strongly with the lighter parts of my drawing, which in turn will make the lit areas of the figure feel even lighter. My second reason for adding a background tone is so that I can place it behind shadows where I want to dial down the contrast. If an area of the figure is in shadow and I then add some shadow behind the figure, I’ve essentially created a low contrast edge.  Here’s my final drawing.

The way that you play with your edges in your drawings is really personal. It’s about how you want to design your image. You can make great pictures with all hard edges, or without varying the edges too much at all, or even just varying the edges a little bit.


I’d like to end today’s lesson by looking at an artist I like called Richard James (aka colouredmud). You can see in his painting below that a lot of the shapes have pretty hard edges. Sometimes they’re broken but ultimately a lot of them are hard edges. Remember that edge variation is a personal choice: this painting is a fantastic demonstration of how you can make beautiful paintings and drawings without that much edge variation.

painting by Richard James aka coloredmud

If you enjoyed this tutorial and you’re learning to draw figures, you will love our free PDF drawing skills guide. It gives you all the skills that you need to work on in order, and then asks you questions to figure out which skill you need to work on next, with links links to the tutorials you need to learn those skills.


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